by Lea Schiller
The civil war in Yemen began five years ago in 2015, when Shiite rebels named Houthi took control of its capital city Sana’a after negotiations with the government failed. In March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and support by the United States launched air strikes against the insurgents. Since then, numerous attempts at installing peace – including peace talks facilitated by the UN – failed, and regional powers such as the Gulf states and Iran continuously intervene in the conflict.
Meanwhile, the toll on Yemen’s population has been enormous. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “four out of every five people” need lifesaving aid, which makes the number of Yemeni people dependent on relief efforts 24 million in total. More than eight million directly rely on UNICEF for water, and their operations in Yemen are so short of money that some are at risk of being shut down, which would leave millions without soap and water. Additionally, the war has displaced millions from their homes, many of them fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Djibouti.
And not only do precarious sanitary conditions and floods increase the risk of older diseases like malaria, dengue fever and cholera, but COVID-19 now poses an even bigger threat to the population of Yemen. Since the country recorded its first case on April 10th, the number has risen into the thousands. But considering the low testing rates and the disorganised situation in the country, the real numbers are likely to be much higher – and according to Guterres, it is likely that community transmission has already begun in Yemen. Mortality rates are among the highest in the world, which is not surprising given that trying to improve the country’s health services (such as hospital’s supplies of electricity and oxygen) is difficult when half the population does not have access to clean water.
What Yemen lacks is about 2 and a half billion US dollars in aid. The EU has given almost 500 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen, mostly focused on food, healthcare and hygiene measures. Nevertheless, Yemen is still in dire need of lifesaving aid, and according to UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock, gathering the money necessary to deliver aid is the biggest problem. But what Yemen needs most is peace. In October 2018, after the death of Saudi-Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the European Parliament called on its member states to stop weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Germany responded with suspending all its arms exports to Saudi Arabia, but after pressure coming from the United Kingdom and France, where companies depend on German-made components to build their arms, the decision was revoked.
In the EU, the Common Position on arms export controls defines the criteria by which potential export licenses must be judged – including respect for human rights. But although it is legally binding, there is no mechanism to enforce it, and since defence policy lies with the member states’ sovereignty, it is often ignored in favour of commercial interests. And since EU-made arms have allegedly already been used in multiple strikes that involved civilian casualties and at the very least enabled Saudi Arabia to launch military intervention in Yemen in the first place, this begs the question how the EU can justify this next to its commitment to human rights and the rule of law. In France, minister Florence Parly first claimed that French weapons were not directly used in the war. When evidence of the contrary surfaced, she claimed there was no evidence that these weapons had been intentionally used against civilians. To hold onto its values and promote peace in the region, the EU needs to start enforcing its Common Position on export controls.
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