So effective is the suppression of knowledge about the war in Yemen by the mainstream media that 42 percent of the people in a recent poll had not heard of the three and half year war. The bare minimum coverage in the British media has focused on the humanitarian crisis, particularly children starving, the cholera outbreak or when a terrible atrocity has occurred, such as the bombing of a bus full of school children on 24 August. In any report or analysis, there is a disciplined narrative remarkable for its consistency. The body count is reported as over 10000, a figure estimated by the UN in August 2016, as if it had remained unchanged over two years in spite of the escalation in the conflict. As I write, the major news channels like the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera continue to quote out-dated statistics, without taking in account the massive attack launched by the two leading powers, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia(KSA) and United Arab Emirates(UAE) on the port city of Hodeida with a population of 600,000 in June this year.
The blame for the conflict is attributed to the Huthis who are projected as proxies of Iran. This spin has been the great success of the millions of Saudi dollars spent for a highly professional public relations campaign out sourced to Western PR corporations. Many news providers who have accepted Saudi and Emirati lucre have been corrupted. Additionally, the enormously lucrative arms deals of billions of pounds entangling myriad of Western nations has bought the silence shrouded in complicity.
The atrocious killing of 44 children in August when their school bus on the way to a picnic was blown apart in Sadaa province got widely reported. As usual, they were not named and the grief of their families was unheard. The Saudis initially denied it by asserting that it was a legitimate military target and a month later said that is was a mistake. The UN duly called for an independent investigation, a futile gesture which is yet to be accomplished. Then the usual silence, that has hidden the mass atrocities against Yemeni people from the public view by our media and politicians since 2015, descended. We just need to contrast the rolling coverage on the conflict in Syria, especially around Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, to the insignificant reporting of the mass atrocities in Yemen.
It isn’t easy to keep track of the numerous war crimes in Yemen. Saudi royals, diplomats, media owners and elites own substantial shares in many media outlets to have a significant impact on coverage both in terms of quantity and quality. If you watch TV reports and read an article about the war in Yemen in western media, chances are that the information came from Saudi media, diplomats, or military members. To top it off, Riyadh has a history of using extortion at the United Nations to stop independent inquiries, keeping itself off child-maiming blacklists, and avoiding charges in the ICC.
The absence of credible figures on the death and injuries caused since the invasion of Yemen in March 2015 seems deliberate and convenient for the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) governments and also enables the foreign powers - the US, UK and France - supporting the war to give diplomatic cover for their allies. Access to journalists and impartial witnesses has been made extremely difficult and independent investigations have been replaced by reporting from press releases. News outlets receiving Saudi largesse of any kind are unlikely to send out journalists to report on the issue.
A more accurate estimate of deaths has come from Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) which tracks conflicts worldwide. It found that nearly 50,000 people, including combatants, died between January 2016 and July 2018. Given that this does not include data from the first nine months of the Yemen conflict, when fighting was most intense, the figure is likely higher in the range of 70,000 to 80,000. We have no idea about the number injured but they must run to tens of thousands. Their suffering in the backdrop of lack of hospital care which has been destroyed is too heart-rending to contemplate. As Patrick Cockburn has shown the catastrophic death toll and injuries in Yemen has been downplayed by the media, politicians and governments. What is more is that since the attack on Hodeida, the death toll has increased at the rate of 1,000 to 2,000 per month.
The high civilian casualties are the result of the Saudi Air Force targeting residential districts, markets, mosques, weddings, funerals, cars, buses, civilian boats and even medical facilities amongst many other civilian sites. This is contrary to International Humanitarian Law under which the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, civilians and all persons not taking part in combat may under no circumstances be the object of attack and must be spared and protected. In spite of mounting criticism by international bodies and human rights groups of the GCC targeting of civilians, Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, certified to Congress that the two gulf states were taking sufficient steps to protect civilians. By such falsehood, he cynically whitewashed the bloody slaughter of innocents in Yemen. What a clear proof that American exceptionalism disregards international law when it chooses to.
Even before the conflict, Yemen was already one of the poorest country in the world with a per capita GDP (IMF estimate 2017) of $551. The Legal Centre for Rights and Development in Yemen, a non-governmental organisation, recorded that coalition airstrikes have resulted in the destruction of 15 airports and 14 ports, and damaged 2,559 roads and bridges, in addition to 781 water storage facilities, 191 power stations, and 426 telecommunications towers. This has laid waste to the infrastructure of its economy. Simultaneously an insidious economic war was launched which exacted a far greater toll from the civilians. Within three months of the GCC launching the ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ in March 2015, it was apparent that the blockade had a dramatic effect by leaving twenty million Yemenis, in urgent need of food, water, fuel and medical supplies pointing to the approaching humanitarian disaster. Only 15 percent of the pre-crisis volume of imports were let through in a country that imported nine-tenth of its food. Furthermore, in 2016 the Saudi-backed Yemeni government moved the country’s central bank from Sanaa to Aden and issued a vast quantity of new money which created an inflationary spiral and destroyed people’s savings. Withholding the salaries of a million civil servants and other public servants plunged the middle classes into poverty. In Yemen this economic warfare has taken an extreme form. A recent analysis of coalition airstrikes by Martha Mundy of the London School of Economics found that the attacks on bridges, factories, fishing boats and even crop fields were aimed to destroy food production and distribution in the Huthi controlled areas. A country where water is scarce has millions without access to clean drinking water because of targeting of water supplies. The sewage system and garbage collection has collapsed because of the disintegration of public services.
This has resulted in mass starvation in Yemen which has been ignored by the world at large. The pictures of the wasted bodies of children suffering from acute malnutrition and of adults who can barely walk are deeply shocking. The war has left three-quarters of Yemen’s population, more than 22 million people, in need of urgent humanitarian aid. More than 8 million Yemenis are on the brink of severe famine, and 1.1 million are infected with cholera. In June 2017, the UN warned a famine was looming in Yemen. Yet more than a year later, there has been a reluctance on the part of UN bodies to declare a famine in Yemen and identify the blockade by the GCC as a major factor. The continual repetition by the UN and humanitarian agencies at the end of 2018 that famine is imminent is disingenuous when mass starvation is rampant in Yemen.
By the end of 2016, according to UNICEF, 2.2 million children acutely malnourished and required urgent care. Another 1.7 million children suffered from Moderate Acute Malnutrition. A year ago, in Nov 2017, based on their caseload of 400,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), Save the Children calculated that 50,000 children under the age of five will die of hunger and disease in one year– an average of 130 per day or one child every ten minutes.Symptoms include jutting ribs and loose skin with visible wasting of body tissue, or swelling in the ankles, feet and belly as blood vessels leak fluid under the skin. Malnourished children also have substantially reduced immune system function and are many times more likely to contract and die from diseases like cholera and pneumonia than healthy children. This was before the attack on Hodeida and the situation is a catastrophe now. There is a severe risk that a whole generation of 8 million of Yemen’s children who for most part have no access to schools, health services and food are going to be lost.
The bombing raids have brought about a large displacement of households. The current estimates at June 2018 suggest that 2.3 million were internally displaced (IDPs), of which 345,000 were from Hodeida which came under attack in June 2018. Displacement puts families in very vulnerable position in terms of food availability and habitation. Previous research shows that the majority of IDP households live within host communities, placing strain on limited resources during an ongoing conflict.
The Yemeni have become an Unpeople – those whose lives are deemed worthless, expendable in the pursuit of power and commercial gain of Saudi Arabia, Emirates, UK and US. The Royal Saudi Air Force has conducted more than 100,000 bombing sorties in Yemen. The GCC have a formidable arsenal of state-of-the art tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, high performance jet aircraft and attack helicopters. The Saudi navy—backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and other states—controls access to Yemen’s ports. The UAE has led the ground force occupation of South Yemen using militias and mercenaries. In contrast, the Huthis are a militia with no air force or navy. Their ground forces are equipped with small arms primarily. They have acquired tanks, some missiles and other heavy weapons from the depots of the former Yemeni army. They are no match in weapons but have still resisted the onslaught to bring the war to a stalemate.
The immense amount of weaponry that has been sold by the Western Powers to the Saudis and Emiratis clearly demonstrates that the international system relies on militarism and warfare to sustain itself. The Saudis with a third largest military expenditure in the world of $70bn in 2017 The Emirates are also high spenders in military and well-equipped. Britain has a historical shameful alliance with the Saudi Arabia supporting internal repression and external aggression with weapons made in UK. Besides the weapons sales, the US and the UK are involved in training, intelligence, targeting logistics, air refuelling and the naval blockade. The U.S. provides Saudi-led forces with satellite intelligence and satellite-guided radio navigation technology. With US serviceman in the control room targeting strikes, this is also an American war involving war crimes.
Then there is the diplomatic support that Britain has given the GCC at the international level. Britain as the penholder at the UN security council takes a naked pro-Saudi position in the conflict. But the complicity is deeper than that at the strategic planning at all levels. The four main powers, the US, the UK, the KSA and the UAE set up a “Yemen Quartet” in late 2016 to co-ordinate their strategy on Yemen. The quartet met continually since then and at critical junctures just before the operations in Hodeida province and subsequent attack on Hodeida port, presumably for a consensus of the four governments on any strategic development which can then be implemented by the military civil service and intelligence. When the US, UK and French government supported the assault on Hodeida, the complicity was all the more glaring.
One of the most inglorious episodes in British politics was the defeat of the motion moved by the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry demanding that the government should stop backing the brutal Saudi-led campaign in Yemen on 26 Oct 2016. Jeremy Corbyn who has a faultless record of opposing foreign wars faced one of the largest bank bench rebellions with more than 100 Labour MPs voting against the motion. It would not be an exaggeration to say that all the MPs who voted against the motion have Yemeni blood on their hands.
Genocide and crimes against humanity are not single events that happened overnight but processes passing through different phases with varying intensity to have a cumulative effect on the victims over time. Article 2 of the UN Genocide Conventions defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. Whether genocide is being committed in Yemen was a question addressed by Randi Nord. Her answer is affirmative This poses a subsequent question as to why this genocide is ignored when compared to other genocides such as Darfur which received immense public outcry and led to a rapid indictment of President Bashir of Sudan for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Here is a clear case of double standards in the Western politics, media and intellectual circles which was forensically dealt with by Herman and Peterson in their ‘Politics of Genocide‘. Yemen according to their scheme falls under ‘constructive genocide’ committed by Western allies hence subject to erasure, obscurity and impunity.
The disinformation about the causes of the Yemeni conflict is widespread and routinely repeated in our media. The conflict is located in the Yemeni’s own pathologies, their social and economic backwardness that leave them open to violence and thus “civil war”. The proxy element of Iran backing the Huthis with arm supplies is played up with every news item. Since there has been an air and port blockades in place over three years, there is not the slightest possibility of Iran supplying Huthis with arms. Iran political and diplomatic supports the Huthis who share a common Shia faith with Iranians is a far cry from military involvement. The claim of a linkage between Iran and Huthis relies heavily on assertion by the Saudis and Emiratis which is peddled uncritically by Western media.
The root causes for the conflict lie in the complex history of Yemen in the modern period with more that a century of British occupation of Southern Yemen with Aden as the centre, which ended after a liberation struggle in 1967. Northern Yemen was ruled by an Imamate after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and always in conflict with the powerful northern neighbour, the KSA, which annexed three Yemeni provinces in 1934 and spread its brand of Wahhabism in Yemen which led to the revival of the Shia Zaidism of Huthis to resist Saudi encroachments. Yemen was also affected by the larger development in the Arab world especially the Egyptian Nasserite revolution with the North becoming a part of the wider United Arab Republic in 1958. The South established a socialist republic after liberation. Yemeni leaders off and on flirted with anti-Western ideologies like Nasserism, Pan-Arabism, Non Alignment, Baathism, Communism and various forms of Islamism. The conflict between the two statelets ended in a union in 1979 under the authoritarian leadership of President Abdullah Saleh for 30 years. He played realpolitik during the cold war and moved into the US fold after 9/11 to join the war against terrorism after the decision in 1990 to oppose the gulf war against Iraq for which Yemen was punished severely by the US and the Saudis who expelled 800,000 Yemeni workers. The presence of Al Qaeda in Yemen and its attack on US targets led to continual drone strikes in Yemen by the US exacting a civilian toll since 2002. The economic shock of structural adjustments imposed by the IMF and World Bank drove the larger part Yemeni population into a sense of despair due to rising poverty. The winds of the Arab Uprising of 2011 swept the Yemeni masses onto the streets demanding a change of government, greater democracy and an end to corruption. To counter the uprising, the GCC with the US manoeuvred a transitional period with Saleh leaving in return for immunity and Yemen’s vice president Mansour Hadi assuming power legitimised through a referendum for a two year period from February 2012. Hadi steamrolled the country into the membership of World Trade Organisation (WTO) that required an egregious amount of economic austerity and liberalisation hitting the poorest and the most vulnerable hard. Besides budgetary cuts threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of state employees, Hadi rushed through the biggest wave of privatisation of the major sectors of the economy. This met widespread resistance from different sectors of Yemeni society. The three key members of the GCC- KSA, UAE and Qatar were already in competition against each other in terms of taking over Yemeni real estate and other assets and Hadi exacerbated this by favouring KSA and Qatar to reverse UAE ascendancy in the region. With Qatar being blockaded by KSA, the UAE collaborated in the invasion of Yemen to control and plunder its resources. Behind these stood the US and UK with their corporations and finance keen on controlling the strategic region and its assets. Hadi failed to end the two year transitional government with a new constitutional arrangement well into 2015 creating a political crisis. The slashing of fuel subsidies in the summer of 2014 prompted angry protests and brought thousands onto Sanaa’s streets. Hadi’s policies resulted in uprising led by Huthi-Saleh alliance taking over Sanaa and then moving towards Aden, forcing Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia. For a full expose of the complex political economy of Yemen, the power struggles and the geopolitics I recommend Isa Blumi’s meticulous critique encompassing the past and present to understand the underlying causes of the devastation visited on the Yemeni people.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) passes the resolution 2216 in 2015 which was biased in favour of the GCC. The resolution in Chapter VII demanded the restoration of the Hadi power in Sanaa and for the Huthis to withdraw and had over heavy weapons. It also imposed an embargo on the Huthis but none on the coalition. This gave a free pass to the Saudis and Emiratis to organise a coalition and attack Yemen. It is evident that the UNSC has become an instrument of geopolitical power rather than peace making. In order to break the stalemate, the GCC launched an attack on Hodeida the lifeline for Yemenis survival in June 2018. Sweden called for a simple ceasefire resolution but the UNSC rejected it.
Leaving the special UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to bring the two sides together through bilateral consultation is not going anywhere. Given the horror of the humanitarian catastrophe, The UNSC needs to replace UNSCR 2216 with a more balanced resolution to set the stage for political reconciliation, declaring a ceasefire and lifting the blockade. It should hold all the parties accountable for their actions, not just the Huthis. The restoration of President Hadi faces opposition across Yemen with a separatist movement emerging in the South. But recent developments have shown that the US is the real power broker and has excluded the UN from taking control of the situation in the Middle East. On October 31, Mike Pompeo called for a cessation of hostilities within the next 30 days. What happened immediately after this was instructive. The UAE rushed 10,000 fighters to Hodeida and the KSA started its bombing of the city in spite of the appeal from a large number of humanitarian organisations. His announcement and the way it was presented by the MSM was that peace would descend on Yemen but this was a deception, giving the GCC an opportunity to break the stalemate and take the city of Hodeida and choke the supply of food to the bulk of the Yemeni population. Seeking the Huthis to surrender will perpetuate the cycle of violence in a country that is already fragmented for generations. Yemen has already been reduced to a fragmented failed state like Libya with long term consequences to the stability of the region.
The callous murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate at Istanbul on October 2 has brought into the limelight the violence of the Saudi state. Yemen got greater attention as some journalist made linkages between the killing of one individual and the killing of tens of thousands in Yemen. On October 25 the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of an imposition of an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. Germany followed by imposing a ban on weapon sales to Saudi Arabia. The appeal by Jeremy Hunt during his recent visit to the KSA and UAE for an end to Yemen war was rather supine and lacking in any grave concern about slaughter of innocents and mass starvation in Yemen. Yet again the deference to Saudi Arabia prevails and whatever resolution we see in the near future from Britain will play to Saudi advantage. What is needed is the immediate cessation of bombings and lifting of the blockade to save Yemeni children, women and men from death. The whispers of the dying Yemeni children and the sighs of their mothers are not being heard in the filter bubbles of power brokers.
The silence about the barbaric violence is illustrative of the selectivity of Western empathy and the necessity to keep the war obscure to thewider public. There are social forces ensuring that Yemen is off the headlines in spite of the humanitarian catastrophe. The erasure of information, spin and disinformation about Yemen has successfully shut down debate, expression of outrage and solidarity. The GCC and the US and UK are resorting to violence to obtain their objectives of economic, cultural and political hegemony over Yemen. The imprint of the US empire is writ large because the GCC countries are American protectorates.
Our hope lies in the conscience of ordinary people who have often shown their unwillingness to tolerate unspeakable violence and cruelties due to policies of nation states and international geopolitics. The organisation of compelling protests on significant foreign policy issues from the Vietnam war, apartheid and Iraq war by activist coalitions showed determination and resourcefulness. Yemen is crying out for such protests urgently against the complicity of Britain and US to stop its descent into a terrible genocide.