Yemen's Starvation: The return of famine as a weapon of war

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, Yemen has not entered a famine. Not yet anyway,  almost the entire country lies in IPC Phase 3 (crisis), while other parts have entered IPC Phase 4 (emergency) one below IPC Phase 5 (famine) both of which represent an already appalling food crisis in itself and epitomises the dire state of food security in the struggling country. 

However, with the closure of its ports by Saudi Arabia and its coalition - supported by the multiple Western powers - Yemen stands on the brink of the most serious famine of the 21st century and one not seen since the horrifying famines in Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s respectively.  The United Kingdom, alongside the United States, Spain, France, Montenegro, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, Canada, Turkey and China, are amongst those who have contributed to arming and supplying the Saudi war machine which has pulverised and strangled Yemen of life since the Gulf coalition intervened in Yemen's conflict in 2015. 

The famine, if and when it occurs, will be entirely man-made, a catastrophe which could have been avoided had it not been for Saudi Arabia's reactionary foreign policy and the thirst  of the global arms trade to cash in on the blood-stained gold rush sparked by the invasion of Yemen. The inability of the United Nations and the international community to effectively intervene on the crisis and take a stance against key members of the Security Council supporting the Gulf States has also allowed this food crisis to reach this level of severity. 

The food crisis gripping Yemen is rooted in local issues and tied to the wider geo-politics of the Greater Middle East and while it is not the only country suffering from the weaponisation of food across the globe (for example: Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo,and  Syria), the images of starving men, women and children are seeping into the spotlight of the international media. 

The United States' and its policymakers have been eager to contain Saudi brutality against civilians, however as the blockade tightens on Yemen and international condemnation grows, Washington will find that if it does not reign in Saudi aggression in its own backyard that they along with other Western states, will become complicit in committing war crimes and unleashing one of the most devastating weapons of war; man-made famine. 

Yemen has been in the cross-hairs of the United States counter-terrorism efforts for decades, particularly since the destruction of the U.S.S Cole by Al-Qa'ida in the 1990s, an attack which led to the deaths of seventeen U.S sailors and wounded thirty-seven more. Alongside, it counter-terrorism efforts - which have included drone strikes, use of contractors and utilising special forces to conduct pre-emptive strikes and extra-judicial killings - the U.S have been supporting the Gulf coalitions' war efforts conducting 1600 refuelling missions (an average of two a day) for Saudi aircraft which are shelling critical Yemeni infrastructure and targeting the Houthi rebels who are becoming increasingly aligned to Iran as the war has progressed. The Iranian nuclear deal has only increased the country's political and economic clout and raised the stakes of the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former of which fear the rise of a so-called 'Shia Crescent' across the Middle East.  The fears of Iran's rise and the near Machiavellian determination of the Sunni states to contain the Iranian regime has been catastrophic for Yemen. 

10,000, if not more, are dead, 462,000 children are severely malnourished, 10,000 or more children have died from preventable diseases, 1,500 have died in the world's worst cholera outbreak and over 3,000,000 civilians have been displaced. Mark Lowcock, the U.N undersecretary for humanitarian affairs has predicted "the largest famine the world has seen for many decades with millions of victims," and 50,000 children estimated by The Independent to perish by January 2018 due to starvation and disease. The murderous air-raids by the Saudis have levelled markets, disrupted food supplies and done grave damage to Yemen's important rural and agricultural systems and utterly destroyed the country's health-care. 

The scale of this humanitarian crisis has been accelerated by economic warfare and the blockade of Yemen by land, air and sea and imports have largely been brought to a halt. These draconian actions were taken under the UN Security Resolution 2216 on 14 April which were designed, at-least initially, to prevent arms transfer to the Houthis.

Even before the Arab Revolutions fuelled conflict and socio-economic issues across the region, Yemen has struggled.  Before the 2015 invasion of Yemen, consistent political, economic and ecological marginalisation and exploitation of rural areas' in Yemen have pushed rural people into poverty and food insecurity as illustrated by Rami Zurayk and Anne Gough: 

"Spurred by the World Bank, the Yemeni government unilaterally cut subsidies for fuel and other basic necessities in 2005, despite the fact that about half the Yemeni populations lives under the poverty line and the majority of the population spends 60 per cent of their income on food. Such a measure avoided any necessary voting or passage of legislation in Parliament. Between 2009 - 2011...the number of food-insecure households doubled and child malnutrition is at almost 50 percent (2014)...75 percent were dependent on tenant farming." (Rami Zurayk and Anne Gough, The New Middle East, 120-121)

Yemen's political and economic elite established a monopoly and left their civilians dependent on them for subsidies. Disastrous austerity policies and poverty which has marked the country as the poorest on the Arabian peninsula worsened the political, social and economic conditions in the country. The outbreak of revolution highlighted the fallacy of these rash socio-economic policies and the onset of a civil war escalated this food crisis and the Saudi-intervention provided the final push needed to assure the mass-starvation of the Yemeni people.

Coverage has been scant when compared to the Syrian War, the Gaza Wars, the Iraqi Civil War, the Egyptian revolutions and coups, the rise of Daesh and the revolts in Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain. The Saudis, according to the NewStatesman , are making it nearly impossible to report on the war in Yemen and how its military policies are creating the conditions for potentially the worst famine since the Ethiopian famine (1983-1985). 

"The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land."

Muffling the media coverage of the war has, in the words of Ahmed Baider and Lizzie Porter, stifled the extent of the country's suffering while Yemeni fighters and insurgents including Houthi rebels and loyalists of President Saleh (who are suspicious of journalists operating in the country) have also made access to war-zones more difficult for journalists and aid workers. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.” said a French documentary producer focused on Yemen in an interview with The Newstatesman, “They want to bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Famines do not happen in a vacuum, nor is Yemen suffering because there is no food, it is because prices are too high for families to afford food and access including exports and imports are being severely disrupted by the Gulf coalition. Famines, as demonstrated by the case of Yemen, evolve slowly and often remain underreported for months on end. Men, women and children across the country have experienced months, if not years of crippling hardship before the crisis makes the headlines it needs for governments to take humanitarian and political action to alleviate human suffering.

Alex de Waal, author of Famine that Kills : Darfur, Sudan, Famine crimes : politics & the disaster relief industry in Africa, and Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine was unequivocally clear on where the blame lay for the cause of Yemen's current emergency and will be placed should famine be declared.  "The Yemen famine that began in 2015 was unusual among contemporary humanitarian crises in its scale, and in the fact that it extended far beyond its epicentres in the fiercely war-affected areas to affect the majority of the country." he asserts. "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 indiscriminate use of economic warfare." 

Save the Children has estimated at least 130 children die every day in war-torn Yemen from extreme hunger and disease. The UK must suspend arms deals with Saudi Arabia lest we - and other states - become complicit in the atrocity of famine. The plight of Yemen is not an accident or a natural catastrophe. The conflict in Yemen is a horrific product of the "Global of War on Terror", disastrous social, political and economic policies and Saudi-led operations. The mass-starvation currently stalking the country is man-made and it lies with us to ask important questions of British policymakers, politicians, businessmen, and allies responsible for creating and benefiting from the war crimes being committed and utilising economic warfare to foment an appalling food crisis and potential famine.

What 'interests' (even oil) can possibly take priority over tens of thousands starving to death and deter taking a stand against an horrifying war policy? The cost of our government remaining silent, the cost of doing nothing, the cost of allowing a reactionary Saudi Arabian monarchy to run amok in Yemen and the wider region with impunity will come at a horrendous moral cost and, more importantly, will send tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children to a premature death. This is an abhorrent situation, a unacceptable catastrophe forged by disastrous policies and policymakers turning a blind-eye to the core problems plaguing Yemen. The British government's Middle Eastern policies are a disaster and have largely proved ineffective and created instability.  

Famines should not happen in the 21st century. The inability of the British government to take a more bullish approach to our Gulf allies conduct in Yemen so that the UK arms industries can profit from a country's starvation and destruction, that  post-Brexit referendum Britain can have economic allies to cling onto as it sinks into a quagmire of its own making and so we toe the line of a volatile Trump administration clinging onto yesterday's game in the Middle East and supporting the Saudis (the ultimate status quo power) is scandalous.  By supporting Saudi Arabia and the coalition starving Yemen's people to death, we are complicit and this should be a source of national anger and outrage. We must take action before it is too late. 

Matthew C.K Williams