Homes destroyed by airstrikes, children emaciated with hunger, families lined-up for scarce supplies: this is what life is like in Yemen. Two and a half years after its descent into a brutal conflict, the calamity ravaging Yemen is a war the world has chosen to ignore. Rather than focus on the human tragedy gripping Yemen, most countries have fixed their scant attention on merely prognosticating as to whether the Houthi rebels armed by Iran or the Saudi- led coalition supporting the government of Yemen have maintained the upper hand.
The spiralling travesty engulfing the poorest country of the Middle East has left the world mostly unperturbed. Neither the ferocious civil war, nor the external military intervention that has ravaged infrastructure, or even the accompanying naval, land and aerial blockade that has chocked off access to essential humanitarian assistance and food supplies have sufficiently stiffened the resolve of the international community to focus on the civilian victims of this war . Yet, by turning a blind eye, the world is ensuring that there is no end in sight to the monumental human suffering.
Warning after warning that the war in Yemen is a massive global humanitarian crisis, or that the catastrophe is entirely human-made, have failed to focus international attention. Although Yemen is experiencing the largest and fastest outbreak of cholera in modern history, with an estimated one million individuals affected, a significant shortfall in humanitarian assistance persists. A joint statement by the heads of the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Food Program stating that three quarters of Yemen’s population of 28 million are in need of emergency aid has also failed to sway the global community. As Save the Children recently announced, an estimated 130 children are dying every day of extreme hunger and disease in Yemen. Apart from extreme hunger and malnutrition, such deaths stem from other preventable causes such as diarrhoea and respiratory tract infections.
In addition to the ongoing violence, displacement, and lack of basic services, children have also been uniquely affected by the conflict. The recently-released UN Secretary General’s Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict highlighted that almost 2,000 children, some as young as 10, have been recruited to fight in Yemen. The report named and shamed all parties to the dispute for their egregious violation of international law by engaging in the widespread and indiscriminate recruitment and deployment of child soldiers.
As in many conflicts, women and girls are among the most severely affected. According to UNICEF, child marriages have once again become alarmingly widespread, with rates spiking since the start of the war. Women, whose positions were already disadvantaged, are now facing increased rates of gender-based violence.
The toll of the conflict isn’t limited to the tragedies on the ground in Yemen. The impunity for violations of human rights—from the use of child soldiers, to the destruction of civilian infrastructure, to blockades that prevent NGOs from delivering aid—brings into question the global community’s commitment to upholding international law. As surely as the conflict has destroyed the lives of thousands of Yemenis, it is chipping-away at the very foundations of multilateralism. The war in Yemen has exposed the inability, or unwillingness, of some countries to put aside political differences in pursuit of safeguarding human rights.
Canadians can take pride for not having remained bystanders. Hearing the call of those in need, and recognizing that that the world can ill afford another failed state, our Government has been responsive on humanitarian and diplomatic fronts. Canada has contributed tens of millions of dollars to non-governmental organizations responding to the food crises in Yemen. Along with a number of other countries, Canada was also instrumental in introducing a resolution at the United Nations for the establishment of an International Commission of Inquiry to hold to account those who have committed crimes against humanity in Yemen.
Our actions have followed in the very best Canadian traditions of multilateral engagement and the promotion of human rights and human security. Let’s remember that Canada’s commitment to the establishment of the United Nations Yemen Observation Mission (UNYOM) (1963-1964) was amongst the first major foreign policy initiatives undertaken by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. As the world once again grapples with a crisis in Yemen, more inspired Canadian leadership will prove invaluable.
In that spirit, we must continue to use all available diplomatic tools to assist in forging the necessary multilateral resolve to address and resolve the crisis that has engulfed Yemen for far too long. The instability resulting from the recent death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh signals a potential turning point for the conflict, and a key moment to rally the international community towards stemming the violence in Yemen. Continued diplomatic leadership by Canada would be in keeping with our commitment to assist the most vulnerable, to spearhead feminist development principles, and to align with the values of the recently adopted Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers.
As Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland has often promised, “we will keep working towards a better world…because that is what Canadians do.”
Ali Ehsassi is the Liberal Member of Parliament for Willowdale.
Marilou McPhedran is an Independent Senator for Manitoba.
The Hill Times