David Miliband, president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee and former British foreign secretary, is the author of “Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time.”
This week, the 1,000th day of Yemen’s civil war is marked by disease and starvation rather than peace talks and humanitarian aid. This truly is the new world disorder: an increasingly divided Middle East, western diplomacy in retreat, international law undermined. And the options are only getting worse.
There are 22.2 million Yemenis currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Of these, 8.4 million are at serious risk of starvation. The number of cholera cases has just passed 1 million – an astonishing figure. In the standoff between Saudi Arabia (backed by the United States) and Iran, civilians are paying a horrific price. Yemen suffered more airstrikes in the first half of this year than in the whole of 2016. According to the United Nations, airstrikes killed 136 Yemeni civilians in an 11-day span earlier this month. Peace talks are nowhere in sight.
The challenge for diplomacy is to find a way out of the vicious circle. President Trump’s call to the Saudis to allow the inflow of humanitarian aid – “that they completely allow food, fuel, water, and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it” – is a first step. But it is far from enough.
A blockade on aid was first imposed by Saudi Arabia on Nov. 6. It closed the country’s ports and sealed all entry via land, air and sea. Despite a partial easing of the blockade on Nov. 22, most of Yemen, particularly areas under Houthi control, remains under siege. This is blocking the supply of fuel for hospitals and water-treatment plants, while shipments of medicine and other life-saving aid remains on ships just offshore and out of reach of aid workers and desperate Yemenis. U.S.-financed cranes for unloading supply ships are held up in port in Dubai. The Saudi government must make good on its commitment to move them into place.
The International Rescue Committee’s 400 responders, most of whom are Yemeni nationals, have seen this unspeakable suffering firsthand. The IRC runs 16 mobile health teams that are barely capable of operating due to the scarce supply of fuel. Yet they are one of the only solutions to the current health crisis because patients cannot reach clinics and hospitals for the same reasons.
Our teams are running out of food and drugs to treat malnutrition in a country where 4.5 million children and pregnant and lactating women are suffering from a severe lack of nourishment. (Included in that number are 462,000 children under the age of 5.) With procurement cycles averaging approximately two months, we fear we will run out of stocks before receiving new ones.
In the course of the conflict, impediments to humanitarian aid and access have been nearly insurmountable. Just to travel between Aden and Sanaa, humanitarian agencies have to pass through more than 70 checkpoints. At the port of Hodeidah, it takes 90 days to obtain clearance for imports.
The current policy failure is not just the cause of a humanitarian crisis. It is also a strategic error. The Yemenis face death, starvation and division. The Saudis are taking a huge financial and reputational hit. The United States and Britain are tainted by association. Meanwhile, the Iranians are increasingly presenting themselves as the defenders of the Yemeni people — at very little financial or military cost — and gaining support in the country.
According to International Crisis Group, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda is stronger than it has ever been. The Islamic State retains a small presence in central and southern Yemen. The more chaos and fighting, the more they can flourish.
There is no costless way to end the war. Anything other than a rout of the Houthis will be presented as an Iranian victory. But carrying on with the current war plan involves a far higher price in blood and reputation. Three immediate steps are essential.
First, a commitment from the Saudi government to end its blockade and allow for all shipments to make it through the U.N. Verification and Inspection Mechanism. Travel, movement of aid workers and transfer of humanitarian goods need to be promoted, not impeded.
Second, full access will be possible only with a negotiated cease-fire — or a unilateral one. That’s the way for sick and injured civilians to seek medical attention and for aid groups such as IRC to meet the humanitarian needs in the country. With the United Nations talks stalled, a new U.N. Security Council to this end should be tabled this week.
Third, moves toward a political settlement must become the driving idea of policy. That means talks without preconditions, involving all parties and overseen by the United Nations. The alternative is more war — and that has led Yemen, and the West, to the abyss. The lesson from Syria, South Sudan and Libya, where diplomatic vacuums have allowed bad actors to flourish, is that without the credible and legitimate sharing of power, there is no peace, and where there is no peace, humanitarian catastrophe is the result, fueling a further round of instability.
President Trump has said the right thing. Now he needs to do the right thing.