In Yemen, a three-year conflict has produced what United Nations officials call “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.” Markets, hospitals and other civilian sites have been repeatedly attacked. Disease and hunger rival bombs and gunfire as the biggest dangers to ordinary people. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East; the war has it headed toward famine. A UN-mandated investigation concluded that all the major parties to the conflict, especially a Saudi Arabian-led coalition and the Yemeni government it backs, have shown a disregard for civilian life possibly amounting to war crimes.
1. Who’s fighting whom?
Broadly, on one side are Houthi rebels, members of a Shiite Muslim tribe from the mountains of northern Yemen, who took control of the capital, Sana’a, and other cities in 2015. They complain of marginalization of their community and are supported by Shiite-majority Iran. On the other side stand forces of the internationally recognized Yemeni government and allied militias backed by Saudi Arabia and its coalition of mainly Sunni Muslim nations.
2. Why is Saudi Arabia involved?
Its leaders say they feared that Houthi control of Yemen would give Iran a foothold in the Arabian peninsula that would threaten Saudi interests. Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a larger battle for dominance in the Arab world.
3. How has the fighting affected civilians?
The recorded civilian death toll from fighting so far is about 7,000, although UN officials believe the actual number is substantially higher. Most casualties have been the result of coalition air strikes, according to the Aug. 28 report of investigators commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council. The panel reviewed coalition air strikes that hit residential areas in 60 cases; marketplaces in 11 cases; civilian boats in 11 cases; and medical, educational, cultural or religious sites in 32 cases. It said such strikes may amount to war crimes. The investigators said they gathered reports of shelling into civilian areas by Houthi forces that required further investigation.
4. What’s the famine risk?
UN officials say that 8 million of the country’s 28 million people need emergency food assistance to survive. Humanitarian workers have already discovered parts of the country where famine-like conditions exist and people are eating leaves to survive.
5. Why is there so much hunger?
Yemen relies heavily on imports for its food supplies. The country grows only about 5 percent of the wheat it consumes. That’s because freshwater for crops is scarce, and farmers increasingly have turned to cultivating the more profitable qat, a narcotic leaf that 90 percent of Yemeni men chew on a daily basis. The Saudi-led coalition has disrupted food and other supplies coming into Yemen by imposing a naval blockade on ports in the Houthi-controlled north, notably Hodeidah and Salif, which normally handle about 80 percent of imports. Coalition ships have held up vessels bound for the ports for significant periods or diverted them to other countries. At times they’ve stopped all traffic.
6. So food is in short supply?
To some extent. Commercial imports fell 30 percent from May to August. But elevated prices are as much of a challenge. The Houthis contribute to the problem by extracting payments on goods that are trucked through the areas they control. A sharp depreciation of the national currency has pushed prices higher still. Civil servants, who with their families make up about a quarter of the population, have received no pay or intermittent pay since August 2016. The 2.3 million people in Yemen who’ve been driven from their homes by the war are especially cash-strapped. Many have had to sell their possessions to meet their most basic needs.
7. Why is disease such a threat?
Yemen was hit by the worst epidemic of cholera ever recorded starting in April 2017. More than 1.2 million people have been sickened and about 2,500 have died. A third wave of infections began to accelerate this summer. Cholera, an acute diarrheal disease, is bred by poor sanitation and a lack of clean water, conditions created when wastewater treatment plants reduced operations because of fuel shortages caused by import disruptions. The infection is normally easily treated by replacing lost fluids, but that requires clean water.
8. Is the blockade legal?
The UNHCR’s investigation concluded that there are “reasonable grounds” to conclude that it violates the proportionality rule of international humanitarian law. Under that convention, a blockade is illegitimate if its impact on civilians is disproportionate to its military benefits. The investigators reported that searches of ships by the blockading forces had turned up no weapons. For these reasons, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch earlier called on the UN Security Council to impose travel bans and asset freezes on coalition leaders, including the Saudi crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman.
9. How does the coalition justify the blockade?
The coalition partners say they aim to prevent the rebels from receiving arms shipments from Iran. After the rebels in November 2017 first shot a missile targeted at the Saudi capital Riyadh, the coalition justified temporarily reinstating a total blockage of Houthi-controlled ports by arguing that missile components were entering Yemen from outside the country. Saudi officials have also expressed concern that allowing ships to call on Houthi-controlled ports gives the rebels a source of fees that help fund their war efforts.
10. How’s the rest of the world reacted?
Early this year, Germany suspended arms exports to Saudi Arabia and its fighting partner the United Arab Emirates. Norway has ceased such sales to the U.A.E. The U.S. and U.K. support the coalition with weapons sales and logistical help. The UN has partnered with humanitarian groups to provide assistance to Yemen’s neediest people.
--With assistance from Dave Merrill.
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