The people of Yemen have been starved for the last six years, and they are still being starved today.
The U.N. once again sounded the alarm about famine last month. Martin Griffiths, the former U.N. Yemen envoy and now U.N. humanitarian chief, has said, “Today about 5 million people are just one step away from succumbing to famine and the diseases that go with it. Ten million more are right behind them.” That means that roughly half of the population of the entire country is in grave danger, and hundreds of thousands have already perished. There is no precise figure available for the total number of innocent lives lost to famine and disease since 2015, but it is large and growing by the day.
Mass starvation in Yemen has been the result of deliberate policy choices and actions taken by the warring parties, including the Saudi coalition governments and Ansar Allah, the armed militia also known as the Houthis. It is a crime against humanity taking place in plain sight. The governments that back these parties, including the United States, share in that crime, and it is incumbent on all of them to halt Yemen’s slide into deeper famine.
According to a new report produced by Mwatana for Human Rights and Global Rights Compliance, all parties to the conflict are guilty of using food and water as weapons, and in doing so they have been committing war crimes against the civilian population. In their report “Starvation Makers,” the respected independent Yemeni human rights activists have documented how the Saudi coalition engaged in systematic attacks on farms, fishing boats, and water systems. They also show how Ansar Allah has impeded the delivery of aid and cut off local populations from their sources of food and employment through the widespread deployment of landmines in civilian areas.
There have been scattered reports about these tactics over the years, but this latest detailing confirms earlier accounts and ties them together to identify the patterns of crimes committed against the civilian population. As the executive summary states, “Warring parties in Yemen have deliberately deprived civilians of objects essential to their survival (OIS), starving them, in some cases to death, over the course of the conflict.”
The Mwatana/GRC report is thorough and extensive, and it leaves no doubt who is responsible for using starvation as a method of warfare:
“Mwatana and GRC conclude that members of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition and Ansar Allah used starvation as a method of warfare. Their conduct severely impeded civilians’ access to food and water, and they acted in spite of the widespread knowledge of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, where people, including children, were dying from starvation. Members of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition and Ansar Allah were aware of the virtual certainty that, following their conduct, starvation would occur in the ordinary course of events — that is, without humanitarian intervention — or intended to use starvation as a method of warfare.”
The warring parties knew what the consequences would be, and they chose to take actions that led to them anyway. As the report explains: “Bearing this in mind, the pattern of conduct — relied upon in numerous criminal trials in which war crimes have been prosecuted — and the context surrounding the attacks becomes vital to understanding why individuals acted as they did.”
A single attack or a handful might be dismissed as accidents, but when they are all viewed together the deliberate nature of these actions becomes clear. The report also details how the coalition has targeted other parts of Yemen’s infrastructure and how the Houthis have engaged in indiscriminate shelling against civilian areas, and this demonstrates that the parties have exhibited a reckless indifference to damaging civilian structures and causing civilian deaths throughout the conflict.
The report also acknowledges other actions that have contributed significantly to the worsening humanitarian situation. These include the Hadi government’s 2016 decision to relocate Yemen’s central bank to Aden and the withholding of salaries from public sector employees, and the Houthis’ use of siege warfare against cities held by coalition-backed forces, such as Taiz. It also includes the coalition blockade that remains in place even now.
“Since 2015, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition has also imposed a de facto naval and aerial blockade on Yemen’s sea and airports, which — with varying levels of intensity throughout the conflict — has severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians.” The Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline has previously called for lifting the blockade because of its destructive effects on the civilian population. The blockade is an attack on Yemenis’ access to food by delaying deliveries and driving up prices beyond what people can afford, and it contributes to mass starvation in Yemen. Like the attacks on farms and fisheries, it is a war crime, and it is still happening.
Yemen is the site of one of what Alex de Waal has dubbed the “new atrocity famines” in his book, “Mass Starvation.” Like other modern famines, it is the result of deliberate choices by political actors. The famine in Yemen is not merely a byproduct of the ongoing conflict, but rather it is a direct consequence of coalition policies of blockade and economic warfare aimed at impoverishing and weakening the population, and Houthi practices of interfering with aid deliveries in order to exercise control. As de Waal warned three years ago, “Should a famine rage in Yemen, the culpability for creating it and covering it up will lie primarily with the Saudi-led military coalition and its use of indiscriminate economic warfare.”
Jeannie Sowers and Erika Weinthal discussed the atrocity famine taking place in Yemen earlier this year: “Atrocity famines are political projects, in which parties to the conflict consider some groups dispensable and not worth saving.” Because these famines are political in origin, they also can and must have a political solution. In this case, the U.S. has substantial leverage with some of the main authors of the famine in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and because of that and because of our government’s own role in enabling this catastrophe it has a profound obligation to bring the atrocity famine to an end.
To that end, the U.S. should heed the Mwatana/GRC’s recommendations, which include ceasing “activities perpetuating the conflict and potentially contributing to violations in Yemen, including by ceasing arms sales and transfers to the warring parties.” That will require cutting off the supply of weapons to coalition governments. I suggest that it should also extend to halting all technical assistance for coalition militaries at least until the war is over. The Mwatana/GRC report gives the Biden administration all the proof they should need to stop all arms sales to the governments responsible for these war crimes, and it should remind us all of the nature of the atrocious war that our government helped make possible for all these years.