2019 must belong to the children of Yemen

Published: January 30, 2019
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The writer is a barrister and human rights campaigner. She tweets @BenazirJatoi

The writer is a barrister and human rights campaigner. She tweets @BenazirJatoi

Children in Yemen are dying of starvation and malnutrition as I write. Some put the figure of dead children due to starvation at 85,000. This is a conservative estimate. According to the UN, one child is likely to die every 10 minutes in Yemen. The UN estimates that 400,000 children are starving, another 1.5 million are already malnourished and a further five million children are on the brink of famine. What is worse is that there is no permanent resolution to the fighting in sight, with the war having entered its fourth year. This means that it is very likely that the situation will get worse for Yemen’s children. This year must belong to those children — to find a solution, to end the war, to make sure children live into adulthood.

Children are dying in Yemen, one of the poorest of all Middle Eastern countries, not due to a natural tragedy, but because of a manmade civil war between a coalition led by powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, against Houthi rebels, who are said to be backed by Iran. Many analysts see this as Saudi Arabia at war with its arch-rival, Iran. A proxy war between the two regional powers, whose animosity with each other goes back decades. Saudi Arabia is carrying out this economic warfare in Yemen, with the express backing of the Yemeni government. Yemen is being attacked by air and sea, courtesy of Saudi Arabia, with the aim of destroying its economy and stifling every point of entry into the country. This includes the blockade of the major port on the Red Sea, which is the main route used for aid and humanitarian assistance into Yemen.

The obvious question is why has Saudi Arabia involved itself in a conflict that began as an internal Yemeni dispute? Saudi Arabia’s justifies its involvement in the conflict by saying Houthi rebels attacked them and they are responding to this aggression, while at the same time providing assistance to which they see as the legitimate government of Yemen. The Saudis have also said, and have been saying, that victory for them is around the corner. So far victory has been seen for neither the Saudis nor the Houthi rebels. The United States, Saudi Arabia’s longstanding allay, is the provider of most of the heavy machinery and weapons used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. America, however, has up until late last year said and done nothing about Saudi Arabia’s disproportionate response to Houthi rebels in its proxy war in Yemen. Whether it was Obama in power or now Trump, the Saudis have carried out their war in Yemen with impunity. And in that Saudi Arabia is literally getting away with murder. In fact, not just America’s but the world’s attention has been everywhere else but on Yemen. America and other Western countries have kept silent and allowed the Saudis to do as they please — damn the human rights violations and the dying children.

Why then has it taken so long for Western powers to talk about Yemen? Because to talk about Saudi Arabia and its royal family’s actions does not suit anyone’s interest. However, the recent brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has led to increased scrutiny on the foreign policy action of Saudi Arabia. Since Jamal Khashoggi’s death, Washington’s lawmakers have been keen to increase the pressure on Saudi Arabia and have begun talking about the need for a ceasefire in Yemen. They have also begun discussing the possible halting to arms sales to the Saudis. There has also been a shift in Western media reporting of the conflict — more of it, more focused, more critical of the Saudis. And of the Americans for their silence. This deserved increased media attention on Yemen has shown us the extent of the misery of Yemen’s children; the children’s sunken faces, bodies that look like x-rays, so pronounced are the rib cages and bones — it is as if the children’s facial expression are consumed with concentration on the arduous task of simply surviving.

However, even though the conflict has been in the limelight recently, with superpowers like America and regional powers like Saudi Arabia involved — not to mention the arms industry and its vast profits — the war in Yemen is much bigger than us. We are removed from it for far greater reasons then just geography. It is also difficult to see that countries, particularly Western countries, who profess to be beacons of human rights, will actually demand an end to the war or to go as far as hold Saudi Arabia accountable. With the veto power at the UN, it is difficult to see even the UN being able to hold powerful nations to account on this. I recently posed, to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) President at a lecture in Islamabad, the question of whether it is time to re-assess the role of UNGA if conflicts like Sudan, Palestine and Yemen carry on without any foreseeable resolution. Her Excellency Ms Garces’s answer included that despite a difficult situation, progress was being made in Yemen.

Progress then is certainly a relative word for onlookers and laypersons. For those of us not in positions of power or influence, for the sake of the children of Yemen, we must ask ourselves whether we really are too insignificant to say or do anything? People power, which has shown to be effective in many parts of the world, should demand the end of this horrific conflict. Everyone must have a way to register their protest and use social media as a collective, global voice to protest. People everywhere must speak truth to power and put pressure on their elected representatives that the war, even when far away from their shores and daily lives, must end, and end now. Nations, no matter how small, also have a moral consciousness and they must exercise it — in bilateral discussions and at larger multilateral forums. This year must be dedicated to the dying children of Yemen.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 30th, 2019.

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