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Yemen is not starving, Yemen is being starved

Then Senator Biden on the campaign trail, 2020. Source: Eric Haynes, Data for Progress
President Biden has signalled a change in policy towards Saudi Arabia, to end support for the war in Yemen. How far the Biden administration will go remains to be seen.
 Source: Eric Haynes, Data for Progress

If hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, then there is no better example today than the UK government’s humanitarian aid to Yemen.

Since 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has unleashed a merciless bombing campaign on Yemen, using British and American aircraft and bombs, with continuous maintenance support provided by UK and US arms makers.

This war has killed over 13,000 civilians directly in targeted attacks, the majority in coalition air strikes. But many more have died of disease, malnutrition and starvation caused by the war, including the destruction of vital civilian infrastructure by the bombing campaign and an air and sea blockade that has interrupted vital supplies of food and fuel.

As international aid agency Oxfam and many others have said, Yemen is not starving, Yemen is being starved. One anonymous Saudi official, quoted in Martha Mundy’s report The strategies of the coalition in the Yemen war: aerial bombardment and food war, chillingly stated: ‘Once we control them, then we will feed them.’

At the same time as enabling this war, which has created what the UN regularly describes as the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world, the UK has boasted of its ‘generous’ donations of humanitarian aid to Yemen, to alleviate some of the worst effects of a crisis. It is true that the UK has been the third largest aid donor to Yemen in recent years, after Saudi Arabia and the US – and that this aid has prevented even more deaths.

For a number of years, Yemen has been ‘on the brink of famine’ – only aid from the international community has stopped the country from tipping over the edge. Nonetheless, Yemen has remained in a near-famine state, with millions affected by severe malnutrition and tens of thousands dying – Save the Children estimated in November 2018 that 85,000 children may already have died of hunger since the Saudi intervention.

Many Conservative MPs (and not a few Labour supporters of the arms trade) have perhaps salved their consciences over continuing arms sales to Saudi Arabia with the thought of the aid that the UK is also giving to Yemen. But now, Boris Johnson’s government has decided that salve is no longer needed. In 2021, the UK’s aid contribution is to be slashed from £164 ($226) million to £87 ($120) million, as part of a general reduction in UK official development assistance from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GDP.

The new figure was revealed at a UN virtual pledging conference for Yemen, where UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was begging countries to increase their contributions in the face of a worsening crisis. In November 2020, the UN warned: ‘Yemen is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades. In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost.’ The UN was seeking a total of $3.85 billion from donor nations to stave off the very worst. That’s less than BAE Systems’ average annual revenue from arms sales to Saudi Arabia since the war started. The UN received $1.7 billion, including the UK’s greatly reduced contribution.

Conservative former international development minister Andrew Mitchell – one of the leading conscience-salvers, who has defended UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia – made no bones about what this means: it will ‘condemn hundreds of thousands of children to starvation,’ he said.

But the war is the root cause of the humanitarian catastrophe and the reason aid is needed; ending the war is the essential precondition for ending the crisis and offering the Yemeni people the prospect of peace, hope and recovery. Arms sales from the US, the UK, and others to the Saudi-led coalition, are keeping the war going.

The new US administration of President Biden has signalled a change in policy towards Saudi Arabia, to end support for the war in Yemen. How far the Biden administration will go remains to be seen. It has suspended forthcoming arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE pending a review and declared an end to support for ‘offensive’ Saudi operations in Yemen, but it has not made clear what this includes.

Still, this is progress. It is likely that new sales of bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen will be cancelled, although it is not yet clear whether US companies will continue to support and maintain Saudi Arabia’s US-made aircraft. In addition, Biden has appointed experienced diplomat Timothy Lenderking to try to bring the warring parties to the table and broker an end to the war.

But the British government has made clear that it has no intention of following this lead and remains intent on continuing to supply arms to sustain a war which their closest allies appear to be trying to bring to an end. Last August, following the resumption of export licencing after a temporary pause forced by Campaign Against Arms Trade’s 2019 legal victory in the Court of Appeal, the UK government approved £698 ($965) million worth of sales of components for bombs, and £100 ($138) million worth of air-to-surface missiles to Saudi Arabia, to ensure that the Kingdom should not run out of munitions to rain down on Yemen.

Ending the war in Yemen is one of the most pressing moral issues facing the world today. It was with this in mind that the American Friends Service Committee and Quaker Peace and Social Witness chose to honour Campaign Against Arms Trade, and the Yemeni organization Mwatana for Human Rights, which works fearlessly to document abuses committed by all parties to the war, with a nomination for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

Halting arms sales will not on its own end the war. The Houthi rebels and their backers bear their share of the blame; bringing all parties to see the futility of continued conflict will be no easy feat. But ending arms sales is the single most effective step the US and UK can take. Indeed the suggestion that Saudi Arabia might turn to Russia or China as alternative suppliers is not plausible – to replace an entire air force, and all the training, maintenance and support that goes with it, while continuing to fight the war, would be impossible, as numerous defence analysts have attested.

Meanwhile, the UK government must immediately reverse this cruel aid cut. The consequences, otherwise, are unthinkable.

Dr. Sam Perlo-Freeman is a Research Coordinator at Campaign Against Arms Trade. He was previously at the World Peace Foundation and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, working on issues relating to military expenditure, and the arms industry and trade.


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