Europe must step up to end suffering in #Yemen

| November 19, 2018

The European Commission recently agreed to provide an additional €90 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen. The beleaguered Arab country is enduring a civil war between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition, the world’s severest hunger crisis, and a cholera outbreak that has infected more than a million people.

The aid, while desperately needed, will only alleviate Yemen’s suffering temporarily. Snowballing events in the past month have underlined how imperative it is that the international community push for an end to the fighting. Given Trump’s erratic foreign policy and the likelihood that Russia would manipulate the crisis to achieve its own ends, it falls to Europe to assume a leadership role in pushing for a resolution to the bloody combat. Intervening to stop Yemen from spiralling further into tragedy is Europe’s moral obligation—but it also offers the bloc a chance to further its “ever closer union” by cooperating on a common foreign policy.

Years of upheaval

The crisis in Yemen has been steadily escalating for months, but a particularly painful flashpoint came in August, when an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition hit a Yemeni school bus, killing 51 people, including 40 children. The strike, carried out with an American-manufactured bomb, certainly moved the needle of public opinion, but was far from an isolated incident. In June alone, the coalition carried out 258 airstrikes in their attempt to bomb the Houthi into submission. According to the UN, 16,000 civilians have died in Yemen’s civil war, the majority of them from airstrikes.

Arguably even more devastating has been the famine of catastrophic proportions. The coalition has imposed strategic blockades and import restrictions, whilst the airstrikes have disrupted supply lines of food, potable water and medicine, meaning that 8 million Yemenis currently depend on emergency food aid to survive. The economic collapse has seen Yemen’s currency lose half its value in the last year, causing prices of food and other necessities to skyrocket.

Mounting criticism

Yet recent events have catapulted the crisis to global attention. Though Saudi’s future leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hasn’t kept his authoritarian bent terribly well hidden—the detention of prominent critics in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton comes to mind—the murder of dissident journalist Khashoggi in Istanbul indicated that bin Salman has abandoned any pretence of running a modern, democratic society. Instead, it sharply increased pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its blockade of Qatar and its involvement in Yemen.

To compound the furore, the New York Times published a gripping photograph of 7-year-old Yemeni girl Amal Hussein, just days before she died of malnutrition. Like the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015, the tragic picture put a human face to the Yemen turmoil, prompting an emotional global response and widespread calls for a solution.

With fighting continuing to erupt and blocking crucial relief supplies, calls on the international community to find a ceasefire have multiplied, such as one petition appealing to the British government to  immediately halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saying that “this is our war, our arms and our responsibility”.

Lacklustre response from the international community

Although Theresa May’s administration has shown no sign of heeding this demand, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has at least backed a UN Security Council resolution to ensure that “a ceasefire, when it comes, is fully implemented.” The EU had already called for an arms embargo on Riyadh to break the deadlock.

A week ago, U.S. President Donald Trump even offered up rare criticism of Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen, though critics suggested that he callously missed the point by focusing on an assertion that the Saudis didn’t understand how to use American-made weapons properly. Trump’s intervention, no matter how qualified, raised hopes that the U.S. could leverage its relationship with Saudi Arabia to mark a ‘turning point’ in the Yemeni conflict—hopes which were only stoked further by the U.S. administration’s decision to stop providing airborne-refuelling support to Riyadh.

Analysts, however, quickly cautioned that compared to the myriad other ways in which Washington continues to support the Saudis militarily, this decision amounts to a slap on the wrist, and that it is highly unlikely that Trump would ever countenance a full-scale denunciation of his Saudi allies.

Europe’s chance to step up to the plate

It therefore falls to Europe, the next largest supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia, to step up to the mark. Countries across the bloc have already taken steps in the right direction: Sweden has offered to host peace talks between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has blocked further arms sales to Saudi Arabia and France’s Defence Minister Florence Parly has insisted the country is exerting ‘relentless pressure’ through the UN  for a political settlement.

Analysts worry that this talk will not lead to firm action. As one commentator put it recently, the EU excels at “deploring” atrocities but has historically been less successful at stamping them out. Given Brussels’ history of inaction and its own deep-rooted ties to Saudi Arabia—the EU is the kingdom’s largest trading partner— it’s easy to understand the cynicism.

The crisis in Yemen, however, could be a chance for the European bloc to prove naysayers wrong by adopting a common position. In his State of the Union speech in September 2018, Jean-Claude Juncker declared that “the geopolitical situation makes this Europe’s hour…Europe has to become a more sovereign actor in international relations”. The European Council on Foreign Relations concurred, arguing that Europe can only defeat the spectre of nationalism by defending a common set of strategic interests on the world stage. Fighting for peace and the respect of fundamental rights in Yemen is precisely the sort of cause a “global Europe” should be championing.

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Category: A Frontpage, Politics