Without most Americans noticing, our country has become deeply complicit in a humanitarian catastrophe. In Yemen, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia is ruthlessly bombing civilian infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals and the bridges that bring food from seaports to the desert interior. Not only have thousands of Yemeni civilians died in these airstrikes, but millions have been pushed to the edge of famine.
On the one hand, American diplomats are working admirably to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table, and the United States is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to assist suffering Yemenis. But in parallel to this, the Saudis are bombing Yemeni targets with billions of dollars’ worth of American bombs, refueling their fighter jets from American tankers, and receiving American intelligence for their air raids.
Americans are demonstrating heightened levels of political engagement as we debate our future under a Trump presidency. It is high time for us to expend some of this energy to understand the ethical consequences of our country’s policy in Yemen, and to require that our elected officials — such as U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King — explain their support for the Saudi war knowing its consequences for civilians.
Around 10,000 Yemenis have perished in the fighting that began when Houthi rebels seized control of the country from its elected president in 2014. The Houthis, who have received some arms covertly from Iran, have been responsible for a significant proportion of civilians deaths. They have conducted artillery sieges of government-held cities, kidnapped and likely executed their political enemies, and disrupted delivery of humanitarian aid. International observers call the rebels brutal, incompetent and intolerant.
But a January report by the United Nations attributes at least 60 percent of civilian casualties to airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting the Houthi rebels to return to power the ousted president and counter Iranian influence. The report concluded that the airstrikes are either planned with total incompetence or deliberately target noncombatants. Many appear to be war crimes. Human Rights Watch and the Yemen-based Mwatama Organization for Human Rights have documented dozens of airstrikes on civilian objects with no discernable military target nearby, including multiple hits on weddings and other public gatherings. One strike “ double tapped” a crowded funeral hall, first bombing the mourners and then those who ran to help them, killing more than 100 civilians.
Human Rights Watch documented destruction of factories, food warehouses and power plants, which “raise[s] serious concerns that the Saudi led coalition has deliberately sought to inflict widespread damage to Yemen’s production capacity.” Amnesty International makes an even more serious accusation — that the coalition is deliberately targeting schools. Doctors Without Borders reports that four hospitals it supports were hit by coalition airstrikes, indicating a seemingly systematic move to deny emergency health care.
Yet, the deaths directly attributable to airstrikes show only a fraction of the suffering. Yemen is on the edge of a catastrophic famine, one of the largest in modern history. The general chaos of war has contributed much to this disaster, and the Houthi rebels have blocked movement of some aid convoys to cities they are sieging. But the blame is overwhelmingly with the Saudi-led coalition.
For more than a year, its forces have imposed a naval blockade on a country that imports 90 percent of its food and fuel. Its jets have pounded public infrastructure needed to move food in the country’s interior, including two strikes on a bridge to the capital Sanaa that the Obama administration allegedly warned the Saudis not to bomb for humanitarian reasons, and the crucially important al-Hudaydah port. After pressure from Western allies, the coalition lifted the strict blockade, but it still obstructs many humanitarian aid shipments. It is blocking a U.N. ship with new cranes for al-Hudaydah — to replace those the Saudis destroyed — that would dramatically increase the port’s capacity. Two cranes would work 24 hours a day unloading emergency food aid from the World Food Program.
Save the Children, a U.K.-based charity, has accused the Saudis of blocking three ships full of medicine needed to serve 300,000 urgently ill civilians. “These delays are killing children. Our teams are dealing with outbreaks of cholera, and children suffering from diarrhea, measles, malaria and malnutrition. With the right medicines these are all completely treatable — but the Saudi-led coalition is stopping them getting in. They are turning aid and commercial supplies into weapons of war.”
The top U.N. official for for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief sums up the consequences for Yemen: “Seven million people in Yemen do not know where they will find their next meal. They urgently need food assistance to survive. Almost 500,000 children under 5 years of age suffer severe acute malnutrition. A child dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes.” Experts estimate that just three to four months remain to prevent a famine that could claim millions of lives.
When the man-made famine is taken into account, these crimes could easily match and exceed those of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against his own people, which American authorities vigorously denounce. But at best our leaders have scolded the Saudis behind the scenes, without using the enormous leverage we have over them as the guarantors of their regional security. President Barack Obama belatedly reduced armed sales to Saudi Arabia when the carnage they were causing became too conspicuous, but President Donald Trump proposes to resume and expand them, based on the questionable characterization of the Houthi rebels as Iranian puppets.
Rex Tillerson told U.S. senators during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. secretary of state that that by providing the Saudis with more precision guided bombs and targeting intelligence, the U.S. could help them “ to avoid mistakenly identifying targets where civilians are hit.” This statement ignores the mounting evidence that the Saudi-led alliance is deliberately and systematically striking civilian targets.
And U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has floated the idea of direct U.S. assistance in a Saudi offensive to take the al-Hudaydah port, which the U.N. warns could disrupt food shipments enough to jump-start the famine. Reportedly, Trump believes that he can begin such an operation without consulting Congress by citing the Authorization for the Use of Force that Congress passed in 2001 to fight al-Qaida. It is worth remembering that for all their faults, the Houthis are bitter enemies of the terrorist group that document authorizes our armed forces to fight.
Mainers deeply value Collins’ and King’s thoughtfulness and willingness to take independent stands. Their extensive background in national security and foreign affairs position them to make a rational assessment of our country’s policy in Yemen. Is there truly a compelling national interest at stake that could justify abetting such horrible suffering? Will helping the Saudis reduce Yemen to chaotic ruins help us address what King has identified as our priority in the region — the defeat of al-Qaida and the Islamic State?
Where are their voices in the Senate? In 2016, their colleagues Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Rand Paul of Kentucky proposed curtailing arms sales to the Saudis, but they voted against the measure. Another debate in the Senate is likely in the near future as the U.S. prepares a major new sale of precision guided munitions — smart bombs — to Saudi Arabia. Considering the serious allegations against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, will they support providing the Saudis with such powerful weapons, the likes of which have already killed so many Yemeni civilians?
Even more importantly, will Collins and King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin let the president embroil us directly in this destructive war without congressional debate? A bipartisan letter to the president and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been drafted by lawmakers to counter this move. Will the Maine delegation sign it?
Four months remain until famine begins
Brian Milakovsky is from Somerville. He works for a humanitarian organization in eastern Ukraine.