Yemen today is what a catastrophe looks like. There are more than five million people on the brink of starvation, the worst cholera outbreak in history is affecting more than 10,000 per week and three quarters of the population are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.
The heart-wrenching images of starving children have finally woken people up to the sheer scale of the crisis engulfing Yemen, but still only 42 per cent of the British public are aware that a war has been taking place. Even less well known is that this suffering is entirely man-made and entirely avoidable.
The crisis in Yemen is transcending the geographical and political divisions of this conflict. If you visit a hospital in Sanaa, in the north of the country, you are met by terrified parents bringing their severely malnourished children for treatment. Visit a hospital in the southern city of Aden, and you will be met by the same desperate scene. Death is stalking Yemen and it doesn’t care where the people are or who they support.
The latest report on food security in Yemen, released last week, suggests that five million people are living in “famine-like conditions”. The report only stops short of declaring famine because there is a lack of data.
Reading the facts set out above, you might be forgiven for thinking that there is no food in Yemen, but you would be wrong.
In a sickening irony, hospital beds continue to fill with the fragile bodies of starving children while markets continue to be filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. The problem is people can no longer afford to eat. The collapse of the Yemeni economy and the instability of the country’s currency have put millions of lives in jeopardy due to the dramatic rise in the cost of food. Four years of conflict have left a country teetering on the edge of the abyss.
Even before the outbreak of war, Yemen was the poorest country in the Middle East. Government salaries, which supported as many as one third of the population, have not been consistently paid since 2015. Meanwhile, the salaries of non-governmental workers in Yemen were effectively halved as the currency plunged. Millions of families all across Yemen are now relying on humanitarian organisations such as Mercy Corps and Unicef for life-saving help.
Mercy Corps is one of a handful of organisations operating on both sides of the ongoing conflict. From providing food and water to those displaced from the country’s principal Red Sea port, Hodeidah, to providing cholera treatments and health facilities to remote communities, Mercy Corps team members risk their lives to support the 22 million Yemenis – three quarters of the population – in need of aid.
While this humanitarian action is vital, it is not sufficient to solve the crisis. Without a durable political solution, there will be no end to this suffering.
Aid is essential to alleviate the suffering but it is not a sustainable solution: it will not bridge the political divisions, bring the warring parties to the negotiating table, or apply the pressure necessary to forge a lasting peace. The path to solving hunger starts with stabilising the economy and establishing a lasting political solution in Yemen.
The peace talks in Sweden last week delivered outcomes that nobody thought possible at their outset, and it is right that they should be celebrated. History suggests, however, that optimism must be tempered by caution. As we have seen before, ceasefires in Yemen are fragile, and the situation on the ground remains incredibly complex. A step has certainly been taken in the right direction, but the road to peace remains long.
This crisis isn’t going to be solved overnight. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the pen-holder at the Stockholm negotiations, the UK, with its historic ties to Yemen and its influence in the region, can and should play an important role in translating last week’s hopes into next year’s achievements.
Sustained humanitarian action must now be matched by sustained diplomatic action. Peace-building requires skill, focus and patient effort. As former Foreign Office ministers, we know our country has many skilled professional diplomats, so the issue is whether our government has the necessary political will to now make the securing of peace a sustained diplomatic priority.
Of course, Brexit continues to dominate the press coverage and ministerial attention here at home. But the people of Yemen are enduring appalling suffering and millions of Yemeni children’s lives are on the line – today – right now. There is not a day to waste.
After years of violent conflict, there is now a spark of hope for peace and for the stability needed to end the starvation. But this hope is vulnerable, and that’s why it is not the time for the UK to step back, but to step up its peace-building efforts. Will we take this opportunity to demonstrate to the world that we are still a country that shoulders our international responsibilities, and play our part in combating one of the world’s biggest challenges? Or will we instead settle for being self-absorbed passengers that take our lead from America, Europe or even further afield?
The world is watching to see what Britain will do at a moment of both possibility and peril. Our actions, or inaction, will resonate far beyond this crisis.
Sayeeda Warsi and Douglas Alexander are members of Mercy Corps’ European Leadership Council
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