New year begins with escalation in violence by both sides of the conflict worsening humanitarian crisis in the poorest Arab nation, writes Shaheen Nazar

The seven-year-old Yemen conflict between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi-led coalition – with active support of the Western powers, the United States, Britain and France to be precise – has taken a dangerous turn with aid agencies warning of deepening humanitarian crisis. Media reports quoting the UN World Food Programme (WFP) say that some 16.2 million Yemenis, or about 45 per cent of the total population, are food insecure. WFP has warned that more than five million people were on the brink of famine while 50,000 others were living in famine-like conditions.

Does this warning make any difference to the world powers? Apparently not. New year has dawned with the news of deaths and destructions following renewed offensives from both sides of the conflict. Missiles fired by the coalition claimed more than 70 lives in one go on January 20. The victims were inmates of a prison in Saada in northern Yemen, a region controlled by Houthi rebels.

Simultaneous air raids targeting another rebel position, a telecoms facility in Hodeidah killed three children and knocked out the internet crippling whole of Yemen and also cutting it off from the outside world for four days. The internet outage badly affected emergency operations in Hodeidah as well as Saada where rescuers scrabbled through the rubble for survivors even as hospitals were overwhelmed.

The coalition offensive was preceded, two days earlier, by drone attack carried out by Houthi rebels on three petroleum tankers in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Two Indians and a Pakistani national were killed and six others sustained injuries. This was the second attack on the country in January, after the rebels seized a UAE-flagged ship in the Red Sea off the Yemeni coast and took its crew, including seven Indians, hostage.

The UAE is part of the coalition fighting on the side of Yemen’s internationally recognised government. The country faced yet another attack from rebels on January 24. Two ballistic missiles fired by Houthis toward an airbase housing 2,000 US troops were intercepted by the UAE and US military personnel. Though no one was hurt in the attacks yet debris from the missiles landed near Abu Dhabi, according to a statement by the Emirati Defence Ministry.

In recent weeks, reports of attack and counter-attack from the warring sides have seen dramatic rise leaving common Yemenis in a hopeless situation. Today, Yemen faces one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. According to Save the Children, the escalation of the conflict resulted in a 60 per cent increase in civilian casualties in the last three months of 2021, with 2022 already poised to have wider consequences for civilians. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said in a recent report that in the first two weeks of 2022 alone, 3,468 people (578 families) were displaced. The figure does not include the displacements caused by the raids on rebel positions in the north Yemen on January 20. Internally displaced (IDP) Yemenis face a plethora of challenges and are more at risk of famine and preventable diseases, say aid agencies.

The UN has estimated the war in Yemen has killed 377,000 people by the end of 2021, both directly and indirectly through hunger and disease. Both sides of the conflict have been accused of committing countless war crimes and targeting civilians. Ironically, western powers are a party to the conflict in a country counted as one of the poorest in the world. Soon after Coalition raid on Saada claiming over 70 lives and wounding 138 others, according to a release by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement condemning the attack. It “reminds all parties that attacks directed against civilians and civilian infrastructure are prohibited by international humanitarian law,” he said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council also condemned the attack as “a blatant attack on civilian infrastructure that will also impact our aid delivery.”

Hans Grundberg, UN secretary-general’s envoy to Yemen, has called on both parties to the conflict to come to the negotiating table. “Seven years down the road of war, the prevailing belief of all warring sides seems to be that inflicting sufficient harm on the other will force them into submission. However, there is no sustainable long-term solution to be found on the battlefield,” Grundberg told Security Council on January 12. He said it appears that Yemen is “entering an escalatory cycle with predictable devastating implications for civilians and for the immediate prospects of peace”.

Another UN official has said that “the biggest constraint right now is funding” to help about 16 million people in Yemen. Estimating that the UN will need about $3.9 billion this year to help millions of people in the war-torn nation, a top humanitarian official, Ramesh Rajasingham, has called on the donors to “sustain – and if possible, to increase – their support this year.”

He reported to the Security Council’s January 12 meeting that funding has been decreasing in recent years, with last year’s response plan only funded at 58 per cent and with the WFP in December announcing cuts in its assistance budget for eight million people. “Other vital programmes, including water, protection and reproductive health services, have also been forced to scale back or close in recent weeks for lack of funds,” Rajasingham said.

This is high time the world community made renewed effort to stop the Yemen conflict which is already turned into a civil war. It may have catastrophic effect not only in Yemen but the entire Middle East region and beyond.

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