Yemen’s Death Sentence

Photograph Source: Felton Davis – CC BY 2.0

“Disappointing” was how UN Secretary-General António Guterres described last week’s donor conference for Yemen.  The fifth UN Virtual High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Situation in Yemen resulted in pledges of only $1.7 billion.  That’s just half of the $3.85 billion called for by the secretary-general.  Nor is there any guarantee that donors will make good on their commitments.

How things have changed from just three years ago.  There were $2.01 billion in pledges in 2018, “100 per cent of which were fulfilled,” according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  Pledges the following year rose to $2.6 billion.

Then came 2020.  That year’s pledges of $1.35 billion fell a billion dollars short of the UN goal of $3.4 billion.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates head a coalition that has been at war with Yemen’s Houthi rebels (Ansar Allah) since 2015.  The US criminally assists the coalition with intelligence, targeting assistance, spare airplane parts, arms sales, and (until November 2018) in-flight refueling for coalition warplanes.  The US-supported coalition seeks to restore the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was ousted by the Houthis in 2015.  Saudi and UAE airstrikes have killed some 20,000 Yemeni civilians since 2015.  Using starvation as a weapon, the coalition deliberately targets water treatment plants and food production facilities—a war crime.  Half of Yemen’s hospitals and medical clinics have been destroyed or forced to close.  Many health care workers go without pay.  The coalition bombs cranes used in Yemeni ports, making it impossible to unload desperately needed food, medicine, and fuel.  A coalition naval blockade prevents ships traveling to Yemen from docking for periods up to 100 days.  This delays urgently needed commercial and humanitarian shipments of food, fuel, and medicine from reaching Yemen’s people.

Bombing and blockade have combined to push Yemen to the brink of famine.  CNN senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman that food in Yemen has become unaffordable. Elbagir described seeing markets “full of food” being sold by “almost skeletal” vendors.  “The food was rotting,” Elbagir said, “because no one can afford to buy it.”

“Cutting aid is a death sentence”

It is a cruel irony that the US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which are destroying Yemen, are the same countries that Yemen most relies on for humanitarian aid.  Over the past two years, the Saudis, UAE, and US have all slashed aid to Yemen.

Following a $1 billion pledge in 2019, Saudi Arabia pledged only $500 million in 2020.  As of February 25, 2021, the Saudis had paid just $200 million.  This year, the Saudis pledged $430 million.  We’ll see how much of that the kingdom actually ponies up.

In 2019, the US provided $746 million, one fifth of all humanitarian aid going to Yemen.  Then in March, 2020, the Trump Administration slashed $73 million in aid for the Houthi-controlled north.  At this year’s donor conference on March 1, the US pledged a mere $191 million.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said afterwards that “cutting aid is a death sentence.”  Even before the war, Yemen was the poorest country in the Arab world.  Today, 80% of Yemenis, some 24 million people, relies on aid.  Two point three million Yemeni children suffer from acute malnutrition.  Food rations have been reduced by half for millions of Yemenis.  The $3.85 billion Guterres called for this year would feed 13-14 million Yemenis each month. Covid-19’s advent has only added to Yemenis’ suffering.

The reason the US, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and other donors give for slashing aid is Houthi obstruction of aid deliveries.  However, it’s hard not to think that Iran’s support for the Houthis is also a factor.  As the Trump Administration was heading out the door in January, it took time to designate the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (“FTO”).  The move alarmed aid organizations.  The FTO designation meant that anyone dealing with the Houthis, as aid organizations cannot avoid doing, would be subject to sanctions and criminal prosecution.

President Joe Biden lifted the FTO designation, but has not restored the Trump cuts to humanitarian aid for Yemen’s north.  The $191 million the US pledged last week does not include the $73 million in aid for the north the Trump Administration cut last March.

Several things need to happen immediately.  President Biden must follow through on his promises to end US support for coalition “offensive operations” and to “reassess” the US-Saudi relationship.  The near-unconditional support the US gives Saudi Arabia must end.  The Trump aid cuts must be restored and enough additional aid provided so that Yemen can avoid famine.

Dr. Aisha Jumaan, president and founder of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, which provides humanitarian aid, says that “The Biden Administration has been given a rare chance to right past wrongs.  The Obama Administration, with Biden as vice president, supported the Saudi-led war on Yemen that created the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.  We must act now to save lives.”

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at