The war in Yemen has resulted in what United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres describes as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” It may also rank among the least reported global conflicts, with one-third of Americans unaware a war in Yemen is even taking place. There is strong reason to believe the United States is complicit in creating a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen’s main port city has led to a severe famine in the country, with millions of Yemenis at risk of starvation. New estimates indicate that up to 85,000 children have already starved to death or died of related diseases since fighting erupted. Several cholera outbreaks in the country have similarly been linked to deliberate attacks on agricultural and water infrastructure by Saudi-led forces. When a bus full of children was bombed in an airstrike in August, the bomb used was supplied by the United States. In the past decade, the United States has sold $89 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia.
In February of this year, Senate Joint Resolution 54 was proposed to cease American military support to the Saudi-led coalition by invoking the War Powers Resolution. However, the Senate motioned to table the resolution with a vote of 55-44 and it was essentially dead in the water. Unfortunately, Rhode Island’s senators failed to check the Trump administration’s continued support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen. Ten Democrats joined Republican senators in voting against the resolution, including Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Jack Reed, D-R.I. In the future, Whitehouse and Reed must use their power to curb the United States’ involvement in ongoing humanitarian crises before they grow astronomically worse.
Since 2015, the United States has backed the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen materially in the form of weapons, intelligence and midair refueling of Saudi planes. While the Pentagon has claimed that its support for the Saudi campaign is limited to those means, the New York Times reported in May that the United States Army deployed its special forces on the Saudi border with Yemen.
Yemen was already one of the poorest countries in the region before the war began. In 2014, Houthi rebels, mostly Shia and opposed to Yemen’s ruling regime, seized control of land in northern Yemen and the country’s capital, Sanaa. In a purported effort to restore Yemen’s government, Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against the rebels in 2015. Exacerbated by the conflict, conditions are harrowing for the millions of Yemenis facing cholera outbreaks, coalition airstrikes on civilian targets and potential famines.
Whitehouse rationalized his March vote against Senate Joint Resolution 54 by saying, “I don’t see how precipitous withdrawal of the limited support the U.S. military provides would make things better in achieving our humanitarian or strategic aims.”
Since March, conditions in Yemen have become more untenable. International outrage over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government may have been the impetus for Reed to introduce the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2018 along with other senators. He describes the bill as “comprehensive legislation to ensure effective Congressional oversight of U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia and Yemen and demand meaningful accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Thankfully, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, reintroduced Senate Joint Resolution 54 for a vote yesterday, and both Whitehouse and Reed voted in favor of the resolution this time around. The Senate overall voted 63-37 to advance the legislation, moving it one step closer to passage. But, going forward, Rhode Island’s representatives in Congress must do more, and act much earlier, to prevent American military involvement in humanitarian crises. Months after Senate Joint Resolution 54 was first tabled, the civilian death toll in the port city of Hodeidah — which has been the target of concerted coalition attacks in recent months — grew by 164 percent, compared to the first five months of 2018.
We can’t wait as the United States abets horrific acts. We can’t wait as innocent civilians perish in intolerable conditions. By failing to demand justice, we continue to muddy the ethical line in the sand in the already turbid proverbial waters of the Middle East.
Jose Flores ’18 MD ’22 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.