Bombs, but also aid: Starving Yemen a victim of hypocrisy?

Published April 24th, 2017 - 04:16 GMT
A Yemeni girl carries a water container in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, on April 17, 2017. (AFP/stringer)
A Yemeni girl carries a water container in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, on April 17, 2017. (AFP/stringer)

The Swiss and Swedish governments are tomorrow hosting a UN conference in Geneva aimed at bridging the gap in funding for an emergency response programme to avert a famine in Yemen. At current, just 14% of the $2.1 billion the UN says is needed to meet the country’s needs has been pledged by donor governments.

The country’s civil war - between the government, with backing from a Saudi Arabia-led coalition, and Houthi rebels - has killed more than 7,800 people. The UN says that 6.8 million are “severely food insecure”, with a further ten million “insecure”.

Rights groups and humanitarian organizations, however, have pointed out the apparent incongruity of the attendance at the conference of some countries implicated in the war.

“Several countries, including the US, the UK, Spain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, and Italy, are attending the event while they continue to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons and military equipment to parties to the conflict,” the charity Oxfam said in a statement.

The “shameful contradiction” in the US and UK’s approach to Yemen was highlighted by Amnesty International in March, who said that the two countries’ arms sales to Saudi Arabia totalled more than ten times the amount that had been spent on aid.

“The USA and UK are fuelling serious violations that have caused devastating civilian suffering through multibillion-dollar arms transfers to Saudi Arabia that vastly overshadow their humanitarian efforts,” the group said.

Saudi Arabia has consistently denied that it targets civilians. Britain has previously rejected the charge that its weapons are fueling war crimes in Yemen.

It was expected, but unconfirmed, that parties directly involved in the conflict, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, would also attend tomorrow’s conference. A request to the Swiss government to provide a list of attendees was referred to the UN, who did not respond.

Saudi Arabia has previously pledged $10 billion in aid for the country. Despite this apparent humanitarian intent, however, the charity Save the Children said in March that Saudi Arabia was delaying its shipments to the country by months, thereby killing children.

It was a message echoed by Sajjad Mohammed Sajid, Oxfam’s country director for Yemen, who spoke by telephone from Saana. He said that not only was the Saudi-led coalition delaying the delivery of aid from the international community, but that aid from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries was being kept out of the hands of the international mechanism supposed to distribute it.

“The aid that was delivered over the past year from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries was delivered mainly in the south and is not under the control of the humanitarian cluster. It did not reach the north. This needs to change,” he said.

The south of Yemen is largely controlled by forces loyal to the Yemeni government, allied with Saudi Arabia, while the north is controlled by the Houthi rebels.   

"I would say that not just aid but also other essential goods are being used as a weapon - we have seen this both with the Houthi siege of Taiz and the Saudi air and sea blockages," said Adam Baron, an expert on Yemen at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Sajid also said that both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition were imposing limitations that severely hampered the delivery of aid within the country and aid’s entry into it, respectively.

“Hodeidah port is operating without any container capacity because the coalition bombed the crane at the port and is now refusing to allow USAID to set up a replacement crane,” he explained. Hodeidah is the entry point for the majority of Yemen’s food.

Sajid said Oxfam was not only advocating for the international community to pledge money, but also to help ensure that limitations on aid delivery were removed.

Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, said that it was not surprising that countries involved in the war were using aid to further their own agendas.  “There’s often now a really political idea of aid, which is supposed to be neutral, as countries are using it in support of their war aims. The militarization of aid is one of the great problems it faces in the 21st century.”

Loewenstein also said that even apparently philanthropic actions could benefit states providing aid. “It’s almost guaranteed, as has been seen in a range of other countries, that contracts used by countries to deliver aid are feeding profit back to the donors.”

When asked whether the role of some of the donors in the conflict made it difficult for Oxfam to operate in the country, Sajid said that the need of the population made it imperative to continue their work. “Yemen needs peace in the long run, and the political process must continue. But at the moment, one child is dying every ten minutes. The country needs the aid.”

Jacob Burns

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