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Press Release

The Conflict in Yemen: Time for a New Approach

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a public event on the challenges that the humanitarian situation in Yemen presents to the world. The keynote address from President and CEO of the IRC David Miliband is below.

I am grateful to CSIS for hosting this event to shine some light on the crisis in Yemen. I speak from the perspective of a humanitarian organization with 430 staff, mainly Yemenis, on the ground in the country, providing desperately needed health care, nutrition, protection and some cash support to Yemenis in nine locations, covering the north and the south of the country. Over the past 3 years, we treated 1.4 million patients and have given more than 50,000 people access to clean drinking water.

Often described as a tragedy, the conflict is in fact more notable for its crimes. The conflict is emblematic of some of the darkest aspects of modern warfare:

  • The parties to the conflict spurn the laws of war. According to the Yemen Data Project, at least 4,500 airstrikes have hit gas, electric, transportation and other essential infrastructures, including 68 strikes on health clinics and hospitals and 342 on educational buildings.
  • It is a conflict in which parties and battle lines are fragmenting, realigning and radicalizing at an alarming rate, with the danger that the country does the same thing. Peter Salisbury, who is on our panel today, has identified five separate conflicts occurring simultaneously in Yemen. ISIS alone reportedly has 7 separate sub groups operating in Yemen.
  • It is a conflict in which the handwringing of the UN Security Council, and others, is at best ignored and at worst a cover for further inhumanity. 22.2 million people – 79% of the entire population, including nearly every child in the country – are in need of humanitarian assistance.
  • The conflicts now affecting the country run from local to regional to global.
  • The flow of arms, and the war economy, are themselves fueling the fighting, with the most vulnerable dragooned into service as child soldiers.
  • The dominant military power, the Saudi-led coalition, has been promising for a long time to “finish off” what it sees as a ragtag army of opponents, but has in the process boxed itself off from a political settlement that is ever more necessary.
  • And the war is sufficiently complex and far away to be off the radar of most governments, politicians and media.

There is one other thing we know about modern wars: they are more numerous and more long lasting than their predecessors. Approximately 20 intrastate conflicts have been in progress at any given moment since 1989, roughly 10 times the global average between 1816 and 1989. Moreover, intrastate conflicts today are lasting three times longer than they did in the first half of the 20th century.

As David Armitage points out in his book Civil Wars, “These conflicts are also much more prone to recur than any others, as 'the most likely legacy of a civil war is further civil war;' indeed, almost every civil war in the last decade was the resumption of an earlier one."

This tells me that Yemen is more likely to be the Afghanistan of the 21st century – seemingly endless war – than the Lebanon of the 21st century, with its fragile peace.

You have an outstanding panel of experts here to discuss what is happening and what should be done. Before they start their discussion, which I look forward to hearing, there are three points I have a duty to get across:

  • First to convey to you how hellish the humanitarian situation really is: my staff and the people we serve deserve their story to be told in the corridors of power; but I hope also to convey a sense of how humanitarian need is driving division and radicalization in the country. 
  • Second, to venture beyond my humanitarian perspective and suggest that in Yemen, we are not in a situation where strategic ends can be used to justify inhuman means. The conduct of the war, far from advancing a clear regional strategy, is hindering chances of strategic success.
  • And third suggest some steps that could at least arrest the descent of Yemen into hell and give its benighted people the chance of a future.

Each point yields a question. The first is whether humanitarian relief needs to wait for a political settlement, or whether humanitarian relief is a precursor to such a settlement. You can hear the case that alleviation of suffering is a “prize” for concessions. But this misunderstands civil war dynamics, where rebel groups are using and abusing civilians while claiming to speak for them. And it mistreats civilians, who should not be pawns. My view is the second, the relief needs to come now, but you all need to choose.

As we meet the conflict continues unabated. Since President Trump called for an end to the suffering in December last year, the coalition of which his Administration is part has conducted more than 1,000 airstrikes – one strike every 100 minutes. 80,000 people have been displaced between December 2017 and mid-March 2018 following increased fighting in Taizz and Hodeidah governorates. This is on top of the over 2 million displaced already.

The figures tell a harrowing story:

  • The health system has been decimated and more than 68% of the population lack access to basic health care. The absence of health infrastructure has helped to produce the largest cholera outbreak in modern history: 1 million suspected cases.
  • Every ten minutes a child under five dies from preventable disease. The number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition has tripled since the war began. And more than 520,000 pregnant women have no access to reproductive health services.
  • Major international medical suppliers have refused to make direct deliveries to Yemen following the Nov 2017 blockage. The average cost of a container of medical supplies has increased by 280%.
  • The ability for commercial imports to enter the country hit an all-time low in February. Food imports dropped to just 51% of national requirements. Where food is available, it’s much more expensive. 58% higher than pre-conflict and even worse in northern governorates.
  • Fuel imports have dropped in half since the blockade began and now meet just 1/5 of national requirements. This has made trucking costs for essential goods like water much higher. For IRC, this means that instead of $50 000 of aid covering 90 days of transport, it now covers 20 days.
  • Every day our staff navigate a byzantine set of inspections and impediments to assist communities in need. To travel between Aden and Sana’a—a distance of 300 miles—we need to pass through more than 70 checkpoints. That’s an average of one checkpoint every 4.3 miles. It takes my teams 3 – 6 weeks of planning and permitting to get one truck on the road from Aden to Sana’a.
  • The goods that do get in are subjected to infuriating and unnecessary delays. There is a duplication of SLC and UNVIM inspection mechanisms. Ships are waiting an average of 36 days for clearance, including 10 days after they’ve received clearance from UNVIM. Furthermore, the SLC issues clearance for humanitarian flights only hours before departure with high incidents of sudden cancellations. This is a key part of the reason why major international medical suppliers now no longer undertake deliveries directly to Yemen and why we’ve seen three straight months with zero containerized cargo imports, rending the cranes useless.

The humanitarian disaster is not an accident. People talk about “access” problems as if the problem is people who are hard to reach. No. The problem is that they are made hard to reach. The problem is strangulation not access.

The people on the ground know it. They know about bombing raids. And they know who conducts them. And that is an important reason why the Saudi-led coalition isn’t making political or diplomatic headway in this conflict. With every strike, they weaken support for their actions rather than build it.

This leads to the second point, and the second question: how to arrest the strategic quagmire that the war represents?

It is evident that Iran’s influence has grown. Here is Bruce Reidel, formerly of the CIA, now of Brookings: “The only clear winner is Iran… When the war began in Yemen, Iran had limited connections to the Houthis, it urged caution on the rebels but was ignored. Now it has a robust relationship. Iran has every reason to perpetuate a conflict that costs its rival Saudi Arabia some $5bn per month and costs Iran a pittance.” In addition, Iranian assistance to the Houthis is nearly invisible and often deniable, while the consequences of the bombing raids are all too apparent.

In contrast, the reputation of the SLC has declined since the expansion of the blockade five months ago. There is a public relations disaster because there is a humanitarian disaster and it is creating a strategic disaster.

It is completely legitimate for Saudi Arabia to be worried about missiles directed a Riyadh, like those that were launched last week. But that does not absolve the coalition of the need to think strategically. In fact like every powerful country facing an asymmetric threat – like the Egyptians in Yemen in the 1960s, like the Soviets and the US in Afghanistan – it needs to think about how to avoid its overpowering military capacity becoming the enemy of strategic engagement. What Richard Holbrooke called the “militarization of diplomacy” is a snare not an answer.

What our teams see is that on the ground no one is gaining meaningful ground. The concept of a central, stable state is becoming more of a distant memory of the past rather than a realistic prospect for the future. Separatists in the south are being emboldened by regional forces and allies. War is creating conditions for extremists such as AQAP and ISIS to surge.

Members of the Saudi-led coalition talk of the importance of ensuring that the Houthis do not turn into a Hezbollah in the Arabian Peninsula—an Iranian-backed state-within-a-state that is a permanent threat to their interests. But a Lebanon-like outcome would be on the optimistic end of where things in Yemen are heading. Widespread suffering and turmoil is not only fostering warlordism and extremism, but it is destroying the fabric of any potential Yemeni state to arise. Saudi Arabia and its allies have legitimate interests regarding Yemen, but they threaten to undermine those interests by using tactics that push further out real solutions.

This leads to the third point and the third question: if you accept my description of current trends, how are they to be reversed?

From where our teams sit, improvements in the humanitarian situation are the starting point for progress. We see three components to this.

First, there need to be a permanent opening of all ports, including Hodeidah and Saleef, to humanitarian and commercial traffic. The 30 day humanitarian renewal policy imposed by the SLC creates too much uncertainty to improve humanitarian situation. No time limits would allow organizations like mine to have predictability in our supply chain efforts. The commercial trade of food, fuel, and medicine is also critical to ensure that the Yemeni people are able to meet their daily requirements. The SLC and UN need to work together to streamline clearance process for commercial vessels. One process for verification should be sufficient. And they need to open Sana’a airport to commercial and humanitarian flights.

Second, there is desperate need to pay public-sector salaries to address collapse of state services. Humanitarians cannot replace a functioning state or economy. Saudi Arabia is paying the Yemeni army, and it should pay the doctors, nurses, and sanitation workers, too.

Third, the appointment of Special Envoy Martin Griffiths is an opening. Just last week he was in Yemen and is already going to great lengths to convene a Yemeni-driven process, where all sides are engaged. He needs full UNSC support, starting with the US, UK and France in order to help create pauses of fighting and provide a comprehensive framework for negotiations that is more inclusive – bringing in southern voices, community groups, and women’s groups.

But a reversal of current trends will need more. As the outgoing Special Envoy said in his valedictory report to the Security Council, zero-sum politics in which concessions are seen as weakness and aggression as strength have taken the country to destruction – figurative and in some ways literal.

Last week Defense Secretary Mattis called for a political settlement. But that will remain just words if it is dependent on a military victory coming first. The old rule is that rebel groups win just by not losing. And it is well past time to recognize that.

The Security Council Presidential Statement of March 15 this year was a significant step forward from Resolution 2216 from three years ago. It is more balanced, more forward-looking, and more people-centered. I think that is the path to serving UN member states’ interests in Yemen. A new UN Security Council Resolution that takes a similar approach could help lead us out of dead ends we have found ourselves in. It could set out new parameters for finding common ground and for meeting a wide range of needs in Yemen—and by that I mean people and states alike. What we know is that more of the same is a recipe for humanitarian as well as political disaster. Not only are thousands of people dying, but the country is changing in ways that will sap the security and prosperity of its neighbors for many, many years to come.

Yemen’s crisis has deep roots. The country has been on its knees before, and before the current war it had more than its share of problems. But there are alternatives to the current dynamics. We owe it to the Yemeni people, and to ourselves, to pursue them vigorously. After all, the darkest aspect of modern warfare is the absence of diplomacy, and at least it is in our hands.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 28 offices across the U.S. helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.