Congress: Use American leverage to save lives in Yemen

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This week, Congress will hold hearings to debate America’s role in the Yemeni civil conflict. Three years have passed since this war began, with tragic consequences for 29 million Yemenis.  While the war has grown more complex over time, Congress’ message to the administration should be very simple: deploy America’s ample leverage to improve the situation on the ground for civilians.

The United Nations Secretary General has highlighted Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And it’s entirely a manmade disaster.  More than 22.2 million people—75 percent of the population—need humanitarian assistance and 8.4 million are on the verge of famine. Upwards of 16 million people lack regular access to safe water and hygiene.

{mosads}These conditions have generated the world’s largest cholera epidemic on record, with 1 million suspected cases and 2,200 deaths. Purchasing power across the entire country has hit an all-time low, as hyperinflation, devaluation, and unpaid public salaries drive Yemenis deeper into poverty. In some places, there is food in the markets but no money for people to buy it.

With devastation of the health sector, treatable illnesses have become death sentences. One child under the age of five dies every 10 minutes from preventable disease, according to the UN. Doctors and nurses cannot go to work because of the insecurity or because they cannot afford the fuel necessary to travel. Fifty percent of Yemen’s hospitals are not operating.  Mercy Corps is seeing this suffering up close, as our teams provide humanitarian assistance to 500,000 people each month across nine governorates, often crossing front lines to distribute food and other basic supplies.

To its credit, Congress has been pushing the administration for over two years about the strategic objectives and the tragic humanitarian outcomes of the Yemen war. Congress can press the administration on further actions to alleviate the suffering of Yemen’s people:

First, and foremost, ending the war is the most critical step to achieve U.S. interests and alleviate the suffering. The United States has a responsibility, along with the new UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, to lead negotiations to end this conflict.  The State Department has not invested in a strong diplomatic push for over a year, though earlier, the prospects of negotiations did periodically limit some of the worst fighting. The continuing choice of military escalation rather than negotiations will make the political issues harder to solve, including by deepening the desperation of people on the ground. 

Second, the U.S. must use its leverage with the Saudi-led Coalition to ensure free access through all ports, including the Sana’a International Airport and the principal Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Saleef.

Ongoing restrictions on humanitarian and commercial access, as well as uncertainties about future port closures, have drastically reduced import levels and driven the price of food, fuel, water and other basic necessities beyond the reach of most Yemenis. With Hodeidah responsible for importing nearly 90 percent of all commercial and humanitarian goods, unfettered and permanent access is critical to averting a catastrophe. The closure of Hodeidah in November had immediate and long-term consequences for the people of Yemen. Today, it has technically reopened, though imports remain dangerously low. As of March, fuel shipments had decreased to approximately 30 percent below the levels of fuel coming into the port before November. These closures need to be entirely and permanently reversed.

Third, Congress must push the administration to protect civilians. Unfortunately, civilians are caught in the crossfire of this war—and, in some cases, deliberately attacked. Taken together, the conduct of the operations in Yemen have eroded the already deteriorating norms of the international humanitarian legal system.  Civilian sites such as potato chip factories, hospitals, schools and marketplaces have been targeted since the beginning of the war, erasing important red lines that combatants must respect, per the Geneva Conventions. 

Thus far, the U.S. Congress has wisely focused its attention on the disproportionate civilian casualties in this war.  As Congress continues to publicize this issue, it should turn its oversight energies toward the Department of Defense, which should insist on adherence to international humanitarian law in the conduct of all Coalition operations.  Defense Department officials must take this issue seriously. The eroding norms of warfare will only hurt U.S. military personnel over time. 

The Trump administration has taken steps this year to prioritize saving lives in Yemen. Key U.S. officials— in particular Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and USAID Administrator Mark Green—have prioritized the dangerously deteriorating humanitarian situation.  Recently, Ambassador Green announced an additional $87 million in life-saving aid for Yemenis, which brings to $854 million the amount of U.S. humanitarian assistance dedicated to Yemen since 2017.  Mercy Corps and other implementing partners know how important these funds will be to protect the Yemeni people.

Still, assistance alone cannot change the underlying drivers of this conflict. Congress has a significant voice and agency in both hastening a diplomatic resolution and ensuring that U.S. leadership can ameliorate the suffering of millions. It must act now before the worst humanitarian crisis in the world gets even worse.

Dafna H. Rand is vice president for policy and research at Mercy Corps and Jared Wright is policy advisor at Mercy Corps. 

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