To raise awareness about the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, we've prepared the following FAQ for people who are unfamiliar with the situation there. We hope this will spark further discussion about Yemen, especially among Americans. We encourage you to share this information with your family and friends as you gather for the holidays.
Banner photo © Ahmad Algohbary
What’s going on in Yemen this Thanksgiving week?
Thanks for asking. A horrific civil war among Yemen’s elites has torn the country apart, causing the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe and the worst cholera outbreak ever recorded. The US government is backing neighboring Saudi Arabia as it blockades Yemen’s crucial ports, hoping that its favored side will win the war. But the blockade is preventing the UN and relief organizations from bringing Yemenis vital food, medicine, and fuel, in blatant violation of international law. Within weeks, we will see innocent people dying from famine and treatable diseases on a scale not seen in decades.
Just how bad is the situation?
- According to the UN, 17 million people in Yemen are food-insecure, which means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
- Seven million of those are literally about to starve to death. The food aid they rely on will be exhausted in four weeks due to the Saudi blockade.
- Almost a million people are sick from cholera, and not enough medication is getting in.
- Oxfam believes that thousands of Yemenis are already certain to die as a direct result of the blockade.
- In parts of the country, fuel has already run out.
- Clean water is now totally unavailable in three entire cities.
Tell me more about what this disaster looks like on the ground.
Here’s how Scott Paul of Oxfam describes the impact of the blockade: “In two governorates where we work, fuel has already run out. That means water pumps and purification mechanisms will grind to a halt, hospital lights will go out, refrigerators will turn off. Only water contaminated by sewage will be left to drink…. Medicines that need to be kept cold will expire and...thousands of Yemenis will succumb to basic illnesses. Young children, pregnant mothers, and the frail elderly will be first, with others not far behind. Many of their fates have already been written, though lifting the blockade now could still prevent...the worst famine the world has seen in decades, with millions of victims.”
Why on earth would Saudi Arabia starve an entire country?
The Saudis want to weaken a rebel group known as the Houthis and, by extension, their regional rivals Iran, who provide the rebels with limited support. Saudi Arabia seems to think they can starve their enemies into submission. Since 2015 they’ve placed severe restrictions on shipping and air traffic; the current blockade is an extreme escalation of that tactic. Yet the war cannot be won militarily, and the blockade only undermines potential peace negotiations while killing Yemenis who have nothing to do with the conflict.
I read that Iran was smuggling missiles to the Houthis, and that’s why the Saudis closed the ports.
According to the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using that claim “as justification for obstructing the delivery of commodities that are essentially civilian in nature.” Experts believe Iran has smuggled small arms into Yemen using small boats and land crossings. But the UN already inspects all large ships going to Yemen, and it is impossible to smuggle weapons aboard UN-approved humanitarian aid shipments, or aboard the UN flights that bring aid workers and supplies into the country. There is no excuse for this murderous blockade.
Didn’t Saudi Arabia recently say it was lifting the blockade?
The Saudi government has allowed limited access to a couple of ports its allies control in southern Yemen. But according to the UN, these ports aren't equipped to handle large humanitarian shipments. And despite Saudi Arabia's claims that it it has opened other ports, humanitarian agencies confirm that they still don't have the access they need. This blockade didn't start in November 2017; it started in March 2015, and it is still ongoing. Unless the Saudi government immediately opens all ports, the UN won't be able to feed 7 million Yemenis.
This is all truly terrible. But why are you blaming the US for this?
Under both Obama and Trump, the US has given Saudi Arabia and its allies a blank check to intervene in Yemen's civil war. Though defense officials won't talk much about this, it's known that the US provides weapons and fuel for Saudi bombing campaigns, which have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Trump administration has increased this support and given its tacit approval for the blockade, even as the UN, the European Union, and international humanitarian agencies have demanded that ports be reopened immediately.
So what can I do about it?
There are many humanitarian organizations doing great work, and they all deserve support. But the simple fact is that there can be no solution to the humanitarian crisis while this war continues. To end the humanitarian suffering, we have to end the war. And to end the war, we need to end America’s participation in it. You can click the red "start writing" button below to email your members of Congress right now and tell them to do just that. But most importantly this Thanksgiving, as Americans gather together, you can talk about the crisis in Yemen with your family and friends. While we eat, millions of people are being starved, and most Americans don’t know that our own government is partly responsible. Let’s start with that.