A United Nations Panel of Experts sent its report to the UN Security Council this week. The tenor of the report is bleak. Yemen, say the experts, is ‘in danger of fracturing beyond the point of no return’. Furthermore, the report suggests that despite the almost two years of war, ‘an outright military victory by any one side is no longer a realistic possibility in the near term’. The UN looked at airstrikes by Saudi Arabia’s coalition and found that these are ‘almost certain’ to violate international humanitarian law and that some of the strikes ‘may amount to war crimes’.
In the interests of proportionality, the UN experts say that the Yemeni rebels, who the Saudi coalition have been fighting, are ‘highly likely’ to have violated international humanitarian law with their strikes against civilians areas (markets, hospitals and residential neighborhoods). The details in the report suggest that this verdict – while true – is unbalanced in terms of scale. There is no question that the Saudi coalition has had the ability to commit crimes at a level much higher than the Yemeni rebels. These rebels comprise the Houthis and the forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia came to the defense of the ousted president Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi with the entire weight of its Western-backed air force and army. That it has not been able to stop the ambitions of the Yemeni rebels is significant. The UN experts panel says that the Saudi bombing, ‘while devastating to Yemeni infrastructure and civilians, has failed to dent the political will of the Houthi-Saleh alliance to continue the conflict’.
The UN report is an indictment of this merciless war. It should be read – when it is publically released – alongside the many reports by the UN agencies about the fragile condition of Yemeni society.
Ten days ago, Jamie McGoldrick of the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that the UN estimates the death toll in this war to be about 10,000 people, with 40,000 people wounded. This is, as the UN accepts, a conservative figure since it is based on numbers gathered from medical facilities. The situation was so dire last August that the International Committee of the Red Cross donated mobile morgue units to local hospitals that could not handle the number of dead bodies that were brought to them.
The UN’s McGoldrick, in these remarks, noted that about ten million Yemenis need ‘urgent assistance to protect their safety, dignity and basic rights’. This is classic UN language for a situation of great urgency. What McGoldrick says is that almost half the population of Yemen is in urgent need. In May of last year, UNICEF noted that 90 per cent of Yemen’s people are in need of humanitarian aid. UNICEF now says that almost half a million children children suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition – which renders them powerless before the growing threats of diarrhea and pneumonia. Each week, says UNICEF, a thousand Yemeni children die of preventable diseases. These are the children who are in the worst situation. There are also 2.2 million children who suffer from malnutrition (1.1 million adults should be added to this list).
Food prices escalated as a result of the blockade of the country – in some places food costs twice what it did a year ago. When Saudi Arabia closed the Sana’a airport last year, it meant that the UN’s World Food Program could not reach the millions of people who rely upon this aid. The UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council that ‘if there is no immediate action, famine is a now a possible scenario for 2017’.