On the eve of the 2016 US election, the UN envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed warned reporters in the capital Sanaa that: “People are dying … the infrastructure is falling apart… and the economy is on the brink of abyss.” At the time, Yemen – the region’s poorest country even before its civil war – had endured more than a year of airstrikes by a Saudi-led and US- and UK- supported coalition. A month earlier 140 citizens had been killed and more than 500 wounded in an airstrike on a funeral reception in the capital. Around the same time, after analyzing 8,600 air raids the Yemen Data Project noted that 3,158 of them had focused on non-military sites; 942 on residential areas; 378 on transport; 147 on school buildings; 114 on markets; 34 on mosques: and 26 on universities.
In January 2017, as the Trump administration preened itself for an unprecedentedly warm embrace of the Saudi theocracy that has bankrolled the war in Yemen, Ould Cheikh Ahmed noted a “dangerous escalation” in military activity and warned both sides “that there is no possibility of a military solution.” By then the conflict had claimed at least 7,000 lives, injured 40,000 and displaced upwards of two million Yemenis – driving at least 120,000 to seek asylum in neighbouring countries. Stephen O’Brien, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned of “silent deaths” absent from official estimates while noting that at least 1,400 children had been killed and more than 2,100 injured.
Since then the situation has deteriorated considerably. In a briefing to the UN Security Council last month, Ould Cheikh Ahmed pointed out that prolongation of the “futile and cruel military conflict” continues to erode the possibility of a negotiated peace. Infrastructural damage and disrupted public services have produced a cholera outbreak that has claimed 2,000 lives and is infecting thousands more each week – many of them children. Yet the coalition maintains a blockade, deliberately withholding life-saving drugs and food from reaching the most vulnerable citizens. Earlier this week, the International Red Cross confirmed that the blockade has deprived three entire cities of clean water, threatening a million Yemenis with another mass outbreak of cholera. UN humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick said that a third of the 21 million citizens his agency was trying to relieve “are in famine-like conditions and rely completely on food aid.”
Two days ago a collective statement by 15 humanitarian NGOs, including Save the Children and Action Against Hunger, warned that the then 11-day blockade of “almost all of Yemen’s seaports, airports and land crossings prevents the entry of food, fuel, medicines and supplies, exposing millions of people to disease, starvation and death.” The statement adds that the blockade “may amount to collective punishment of millions of Yemeni people.” In less guarded terms, what is taking place in Yemen is a war crime that borders on genocide.
What makes the unconscionable military actions even harder to bear is the dearth of media coverage in the UK and US, and the relative absence of internal criticism in these countries. Californian congressman Ro Khanna recently introduced a House Resolution in the US Congress that refers to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and it notes that the country may soon face a “full-scale famine” – but even this resolution could only pass without language that condemns the Saudis for their chronic indifference to civilian casualties.
In “The Great War for Civilisation” the veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk points out that Turkey carried out its genocidal campaign against the Armenians – the first genocide in the twentieth century – in full view of the Western world. “Across the world—and especially in the United States—newspapers gave immense prominence to the genocide. [As early as 1914] The New York Times distinguished itself with near daily coverage of the slaughter, rape, dispossession and extermination of the Armenians.” Yet the world virtually ignored these atrocities. By 1919 between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians had been exterminated.
After the Holocaust the United Nations and other international instruments were meant to prevent the recurrence of such horrors but events in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia – to cite only the most notorious cases – have shown how little this ideal has meant in terms of realpolitik. In 1994, for example, as the US dithered for weeks over whether it should expand a peacekeeping intervention in a civil conflict in Rwanda, 800,000 citizens were slaughtered. The current crisis in Yemen is another chastening reminder of how little the history of the last century has altered our capacity for observing political catastrophes from afar while doing almost nothing to prevent them.