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Yemenis ‘forgotten’ while Western powers rake in billions from arms sales

Sep 19,2018 - Last updated at Sep 19,2018

As the Saudis and Emiratis stepped up military action on rebel Houthi forces in and around the irreplaceable port of Hodeida in Yemen, UN envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in Sanaa for talks with Houthi leaders on resuming peace talks and the UN humanitarian agency announced a "medical air bridge" to evacuate from rebel-held Sanaa civilians who suffer from chronic and critical ailments.

Both Griffiths and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) appear to be betting on the likelihood of a humanitarian crisis in Hodeida. On one hand, Griffiths sought to pause a full-scale Saudi-Emirati offensive by resuming negotiations between the Saudi-sponsored government and the Houthis. They had refused to attend talks scheduled for September 6 in Geneva unless the UN guaranteed their prompt and safe return to Sanaa. Following failed negotiations in Kuwait in 2016, the Houthi delegates were stranded in Oman for three months by the Saudi-led coalition. The Houthis also demanded medical evacuation for wounded civilians and fighters as a condition for attending talks.

On the other hand, fearing the Saudis and Emiratis could close the Hodeida-Sanaa route along which medicine and food reach Sanaa, OCHA and the World Health Organisation have made arrangements to save the lives of civilians in desperate need of care if medical supplies are disrupted.

Reducing or halting traffic through Hodeida port, which carries 80 per cent of Yemen's imports, could lead to famine in the region's poorest country, where 22 million of 28 million Yemenis rely on external aid and 8.4 million are malnourished and on the brink of starvation.

Last week, UN humanitarian agencies raised their voices to protest against the war. OCHA head Lise Grande said the Yemen crisis had deteriorated "dramatically" since the collapse of the Geneva peace talks. "Hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance" in Hodeida. She expressed serious concern about the mills which produce flour to feed some 3.5 million Yemenis.  "If the mills are damaged or disrupted, the human cost will be incalculable," she warned.

"Parties to the conflict are obliged to do absolutely everything possible to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and ensure people have access to the aid they are entitled to and need to survive." she asserted.

"The conflict has made Yemen a living hell for its children," stated UN children's agency (UNICEF) Yemen representative Meritxell Relano. She said more than 11 million children are threatened by food shortages, disease, displacement and lack of access to essential social services. "An estimated 1.8 million children are malnourished. Nearly 400,000 are severely malnourished and they are fighting for their lives every day."

UN assessments of the situation contrast dramatically with statements by the Trump administration, which provides arms, equipment, airborne refuelling of Saudi warplanes and logistical support to the attacking forces. At the same time, the UN sounded alarm, the administration certified to Congress that the Saudi-sponsored coalition was doing its utmost to prevent civilian deaths and injuries. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted that civilian casualties are "far too high" and said a "no-strike list" was being drawn up to limit civilian casualties. Such a list was in place during the Obama administration but made little or no difference.

Pompeo argued the Gulf allies were "undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure." Such certification is needed before Congress, which will release $750 million in federal funding for a US training programme for the Saudi air force with the aim of reducing civilian casualties. Pompeo's assurances preceded an air strike on a radio station in Hodeida that killed three guards and a staff member.

Pompeo's statements were hardly convincing, particularly for anyone who had read the Oxfam report on casualties during August. By the end of that month, 981 civilians had been killed or injured, including 300 children. Oxfam's Yemen Director Muhsin Siddiquey stated, "Yemen is now a free-fire zone where people gathering for weddings, burying their loved ones or going to market are risking their lives. The suffering of the people of Yemen is an affront to our shared humanity and a failure of powerful countries to uphold any sense of the values they are fond of espousing.” “It is a shameful chapter of diplomatic double speak, underhand dealings and downright hypocrisy..." he stated.

On August 9, a bus carrying school children was struck in a Saudi air raid over northern Yemen, killing 46 people, mostly boys under the age of 13. Two weeks later a second air strike killed 22 children and four women who were trying to escape fighting in Hodeida province. Four other children were killed in the same area later that day.

Two years ago, the UN stopped counting deaths, then put at 10,000; fatalities were largely blamed on Saudi air action.

The Riyadh-backed government under Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was ousted in late 2014 after Houthi rebels captured Sanaa and other areas in the north. After the rebels swept south and seized the port of Aden, the Saudis and Emiratis launched a campaign to force the Houthis to retreat to their stronghold in northern Saada province and restore Hadi's government. 

Although recognised by the international community, Hadi was installed in February 2012 as president for a two-year period following an uncontested "election." His mandate was extended for one year in January 2014. Therefore, his term in office expired in early 2015. He fled Yemen in March of that year and has resided largely in Riyadh since then. Protests have erupted in recent weeks in government-held areas against corruption and the lack of proper governance, electricity, water and jobs and the plunging value of the country's currency.

Caught in an ongoing war and power struggle, Yemenis have been "forgotten" while Western powers rake in billions of dollars from arms sales.

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