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Saudi Claims to Ease Yemen Blockade a Cruel Fiction

UN Sanctions Needed as Coalition Keeps Vital Ports Closed

Women sit on cooking gas cylinders lined up outside a gas station amid supply shortage in Sanaa, Yemen November 7, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

Saudi Arabia today attempted to sell its changes to the full blockade on all Yemen land, air, and sea ports as concrete humanitarian progress today.

They aren’t.

The Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said the coalition would allow ports in allied government-controlled territory to open—in Aden, the country’s second largest city, for example—but all ports in the Houthi-Saleh controlled north—like Hodeida port and Sanaa airport—were to remain closed until the coalition decided sufficient steps had been taken to prevent weapons from entering the country.

Under the laws of war, the coalition can block weapons from going to its adversary, the Houthi-Saleh forces, but it also must allow humanitarian assistance to the civilian population and not use starvation as a weapon of war. The full blockade violated these legal obligations, but so does the ostensibly scaled-down version: the Saudi government seems to be seeking global praise for ending the blockade on its own allies.

The same day the ambassador made his remarks, the UN’s lead humanitarian agency released a short report. Read in the context of Yemen’s grave humanitarian crisis—millions close to starvation, the world’s worst cholera epidemic, the vast majority of the population reliant on aid—the report portends the devastating impact of the coalition’s blockade.

Yemen is “dependent on imported food, medicines and fuel.” Nearly 80 percent of imports—commercial and humanitarian—come through Hodeida and Saleef ports, both to remain shuttered by Saudi Arabia. Other ports, like Aden, are crucial and should remain open—but no port, including Aden, has the capacity to handle the hundreds of thousands of metric tons of cargo it takes to feed and treat Yemen’s civilian population, or to fuel its hospitals.

Last year, the coalition closed Sanaa airport. Many thought it was temporary. More than a year later, the airport remains closed. If the same happens with Hodeida port, Yemen’s civilians will further suffer. Many could die.

Before Saudi Arabia’s complete closure of Yemen air, sea and land space last week, the UN was already raising alarm bells, calling on all parties to better facilitate humanitarian access. That is the baseline—compliance with laws of war obligations, efforts by all sides to ensure aid is getting in and reaching those who need it most. The baseline is not allowing aid to reach civilians in territory controlled by your allies but not those under enemy control, as Saudi Arabia seems to be proposing.

Security Council members should make this clear—by sanctioning those obstructing aid to Yemen, be they Saudi Arabia, its coalition members, or Houthi-Saleh forces—before more sick and hungry Yemeni children die preventable deaths. 

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