When I visited Yemen last year, the situation was grim. The government was dealing with fuel shortages and protests against the lifting of subsidies. But, there was still hope. The airport and ports were functioning, the ministry of health was operational, and the minister of health was optimistic that the situation would improve for the people of Yemen.
One year later and five months after a Saudi-led coalition launched an air campaign purportedly to subdue Houthi rebels in the north, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has become catastrophic. In April 2015, the UN Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN charter, adopted resolution 2216 calling upon all Yemeni parties – particularly the Houthis – to end the violence. In the past few months, all sides have ignored the resolution, and despite several briefings on the deteriorating situation, the Security Council has failed to act. Its efforts to ensure short-term humanitarian pauses and longer-term ceasefires have both been futile. While political negotiations seem to be leading nowhere, the international community must act quickly to ensure that all parties to the conflict comply with international humanitarian law and avoid further aggravating an already devastating humanitarian disaster.
Yemen, an impoverished nation of 27 million people with tremendous public health needs, has been subjected to systematic destruction of civilian infrastructure and restrictions on imports, which has led to the collapse of virtually all key services. The Saudi-led air strikes have destroyed major roads and facilities, such as Hudaydah port and the main runway at Sana’a International Airport, leading to the blockage of aerial and maritime aid deliveries necessary for survival. Even if aid could get into the country, distribution would be impossible under the current circumstances. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 21 million people are being denied food, water, health care, and education, while their homes are being bombed.
In blatant violation of international humanitarian law, all parties have destroyed numerous health facilities, and the majority of those that remain are not able to provide adequate health care due to a lack of fuel, medicine, personnel, and other vital supplies. While the data on attacks on health facilities in Yemen has not yet been systematically collected, Amnesty International released a report in August detailing the impact of attacks on select health facilities; the report states that at least 160 health care facilities have closed down and accuses all parties to the conflict of war crimes. In a recent press conference, the representative of Yemen’s ministry of health, Dr. Nashwan al-Atab, mentioned that from the 20 hospitals currently conducting surgeries, only three are receiving the international support necessary for them to function properly. Further documentation of attacks on health care and violations of international humanitarian law is necessary for the truth to be known and for victims to seek justice and reparations.
After seeing the extent of destruction in Yemen, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, stated, “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.” And it is an apt analogy. Many of the tactics being used by the Saudi-led coalition mimic what the government of Bashar al-Assad has been doing in Syria, leading to a power vacuum and thus, a similar expansion of Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Yemen. But there is a telling difference between the two conflicts. The United States and other governments who have condemned the widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian law in Syria are largely supportive of the Saudi-led coalition and silent about its violations. Instead, it is Russia – Syria’s ally on the UN Security Council – that is calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen.
The people of Yemen and Syria know all too well the price of the UN Security Council’s inability to effectively fulfil its mandate to maintain international peace and security. The crux of this failure is the politicization of its five permanent members leading to paralysis when action is needed to save lives. It is time for the UN Security Council to take stock of its failure and set aside politics and reflexive reactions in the pursuit of peace and security. Only then can the people of Syria and Yemen begin the process of rebuilding their countries and their lives.