Why we should be talking about Yemen

According to UNICEF, the current situation in Yemen represents the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Any lasting resolution to the war that has raged since 2015 has proved elusive and an estimated 80% of the population are in need of humanitarian aid. Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of a global pandemic this year means the suffering has only intensified. Yet despite UN figures showing 20 million people at risk of famine, and the UK’s controversial decision in July to resume funding a Saudi Arabian led coalition accused of war crimes, Yemen’s conflict and humanitarian crises have been consistently under-reported.

This is partly explained by the complex nature of the conflict itself. When asked in 2017 why Yemen’s crisis is less well known than other Middle Eastern conflicts, BBC reporter Mai Norman replied that the root of the problem lies in the fact that “the media and the international community didn’t really engage with the story from the beginning”. As a result of this failure to sufficiently inform people about the complicated historical context and different factions involved, Norman thinks that today, when confronted with Yemen’s increasingly complex situation, most people simply “switch off”.

The beginning of the conflict can be traced back to the 2011 Arab Spring, in which Yemen’s authoritarian President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced out of power. His replacement Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was unable to overcome the country’s long-term problem of corruption but, most importantly, also failed to appease the Houthi movement – a group of separatists associated with Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority. Funded by Saleh, the Houthis capitalised on the new leader’s weakness and took areas in the north of Yemen by force, before eventually gaining control of the capital Sanaa in March 2015. A coalition of states led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (supported by the USA, UK and France) intervened on behalf of exiled President Hadi and this marked the beginning of the war, now in its fifth year. The conflict has been further escalated by the involvement of different militant groups including al-Qaeda and a local branch of IS, which have taken over territory in the south and carried out their own attacks on already war-torn communities. Aside from brief ceasefires in 2019 and an official exchange of prisoners in February 2020, peace talks (including an attempted ceasefire in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus in April 2020) have been unsuccessful.

Despite its complexity, the sheer scale of the conflict’s humanitarian crisis should surely be enough to ensure Yemen more media coverage. So far, the war has displaced more than 3.65 million people, and though the UN verified the deaths of at least 7000 civilians by March 2020, the actual number of fatalities is thought to be much higher. Tragically, it’s Yemen’s children who are often caught in crossfire. Aside from the very real threat of being killed or maimed in the conflict, their access to an education is jeopardised by the destruction and closure of schools. UNICEF estimates that around 7.8 million children in Yemen are unable to access education. They are also at risk from the widespread famine in the country. Amnesty International has reported that the Saudi led coalition has imposed restrictions on the import of food, fuel and medical equipment, while the Houthi authorities are preventing the transport of humanitarian aid across Yemen. Save the Children reports that around 85,000 children died of severe acute malnutrition between April 2015 and October 2018. Civilian access to clean water is similarly restricted, resulting in the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded with 3895 cholera related deaths since October 2016. Perhaps one of the main reasons why Yemen has been under-reported in the UK recently is
the media’s understandable preoccupation with our own national struggle over the outbreak of the coronavirus. However, given the extent of the personal and economic difficulty Covid 19 has posed for our society – at peace and with a stable National Health Service – our own experience of the pandemic should increase, not decrease, our awareness of the tragic consequences it will have on a country that has already suffered through five years of war. The UN has warned that, for Yemen, deaths from the coronavirus pandemic have the potential to “exceed the combined toll of war, disease and hunger over the last five years”. With an existing lack of sanitation and clean water, and only half the health facilities in Yemen able to function, it’s easy to see the scale of the disaster that could be caused by the spread of a disease like Covid 19 through an already war-torn country.

Another reason why Yemen’s crisis is often passed over is that, as much as we hate to admit it, it simply feels too far away to affect us. In the words of Mai Norman in her 2017 interview, “we don’t have refugees out of Yemen who are coming to Europe, so we are not really forced to look into this story”. Without being confronted with the reality of survivors and victims of this war seeking refuge in our own countries, it is hard for the immensity of their suffering and hardship to register in our everyday consciousness. But this perception of the conflict being totally removed from our own societies is misleading. In reality, though not consistently or widely reported, Western involvement in Yemen’s war has been present and controversial since 2015. Yemen’s strategic importance in terms of oil, along with alarm about the potential influence of Iran or affiliates of al-Qaeda and IS led to long-term US, UK and French support of the coalition. Amnesty International argues that there is “overwhelming evidence” that the arms supplied by Western countries have been repeatedly used in war crimes. In 2019 a legal challenge claiming arms sold to Yemen were in violation of international humanitarian law caused the UK to withhold these sales and the following month the UAE was forced to withdraw from the coalition in the face of international criticism about its conduct. However, after a review into whether there had been a “historic pattern of breaches”, the sales were resumed in July 2020. Campaigners continue to strongly object to this decision in light of the civilian casualties reportedly caused by these weapons, which the British government claims are “isolated incidents”. Involvement and, to some extent, an element of responsibility for the conflict and casualties in Yemen is therefore far closer to home than is often thought.
Despite consistent under-representation in the media, on both a humanitarian and a political level, Yemen remains relevant to the global community. Surely, in the face of the tragic long-term human cost of the war, it deserves more of our attention.

But this perception of the conflict being totally removed from our own societies is misleading. In reality, though not consistently or widely reported, Western involvement in Yemen’s war has been present and controversial since 2015. Yemen’s strategic importance in terms of oil, along with alarm about the potential influence of Iran or affiliates of al-Qaeda and IS led to long-term US, UK and French support of the coalition. Amnesty International argues that there is “overwhelming evidence” that the arms supplied by Western countries have been repeatedly used in war crimes. In 2019 a legal challenge claiming arms sold to Yemen were in violation of international humanitarian law caused the UK to withhold these sales and the following month the UAE was forced to withdraw from the coalition in the face of international criticism about its conduct. However, after a review into whether there had been a “historic pattern of breaches”, the sales were resumed in July 2020. Campaigners continue to strongly object to this decision in light of the civilian casualties reportedly caused by these weapons, which the British government claims are “isolated incidents”. Involvement and, to some extent, an element of responsibility for the conflict and casualties in Yemen is therefore far closer to home than is often thought.

Despite consistent under-representation in the media, on both a humanitarian and a political level, Yemen remains relevant to the global community. Surely, in the face of the tragic long-term human cost of the war, it deserves more of our attention.

Image Credit: Yoyolu via Flickr

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