The humanitarian crisis in Yemen plumbs new depths each week. The World Food Programme has reported the halving in the past fortnight of food supplies through the main port, Hodeidah, from already pitiful levels. That means desperation is the abiding impulse as the UN seeks to convene consultations – not yet fully fledged peace talks – in Stockholm this week.
Hodeida is not just the source of 80 per cent of food supplies for the country. It is also the front line of fighting. But the fighting has spread in the month since the US secretaries of defence and foreign affairs called for a ceasefire.
In addition to the death and destruction it brings, the violence makes humanitarian work a nightmare. Fighting in northern al-Dhale’e governorate has now closed the main north/south road in a country which has already recorded the world’s largest cholera crisis and now has 14 million people at risk of famine.
This all raises the stakes in Stockholm. The recent news that Houthi injured fighters are to be flown out of Yemen for treatment represents a small measure of progress. But trust is low, the factions in the fight are splintered, and the war economy means that not everyone is losing from the fighting.
UN special envoy Martin Griffiths has understandably wanted to establish clear expectations for the talks. He has outlined two objectives: first, an agreement on the future management of Hodeidah city and port; and second, a de-escalation of the violence. One theory is that each side takes turns ceasing hostilities: Houthis stop missiles, the Saudi and UAE-led coalition stops airstrikes.
The danger is that such micro measures are overwhelmed by intransigence or worse on the part of the warring parties. That raises the importance of further pressure from outside.
In the US the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has turbo-charged the debate about Saudi intentions. Last week 63 senators voted to move forward with debating War Powers Act to forestall American support for the war strategy. They are demanding a different US-Saudi relationship, not the end of the relationship.
There is also, rightly, growing support for a unilateral end to the Saudi/UAE-led coalition’s military campaign. The rationale is simple: when in a hole, stop digging.
The coalition was formed after the Houthi came to power in 2014, and takes legitimacy from a 2015 UN resolution that offered a carte blanche for the war strategy but no roadmap for peace. Yet 30 former Obama administration officials have now come out against that strategy, and its ill-effects are clear for all to see.
It is clear from my visit to the country that the Houthis are dug in; that retaking Hodeidah city by force is a non-starter; that the 18,000 bombing raids by the Saudi/Emirate coalition are fuelling defiance not surrender; that the fragmentation of the southern coalition is real, with separatists (favouring division of the country) as well as Salafist forces evidence of that. Furthermore, the ostensible project of the Saudi/Emirati led coalition is to take on Iranian influence, a point reiterated by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo last week. But the fact is that the war strategy being pursued by the Saudis, the UAE and the US has left the Iranians stronger not weaker.
The UK has a particular responsibility as “pen-holder” at the UN. The decision by Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, to press forward with a ceasefire resolution, however limited, was a welcome show of determination two weeks ago. But it needs to be carried forward, and supported by national actions, including the ending of all support for the war strategy.
In this human-made crisis there is no firewall between a political process to end the fighting and the humanitarian catastrophe that International Rescue Committee staff in Yemen witness day in, day out. The Stockholm talks are a long way off a nationwide ceasefire, or even a localised one in and around Hodeidah. That means that unless there is outside pressure of a substantial kind, civilians will continue to endure terrible suffering. While Saudi and Emirati airstrikes are the primary cause of civilian deaths, many more have died from the impact of the war: disease, starvation and preventable deaths.
Three steps short of a ceasefire could save lives. First, improved humanitarian and commercial access into and around Yemen, including the full functioning of all ports and Sana’a airport. Second, repair of public service infrastructure such as water provision and hospitals, which has been damaged during the war. Third, regular payment of all Yemen’s public sector workers who form the backbone of public service provision. I met doctors and nurses who told me that they were expected to treat the ill while they could not support their own families because they were not being paid.
Yemen is a complex society, but the choices facing the warring parties and their allies now are simple. Continue the war, see more people die, and watch malign geopolitical consequences grow. Or stop the war and give humanity a chance to make a difference.
David Miliband is CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former foreign secretary
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