Of the many humanitarian crises and military conflicts in the world today, the deadly combination of both in Yemen stands out. The terrible war raging since 2015 has decimated the economy and left millions weakened from malnutrition and disease. Briefing the United Nations Security Council on November 11, the UN humanitarian relief coordinator stated that widespread starvation had left the population with little resistance to diseases. “Yemenis are not ‘going hungry’. They are being starved,“ he attested. “All of us-parties to the conflict, Security Council members, donors, humanitarian organizations and others- should do everything we can to stop this. Time is running out.” (https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/11/1077422)
Five years of conflict have left Yemen a dangerously fertile environment for the spread of many diseases, including the Covid-19. Roughly 80 percent of the population – 24 million men, women, and children – need humanitarian assistance due to disease, malnutrition, and repeated large-scale displacements forced by the fighting. Indiscriminate bombing and shelling have destroyed or damaged more than half the country’s health care facilities, further reducing already insufficient numbers of hospital beds, medicines, and life-saving equipment like respirators. The flood of ill patients is further collapsing an already overwhelmed medical sector. As a result, Yemen has few resources to combat the potential spread of the virus.
No effective Covid-19 response for the region is possible while Yemen’s war continues; instead, the war-fueled spread of the virus will be a calamity both for Yemen and its neighbors. It is not too late; however, a successful fight against continued military destruction and disease in Yemen will require coordinated action by the international community, support from Yemen’s neighbors, and sober moves by Yemen’s warring factions.
For five years, Yemen’s warring factions, supported by regional and global actors, have sought power no matter the fate of Yemen’s civilians. For all these parties whose years of fruitless fighting have devastated the country, the present moment offers an existential opportunity to embrace a peaceful transition to a stable and democratic Yemen. They must join the UN Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire, end the sale and accumulation of weapons, and fully support the peace process and humanitarian relief.
First, global powers should use their wide influence to endthethreat to international peace and security posed by the combination of continued war in Yemen and the pandemic. The UN Security Council , with the firm support of its permanent members should issue a resolution to demand an immediate ceasefire, comprehensive and inclusive UN-led peace talks, and a humanitarian surge.
The Security Council’s resolution must recognize how dependent Yemenis are on imports of food, fuel and medical supplies and demand the lifting of restrictions on commercial imports. In addition, effective Security Council action must recognize the need for an urgent increase of international funding. Blockades and other restrictions on Yemen’s medical and commercial imports must be lifted. Interference with humanitarian efforts by any actor cannot be justified; combating disease and starvation should take priority as Yemen faces down its ongoing health and food crisis and the threat of this pandemic.
To have the most immediate effect, a humanitarian surge should channel considerable support to Yemeni institutions, civil society organizations and fair-minded local leaders, including peace mediation councils. In the absence of effective state institutions, both are now on the front lines of the fight against disease. The private sector has risen to the occasion to locally produce masks and spread awareness of the pandemic, but they need assistance and the necessary medical supplies. There is dire need to encourage peaceful conflict mediation, for which Yemeni women in particular have played an important role. Responsible civil society voices should be used as a resource and their voices amplified in the digital spaces that will now be used for these discussions.
Regional powers also have an obligation to accelerate humanitarian relief and back peace negotiations, recognizing their share of responsibility for Yemenis’ current hardships. Provision of humanitarian action can mitigate the spread of the pandemic. Saudi Arabia’s cease fire provides a good example. The cease fire should be maintained and expanded to all parties and local armed groups. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have the greatest power to bring about peace by offering the carrots and sticks needed to push Yemeni parties to the UN’s negotiating table. Iran also must recognize its obligation to work for peace in Yemen.
No single party is fully responsible for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and no single party can end it. But EVERY single party has a moral duty to engage in finding a solution. All those involved must now recognize the urgency of the situation and take the actions available to each of them to end it.