Enabling a humanitarian crisis: the UK and US in Yemen
by Ian Sinclair
20 July 2015
On 25 March 2015 a Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing the Gulf state of Yemen. According to Saudi Arabia the intervention was in support of the US and Saudi-backed Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been overthrown by supposedly Iranian-backed Houthi rebels allied to Hadi’s predecessor – the US-backed Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Saudi bombing campaign has been relentless and largely indiscriminate. According to a joint statement made by 18 Yemen scholars “the targets of the campaign include schools, homes, refugee camps, water systems, grain stores, and food industries.” In May, CNN noted “The Saudi Press Agency reported that the latest attack against Houthi rebels in Yemen – 130 airstrikes in a 24-hour period – included the targeting of schools and hospitals.”
The World Health Organisation estimates 3,083 people have died and 14,324 wounded since the start of the attack. UN agencies report that over one million people have been displaced by the fighting.
It gets worse. In April the United Nations High Commissioner warned Yemen was “on the verge of total collapse”. By June the situation had deteriorated significantly, with the UN estimating that 20 million Yemenis, nearly 80 percent of the population, were in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. According to a superb report in the Guardian by Julian Borger it was “a humanitarian disaster that aid agencies say has been dramatically worsened by a naval blockade” imposed by the Saudi-led coalition.
“The blockade means it’s impossible to bring anything into the country”, said Oxfam’s humanitarian programme manager in Sana, Yemen’s capital. “The situation is deteriorating, hospitals are now shutting down, without diesel.” Save the Children’s director of programmes in Yemen offered a similarly bleak assessment: “Children are dying preventable deaths in Yemen because the rate of infectious diseases is rising”. Citing Save the Children, Borger noted that cholera is on the rise and a dengue fever outbreak has been reported in the port city of Aden.
What has been the UK’s response to this human-made catastrophe? If one believed government statements about the UK fighting terrorism and promoting democracy and human rights in the Middle East, one would presume the UK is strongly opposed to Saudi actions in Yemen.
The shocking reality is the UK is supporting Saudi Arabia as it batters and destabilises Yemen. “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April. What did this mean in practice? Hammond explained: “Political support, of course, logistical and technical support.”
This support comes on the back of huge British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, making the most fundamentalist nation on the planet Britain’s largest customer for weapons. This means, as Bahrain Watch’s John Horne recently explained, “British-made Typhoon fighter jets scream through Yemen’s skies, flown by British-trained Saudi pilots, dropping British-made bombs on the poorest country in the region.”
The US is also backing the attack, providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition. “American military planners are using live intelligence feeds from surveillance flights over Yemen to help Saudi Arabia decide what and where to bomb”, the Wall Street Journal reported in March.
Borger notes in the Guardian that the naval blockade causing misery and death in Yemen has “US and British backing.” However, he goes on to explain “Washington and London have quietly tried to persuade the Saudis… to moderate their tactics, and in in particular to ease the blockade”. What other nation responsible for such mass slaughter, one wonders, receives a quiet word in the ear from the US and UK rather than outraged public denouements? With the UN declaring its highest-level of humanitarian emergency in Yemen earlier this month, the US and UK’s delicate persuasive tactics have clearly had little effect. According to the UN more than 21.1 million people now need aid, with 13 million facing “a food security crisis” and 9.4 million with little or no access to water.
Coupled with the likely use of British-made jets in the Saudi Arabian bombing of Yemen in 2009, Britain’s current support for Saudi aggression is part of Britain’s broader strategy in the region. “With the US keen to reduce its military presence in the Gulf, the UK is preparing to fill the gap, restoring its former links, returning to ‘East of Suez’”, Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian’s defence and security specialist, argues.
The British Government is only able to get away with enabling a humanitarian crisis of this size because the media has largely failed to adequately report on the crisis in Yemen. And when the media does cover the conflict the UK’s support for the death and destruction is rarely mentioned. Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Media at Liverpool Hope University, has found a number of other disturbing patterns in the media coverage. Analysing how the quality US and UK press reports the conflict in Yemen, Zollmann notes “the Anglo-American news media has largely failed to investigate the legality of the intervention” or the fact “Saudi Arabia hardly constitutes a benevolent and stabilizing force.”
Faced with a defacto media blackout of the role of the UK and US in the Saudi attack on Yemen, it is important progressives who are aware of the reality shout about it as loudly as possible. Ultimately it is only public pressure that can halt the UK support for the Saudi bombing campaign and push the government to urge the UN Security Council to agree a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations to resolve the conflict.