Bombs, Starvation and War: The Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen
October 21, 2016

“Do you have to be killed in an airstrike to count?”

This is the despairing lament of a Yemeni doctor after seeing yet another child die from starvation, shown in the BBC film “Starving Yemen”. The powerful documentary was screened at a well-attended side event co-sponsored by Control Arms, the BBC, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, and Saferworld, and chaired by BBC producer Nada Tawfik.

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Reporter and film director Nawal Al Maghafi introduced her documentary, which depicts the starvation facing many children, in a country where millions have been displaced and 84% of the population is now dependent on aid, an unprecedented proportion in any ongoing humanitarian crisis. She discussed the context where since the beginning of the civil war between the Houthi rebel group and the Saudi-led coalition in March 2015, air strikes have targeted schools, hospitals, mosques, markets, warehouses, and most recently, funerals. 600 hospitals have been forced to close, and there has been a further deterioration of the economic situation in an already-impoverished nation.

A panel discussion after the film covered the extent of this civilian suffering, the human rights and humanitarian law violations committed by all parties to the conflict, and the role of weapons in fueling this. Paola Emerson from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) explained that humanitarian aid from the UN aims to reach 15 million people, but its delivery has been made difficult by the ongoing aerial blockade, as well as an ongoing fuel shortage. Malnutrition and limited access to health facilities and medication has left one million children facing starvation.

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Noah Gottschalk from Oxfam explained that the international community has enabled the violence in Yemen, both through action and inaction, and called on UN member states to immediately stop arms transfers to all parties in the conflict, as well as working towards an urgent political solution.

Priyanka Motaparthy from Human Rights Watch discussed how HRW has documented the use of internationally banned landmines and cluster munitions by both sides to the conflict. The high likelihood of many unexploded munitions remaining on the ground now poses ongoing risks, especially to children.

The frequent use of explosive weapons in populated areas, particularly by the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes, have been devastating to communities.

Robert Perkins of Control Arms criticized the “business as usual” attitude that many ATT states parties have adopted as they continue to supply arms to the Saudi-led coalition, in spite of the humanitarian crisis and ongoing human rights violations. While some states, such as the Netherlands, Spain, and Belgium have scaled back their exports, others, in particular France, the US, and UK, have continued to supply arms to Saudi Arabia and its allies. Some of these breaches have led to legal action in court, including in the UK which, according to a legal analysis by eminent international law experts commissioned by Control Arms UK members Amnesty International and Saferworld, has been in violation of national and international exporting regulations, including articles 6 and 7 of the ATT.

An engaging discussion followed the panel presentations, the first question being the one on everyone’s minds after the screening of “Starving Yemen”: “What more can be done?” The panel called for a better monitoring system on the ground and for violations of international instruments, such as the Arms Trade Treaty, to be thoroughly documented in order to push governments to review their arms transfer decisions. Questions were also raised about a new UN Security Council resolution on humanitarian access. The main point raised by the panel was the lack of access due to the air blockade, noting that a number of ports are out of capacity, as well as the war economy.