Politics of Poverty

Congress: Save lives in Yemen now

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yemen women oxfam war hunger famine Oxfam’s Humanitarian Policy Lead Scott Paul meets with displaced families in Huth, Yemen. Photo: Oxfam

As US involvement in the conflict enters its 5th year, the House and Senate must both act–or be complicit in Yemen’s continued spiral into famine.

Nearly four years ago, President Obama notified Congress of his intent to sell Saudi Arabia more than $1.2 billion in precision-guided bombs.

Not a single Member of Congress objected—despite the fact that Oxfam and other organizations raised the alarm. The sale quietly proceeded as his administration fueled a bloody war in Yemen while insisting on its peaceful resolution.

This time must be different. After four years of US support for the war, the 116th Congress must create more hope for peace. It must unequivocally demonstrate that the instability, hunger and death caused by the coalition’s open-ended military campaign to defeat the Houthis is unacceptable to Americans.

Yemeni families are faced with impossible choices

US support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE has continued even as the humanitarian situation has deteriorated sharply. For far too long, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Houthis, the Yemeni government and other armed groups have ignored the suffering of the Yemeni people.

During my most recent visit to Yemen, people told me they are watching their families and neighbors die of hunger, disease, and violence. Millions today live on the edge of starvation and face impossible choices every day: Should they spend their money on food for the family or medicine to save a child? Should they spare their children from violence or allow them to fight to earn money they need to survive?

The Yemenis I talked to just want the conflict to end so they can return to their homes, schools, and jobs in safety. But instead of working towards that peaceful resolution, unconditional US support to the coalition has bolstered the resolve of all sides to make gains on the battlefield instead of at the negotiating table. It has enhanced the position of the most uncompromising leaders involved in Yemen’s war and removed incentives to respect human rights.

Reversing a dangerous precedent

Late last year, the tide began to turn in Washington. In a strong rebuke of the Trump administration’s willfully blind support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Senate passed the Yemen War Powers Resolution in a strong, bipartisan vote.

The message was and remains clear: Americans want no part in a vicious war that has caused the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and expect the parties to the conflict to compromise. That same day, in fact, the internationally recognized government of Yemen backed by Saudi Arabia and UAE and the Houthis signed the most ambitious and promising de-escalation agreements since the war began. The timing was no coincidence.

The US may have more direct leverage with one side of this conflict, but its actions directly impact and influence how all sides behave. With the Houthis, Congress’s challenge is more complex. Cutting support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE will help convince the Houthis that international support exists for a political, rather than a military, solution. But Congress must also make it clear that it expects the Houthis to fulfill their agreements, respect human rights, and co-exist alongside other Yemeni groups and parties.

The House must now adopt the Yemen War Powers Resolution and bring this to the White House’s doorstep—at which point President Trump should sign it. Congress should also target a vital coalition interest: US arms. Saudi Arabia’s air campaign has eviscerated Yemen’s schools, hospitals, food production facilities, and more, but the Trump administration has shown no interest in ending arms sales, including the precision-guided aerial munitions responsible for much of the damage.

Senators Todd Young (R-IND) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) have introduced legislation that would categorically suspend these munitions and conditionally suspend the sale of other arms to Saudi Arabia for a two-year period. The unconditional munitions suspension would end US complicity in a devastating and pointless air campaign, while the conditions attached to other arms sales signal Congress’ key demands regarding peace, the laws of war, and the need to prevent famine. Both types of arms transfer suspensions are critical and should be applied to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well.

We won’t stand by

Congress has major influence to wield, but it cannot end the war in Yemen alone. The Senate showed in December that it can influence these parties, and it must continue. With the House and Senate working hand-in-hand, Congress can set the terms of our country’s engagement in Yemen–and save tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives.

The eyes of the American people and their elected officials have finally turned squarely to this crisis and the role that America has played in it. It’s time to remind the world that even in these troubled times, the US people will not stand by while millions of innocent people are caught in a bloody, senseless war.

Learn more about the situation in Yemen.

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