Editor’s Note: David Miliband is president of the International Rescue Committee. He is a former British Member of Parliament and a former British foreign secretary. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
There is no shortage of issues facing global leaders convening this week at the UN General Assembly.
But no global hotspot is currently hotter than Yemen. With 22 million in need of humanitarian aid, 10 million facing starvation by the end of the year, and half of the population without access to water, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
After spending the past week in the Houthi-controlled north and in Aden, which is under the control of forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, it is clear to me that there are no winners in the war – with the possible exception of ISIS and al Qaeda, who manage to gain a foothold wherever there is chaos.
But it is also clear that the military strategy of the Saudi-led coalition is not winning the war. As Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution points out, Saudi Arabia’s mortal enemy Iran is in a stronger position in Yemen today than four years ago.
Four years of bombing raids have not shifted the front lines in a meaningful way. The prospect of urban warfare to retake the port city of Hodeidah is too awful to contemplate – and Hodeidah was meant to be the easier part of the drive against the Houthis.
National and regional rivalries may drive this conflict, but it is ordinary civilians who suffer the brunt of its consequences. I watched frightened children treated at an International Rescue Committee-supported health clinic in the capital, Sana’a.
The tape used to measure the circumference of their upper arms confirms the scourge of severe acute malnutrition – the estimated number of those suffering from this having more than tripled since this war began in 2014.
It is a measure of their misery and the human cost of a country on the edge of catastrophe. Now, with fighting around the city of Hodeidah as the coalition seeks to retake the port and city, the worst may be yet to come for the people I met.
Yemen’s morass is complex, but not insoluble. This man-made crisis has a man-made solution. Three elements are vital to provide a fresh start for Yemen and its people.
First, the UN Security Council should call for an immediate ceasefire. It is not just that UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has said that an assault on Hodeidah would cut off the political process at the knees.
A ceasefire is a way to create a breathing space for urgent humanitarian efforts to save lives. There is a special responsibility on western powers like the US, UK and France. They supported the 2015 UN Security Council resolution that launched the war strategy. But it has not worked because it did not offer the prospect of a balanced political solution.
Second, the people of Yemen cannot wait for a political solution to receive life-saving humanitarian aid and support for their collapsing economy.
All of Yemen’s ports must be kept open, including Hodeidah, which is responsible for around 80% of Yemen’s imports, and Sana’a airport, which allows for the commercial traffic.
This will lessen the chokehold on a collapsing Yemeni economy.
To halt further economic collapse, salaries must be paid to the 1.2 million civil servants that are providing life-saving assistance across the country. I met a representative of the labor unions in Sana’a who told me that teachers were not able to feed their own families.
Third, the rules of war must be reasserted. Air strikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition – frequently using US armaments recently re-authorized by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – have caused 75% of the civilian casualties in the war, according to estimates by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, including the dozens of children killed in a strike on a school bus last month.
The coalition’s investigations of civilian casualties are woefully insufficient, while Houthi investigations are non-existent. To increase pressure on the two sides, all members of the Security Council must condemn all violations of international law and lead efforts in the Security Council to establish empowered, independent and impartial investigation mechanisms.
It is time for the US to block arms sales for external aggression and insist on credible steps for civilian protection, humanitarian access and a viable political settlement.
Yemen’s conflict is a fragmented and in some places confused morass of feuding parties. But all over, it is a country where the needs of the people are coming second.
They are being lost in the fog of war. Now is the time for some clarity from the countries that signed the UN Charter, and turn up every year in New York to pray in aid of its noblest ambitions. It is well past time to live up to them.