Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, has been embroiled in a deadly conflict for over seven years. The war there has been described as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” with catastrophic consequences for its population as a result.
The war between the Houthi rebel movement backed by Iran and government loyalists supported by a Saudi-led coalition has seen the country besieged and relentlessly bombed. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict since 2015.
The coalition’s disruption of the imports of food, fuel, and medical supplies, as well as humanitarian aid, has subjected Yemeni civilians to inhuman living conditions, which in some instances resulted in cruel and degrading treatment.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has overseen the military campaign in Yemen, which has ramped up an ongoing standoff with Shiite archrival and Houthis supporter Iran.
A recent report by the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) said a naval blockade placed on the country by the Saudi-led coalition was significantly contributing to pushing Yemeni civilians into starvation and could be considered torture.
The OMCT report focuses on the economic blockade imposed by the coalition on Yemen since the beginning of the conflict, and its impact on the humanitarian crisis endured by the country’s civilian population.
According to the report, titled “Torture in Slow Motion,” the “economic blockade led by the Saudi coalition uses the threat of starvation as a bargaining tool and an instrument of war.”
The report says that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner the UAE could be held responsible under international law for the actions of the pro-government alliance.
In a country that imports 90 percent of what it consumes, any blockade for any period of time will have catastrophic results on its population. There are also restrictions placed on imports – especially fuel – that continue to have a disastrous effect on the lives of civilians.
In December 2020, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that of the 233,000 deaths caused during the conflict, approximately 131,000 were due to a scarcity of food and health services. Furthermore, the OCHA found, 20 million out of a population of some 30 million were in desperate need of humanitarian aid, 3.5 million people were acutely malnourished, and 161,000 were facing famine-like conditions.
In the eyes of many, the US provision of weapons and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition and a lack of American pressure on its ally Saudi Arabia has made Washington complicit in this horrific conflict.
During his campaign ahead of the 2020 presidential elections, then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden promised the relationship between the US and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be different.
The former vice president said in a debate on November 20, 2019, that he would not sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, stressing he would make the Saudis “pay the price” for the 2018 killing of Washington Post contributor and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
“I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them,” former vice president Biden said at the time. “We were going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
The Democratic candidate also said there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” and, in reference to Yemen, vowed to “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children.”
And when President Biden took office, his first major policy speech saw a departure from his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, a Republican, in regard to the Saudi involvement in Yemen.
“We’re also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, a war which has created a humanitarian, and a strategic catastrophe … and to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen including relevant arm sales,” he said.
But while the US administration may have ended arms sales to Riyadh for “offensive” purposes, it did not end arms sales for “defensive” purposes.
In August, the US approved more than five billion dollars in combined weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A State Department spokesperson specifically noted that “these missiles are used to defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s borders against persistent Houthi cross-border unmanned aerial system and ballistic missile attacks on civilian sites and critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.”
The oil-rich kingdom is a strategic ally of the US, and Washington would like a stable government to ensure the flow of energy from the country. Crown Prince Mohammed’s father, 86-year-old King Salman, is in frail health and has been hospitalized twice this year.
A US intelligence report released last year concluded that it was the de facto Saudi leader who approved the gruesome political murder of the dissident journalist.
“We base this assessment on the crown prince’s control of decision-making in the kingdom,” the report said, “the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Mohammed bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the crown prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”
Despite this intelligence assessment, the Biden Administration chose not to reprimand the crown prince over Khashoggi’s killing and has yet to make him accountable for the war in Yemen or exert pressure on him to end the conflict.
Last April, the warring sides in Yemen agreed to a UN-sponsored truce that lasted until early this month, providing a brief yet desperately needed respite in this devastating civil war.
The halt in hostilities led to a 60% drop in displacement and a 34% drop in child casualties, according to the Save the Children charity; an increase in the import of fuel and other essential items; and the cautious return of a general sense of security for the civilian population.
But now with the ceasefire over and both sides blaming the other for its breakdown, Yemen faces another round of violence – with the civilian population no doubt again bearing the highest cost.
In fact, the Yemen director for the Oxfam charity told Al Jazeera, “Millions will now be at risk if air strikes, ground shelling, and missile attacks resume.”