Why the West is no honest broker in the world's worst humanitarian crisis

The war in Yemen is a brutal proxy war in the Middle East with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Aid workers on the ground say the West hasn't done enough to try to end the crisis. Margaret Evans looks at why the U.S., U.K. and France have been so quiet.

The devastating war in Yemen hasn't been forgotten, an aid worker says, 'it's been ignored'

A girl stands behind a fence at a school where she and her family have taken refuge amid fighting between government forces and Houthi fighters in Hodeidah, Yemen. (Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters)

Clarion calls for action on the tragedy that is Yemen sound almost daily from the beleaguered but dedicated community of aid workers stationed on the front lines of what is widely acknowledged as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

And yet the conflict struggles to make itself heard or felt much beyond the troubled region within which it lives, tucked away at the southern end of the Red Sea and just across the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa.

"Often people say that this is a forgotten war," said Save the Children's Nadine Drummond, speaking via Skype from the Yemeni capital of Sanaa earlier this week. "No. This war hasn't been forgotten. It's been ignored."

The statistics are staggering:

  • 2/3 of the population dependent on aid.
  • Eight million people on the verge of starvation.
  • 400,000 severely malnourished children.
A boy walks through smoke as public health workers spray insecticide amid fears of a new cholera outbreak in the city of Sanaa. (Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters)

The conflict began in 2014, when the Houthis swept down from along Yemen's northern border with Saudi Arabia to capture Sanaa, ousting President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi from the capital with the help of forces loyal to his predecessor.

Saudi Arabia started bombing a year later in support of the ousted government, leading a 10-nation-strong coalition against the Houthis, who are Zaidi, a minority Shia sect.

The conflict has since developed into another of the Middle East's brutal proxy wars, with most Western governments backing the Saudi coalition, and Iran backing and supplying the Houthis.

Experts say much more pain and suffering is inevitable if Western governments don't act more decisively to force a ceasefire, especially with the battle for the city of Hodeidah imminent.

A man stands by a relative who was injured in clashes between government forces and Houthi fighters near Hodeidah earlier this month. (Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters)

Its seaport accounts for 69 per cent of Yemen's food imports and nearly 40 per cent of its fuel  — which is key to keeping water pumps moving and cholera at bay.

"The U.S. government, the U.K. government and the French government. Those are the countries that have the ability to influence what happens on the ground," said Drummond. "And so far they've either failed to act or have decided that it's not within their own benefit."

Western arms suppliers

Critics say that's because the Western trio are major arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia and other coalition members fighting the Houthi rebels that control much of Yemen's north, so they can't pretend to be honest brokers.

"Britain has a very close security and commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia," said British Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell from his office in London.

"They are a very close ally of ours. And of course Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country surrounded by enemies in the region, and it's therefore quite difficult for Britain to act as a candid friend and to tell them they need to be a promoter of peace rather than a supporter of the conflict there."

British MP Andrew Mitchell, left, tours a neighbourhood in the old quarter of Saada in January 2017. (Naif Rahma/Reuters)

Mitchell, a former international development minister, said one of the U.K.'s draft resolutions on Yemen was rejected at the UN "because it was so one-sided."

In April, the UN's special envoy on Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said a Saudi coalition offensive against Hodeidah would "take peace off the table."

But the UN Security Council has failed to agree on a ceasefire resolution, managing only to urge all sides to uphold their obligations under humanitarian law.

The United Arab Emirates has been leading coalition troops on the ground. Made up mainly of Yemeni fighters and mercenaries, the force advanced along the Red Sea coast from the south to capture Hodeidah's airport earlier this week.

Their plan is reportedly to take control of the port in the north by moving around the city inland without having to battle street to street through the centre, where Houthi fighters have been fortifying their positions.

A displaced man carries an aid kit distributed by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the war-torn Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. (Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters)

The Houthis reportedly rejected efforts by Griffiths to have them agree to some form of neutral management of the port.

Aid agencies are clearly expecting the worst. They have been pulling all but essential workers out of the city. Save the Children has left just 16 out of 206 staff members in the city.

They have also been frantically trying to send in extra supplies in case the port is shut down or cut off by fighting for months.

"We were actually able to distribute about three months worth of supplies to our partners and to the hospitals and medical centres that we support to try and cope with what we believe will be an impending disaster," Drummond said.

"That's all we could do," she said. "We [think] that about 30,000 people have left the city already."

Suggestions from the Emirates that the coalition's military push to control the city is partly motivated by humanitarian concern have been heavily criticized by non-governmental organizations.

"The so-called relief plan announced by the Arab coalition in Yemen must be seen for exactly what it is: a justification to launch an attack that will have catastrophic consequences," Amanda Catanzano of the International Rescue Committee said in a statement Tuesday.

Ceasefire 'the only way'

Andrew Mitchell says any thought among the Saudi-Emirati coalition that it can quickly take the port and successfully end the war is wrong-headed.

"They're not a large army, and taking a city in hostile conditions would be almost impossible," he said. "[The Houthis] will be very hard to shift indeed. A ceasefire negotiation is the only way."

A recent analysis by the International Crisis Group suggests both sides in the conflict have been consistently overconfident in their military prospects, almost always pressing for military advantage over diplomacy.

"The warring sides' patterns of behaviour are clear," says the report published last week. "The Houthis have a long track record of using negotiations to reposition militarily while the coalition regularly signals to diplomats that it is willing to discuss a political settlement before returning to a military path."

A look at a building destroyed by airstrikes in Sanaa earlier this month. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Drummond also points out the fighting in Yemen goes beyond Hodeidah. She's based in Sanaa, which is routinely bombarded by Saudi airstrikes, she says.

"You never know when the bombs are going to drop or where they're going to drop."

And she returns to the responsibility of the trio of Western governments that, as she sees it, are not trying hard enough to find a way out for civilians trapped in the middle of it all.

"I hope they are able to hug their children at night knowing they'll see them tomorrow morning. Because Yemenis have no such privilege."

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.