Continued fighting could bring famine to Yemen, U.N. official warns

Aya, 2 years old, in Yemen's Hodeidah main hospital being checked for acute malnutrition. (Credit: WFP/Abeer Etefa)

A series of new reports show the devastating toll of Yemen’s civil war and the potential war crimes carried out by both sides. Taken together, they paint a grim picture for Yemen where the ongoing fighting is causing a hunger crisis and the people responsible for the attacks are not held responsible.

The continued violence puts the country on the brink of “fracturing beyond the point of no return,” according to a 63-page U.N. sanctions monitors’ report that was presented to the Security Council. The internal document, leaked to Reuters and the AP on Saturday, detailed attacks carried out by the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition.

“In eight of the 10 investigations, the panel found no evidence that the air strikes had targeted legitimate military objectives,” the experts said, according to Reuters. “For all 10 investigations, the panel considers it almost certain that the coalition did not meet international humanitarian law requirements of proportionality and precautions in attack.”

“The panel considers that some of the attacks may amount to war crimes.”

It came on the heels of public testimony delivered to the Security Council by U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien. He said that he is convinced that “there is no possibility of a military solution” to the ongoing crisis. And warned of the dire humanitarian impacts if a peaceful resolution is not realized.

“If there is no immediate action, famine is now a possible scenario for 2017,” he said.

A separate report by UNICEF estimated that 3.3 million people are suffering from acute malnutrition – 2.2 million are children. The problem is spreading across the country and affecting large population centers. More than three-quarters of children living in the capital city of Sana’a are chronically malnourished, according to UNICEF.

At least 63,000 children died from preventable causes over the course of the war. Malnutrition is the leading factor in those deaths, officials from the agency said. The number is certain to rise with at least 500,000 children acutely malnourished and no end in sight to the fighting.

“What worries us is the severe acute malnutrition because it is killing children,” Meritxell Relano, a UNICEF representative in Yemen, told Reuters. “Because of the crumbling health system, the conflict and economic crisis, we have gone back to 10 years ago. A decade has been lost in health gains.”

Relano described the same concerns in a news conference to launch UNICEF’s $3.3 billion global appeal for its work this year. The child mortality rate for children under 5 years old increased by one percentage point since 2014. The children humanitarian groups are unable to reach are at the greatest risk of dying from preventable circumstances.

A Yemen Pledging Conference in late March will provide the international community the opportunity to fulfill the roughly $2 billion Yemen response request. Even if the funding comes through, it is a weak lifeline for people caught in the middle of the war. At least 10,000 people have died in the conflict, according to the U.N.

Fatalities increased as international groups increased their involvement. Human rights groups and the U.N. condemned attacks that killed civilians throughout the past year. Human Rights Watch accused all sides of violating the laws of war in a year-end report.

“None of the forces in Yemen’s conflict seem to fear being held to account for violating the laws of war,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “U.N. members need to press the parties to end the slaughter and the suffering of civilians.”

The lack of accountability was the major takeaway by former U.K. International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell after visiting Yemen. He criticized the lack of independent investigations into alleged war crimes and violations. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International criticized the practice earlier this month.

“I completely understand why we have said in the first instance the Saudis should investigate these allegations,” Mitchell said at a hearing Wednesday, according to the Guardian. “But in the end if you stand back, such investigations are only likely to carry credibility if they are seen as independent. I don’t want to belittle the issue but it’s like marking your own homework. The wider community won’t believe a one-sided investigation by the people who are the alleged perpetrators and I think that has to be carefully borne in mind.”

The U.S. canceled an arms deal in December to the Saudis due to concerns about casualties in Yemen. However, the U.S. did not cut off all support for the coalition and its campaign in Yemen. The canceled deal was a small victory after a group of senators failed to block the sale of tanks to the Saudis in September.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.