Since March 2015, the country of Yemen has been plagued by a civil war between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces. This conflict arose from a difficult political transition after former President Saleh handed over power to now-President Hadi. The mostly Shia Houthi rebels remain loyal to President Saleh, and have Iranian backing. The pro-government forces are loyal to President Hadi and mainly composed of southern Sunnis.
Civilians have unquestioningly been the most affected by this war. And within the category of civilians, children have been particularly affected. The World Bank reports that 17 million Yemenis (about 60 percent of the population) are food insecure. Food insecurity refers to the lack of sufficient food a person has access to. Essentially, it is a precursor to famine. Malnutrition affects close to 3.3 million Yemeni people, 462,000 of which are children under 5.
The pro-government Saudi coalition, composed of most of the Gulf Cooperation Council, has been imposing a blockade on Yemeni ports for approximately 2 years, but significantly tightened their blockade in early November. This has caused a disastrous humanitarian crisis. Yemen is already one of the poorest countries in the region, and the lack of incoming food and oil has exacerbated dire poverty into a full-blown crisis.
Countries are allowed to impose blockades when they are at war, following Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, and international norms. However, these blockades violate international law if their purpose is to starve civilian populations. Furthermore, it is also illegal if it disproportionately affects the civilian population. There are also rules as to what goods can be prohibited. The blockading party has to issue a clear and reasonable statement of the contraband that is forbidden. Contraband, typically referring to weapons and ammunition, is defined as “goods that are ultimately destined for territory under the control of the enemy and which may be susceptible for use in armed conflict.”
Since May 2017, Human Rights Watch has documented 7 individual cases in which the Saudi coalition has delayed or refused access to fuel tankers headed to Yemeni ports. This fuel is crucial, as it is needed to run the generators that most of the country relies on for electricity. Without power, hospital equipment cannot run and clean water cannot be pumped. Without power in the hospitals, vaccines are no longer safe to use, and the hospitals themselves are no longer effective.
However, the Saudi coalition is not the only guilty party. Houthi rebels have also frustrated humanitarian agencies. They have turned away planes of vaccines that had previously been negotiated for. An aid worker told Human Rights Watch that the rebels want trauma kits, not vaccines since they can be used on wounded fighters. There is a report of rebels confiscating medical trucks containing medical supplies for 160 diabetics and using them as transport for munitions.
According to the UN, famine can be considered a crime against humanity if it is being used as a tool of war. Intentionally preventing access to food and medicine is a war crime. This is to say nothing of the cholera and diphtheria outbreaks that have resulted from the civil war.
Over 20 million people, including 11 million children are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. 200,000 people have already been infected by cholera, with an estimated 500,000 more cases likely. Prior to the civil war, large advances had been made in containing the spread of cholera. However, since the destruction of the sewer systems and water purifying plants, the disease has spread rapidly.
The UN has attempted to broker peace deals, to no avail. The United States is in an awkward position in terms of how to address this crisis. The administration has reluctantly supported the coalition, along with France and the UK, further supporting our traditional ally Saudi Arabia, we have also traditionally opposed the rising Iran. In this conflict, the Saudi coalition has been very clear in its participation in the blockade and other efforts in the region. US officials have pressed the Saudis to lighten the blockade and allow the passage of aid shipments. President Trump, however, also recently announced his intention to approve a $110 billion-dollar arms package to Saudi Arabia during his visit to Riyadh- a decision that has been met with substantial protests.
In the last couple of weeks, the blockade has allowed several aid and food shipments in. however, aid groups continue to emphasize that millions of people will starve if all of the commercial shipments are not let through the blockade. The UN has had to resort to buying fuel to run the water purification centers, a task the United Nations is hardly responsible for.