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USG Op-ed: As Yemen teeters on the edge, Global Britain must reprise its role as a responsible world leader

22 Feb 2021

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© OCHA/Giles Clarke

The following op-ed, written by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, was published online today by The Telegraph:

The world sat up on February 4 when President Biden laid out the new US posture on Yemen, ending the sale of offensive weapons and focusing instead on a diplomatic solution to the conflict and easing the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. 

The Biden initiative creates the best opportunity yet to end the war.

It’s now for the Yemeni parties, both on the Government side, but also the Houthis, the Southern Transitional Council and all their various allies and associates, to decide whether to seize the opportunity. Their regional allies should push them to do the right thing.

But what the UK chooses to do now is equally important.

Yemen is teetering on the edge. Six years of conflict have killed thousands of civilians, decimated the economy and shattered public systems. Two out of three Yemenis need humanitarian aid to survive. Yemen and its people are brutalised and exhausted.

Peace is the ultimate prize. But the most pressing problem in Yemen today is famine.

Half a million children under five could die from hunger in the coming weeks if they don’t get urgent treatment. Five million more people are just a step from famine.

The UK helped stave off famine two years ago with generous funding, by sounding the alarm, and by using its pivotal role in the United Nations Security Council. It needs to do it again. The situation is now worse.

In 2018 and 2019 UN aid agencies received record levels of funding. As data from my office’s financial tracking system shows, the UK gave GBP 230 million in 2018 and GBP 200 million in 2019.

2020 proved more difficult. The war dragged on. Covid took its toll in Yemen. Aid agencies had to fight off interference from the warring parties.

And funding collapsed, especially from the neighboring Gulf countries.  Last year the UN’s Yemen aid operation received just under $2 billion. That’s little more than half of what we got the year before and half of what we needed. The Nobel Prize winning World Food Programme had to cut the number of people it helped from 13.5 million a month to nine million.

Aid undoubtedly keeps people alive. And while food alone cannot solve the problems which create humanitarian need in the first place, it does make the prospects for peace more likely.

Left unchecked, hunger and conflict will spin an unending vicious cycle.

As a principled global power, Britain takes seriously its responsibility to help end the war in Yemen. As Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said last year when he pledged to stand by the people of Yemen, a political solution is the only lasting way to alleviate suffering.

Like all major global players, Britain has various interests to weigh. It is well reported that the UK has licensed the sale of at least $5 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015.

Every day children are killed or maimed in Yemen because of the conflict. This is not the moment to walk away from the suffering children of Yemen. To deny them food as they starve would be adding insult to injury.

On March 1 the UN is convening this year’s high-level pledging event for the aid operation in Yemen. What happens that day will send a big signal. 

More money for the aid operation is the fastest, most efficient way to prevent a massive famine. Maintaining the funding status quo is not enough.

In June 2020 Dominic Raab announced UK funding for the year would be £160 million. This money helped enormously, but it was a significant drop from the previous year. The UK and other major donors need to go back to the funding levels of 2018 and 2019 at the absolute minimum.

Anything less is not enough. Anything less would be catastrophic for the prospects for peace in the country. If you’re not feeding the people, you’re feeding the war. 

For a relatively small price, the UK can help avert mass famine in Yemen and help bring peace closer. Decisions driven by British values will drive others to do the right thing. The alternative is leaving Yemen to its grim downward spiral.

It is for Global Britain to reprise its responsible leadership role and step into this space.