Aid groups urge US to halt arms sales, resume assistance in Yemen

A federal watchdog said the US brushed aside civilian casualties.

August 22, 2020, 5:04 AM

International aid groups are urging the U.S. government to resume at least some of its halted funding for Yemen, the war-torn country on the Arabian Peninsula, where a U.S.-backed coalition is fighting rebel forces in a conflict that's created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. paused its funding earlier this year because those rebels, known as the Houthis, have impeded humanitarian access or stolen aid. But the blanket pause has hurt Yemeni civilians, the groups warned, as programs to treat hunger, malnutrition, cholera outbreaks and more are forced to downsize or close without U.S. funds.

The warning of dire implications comes days after the State Department's federal watchdog found the Trump administration had not done enough to minimize civilian casualties as the U.S. provides arms, including precision-guided bombs, to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

After five and a half years of brutal war, Yemen now confronts not just continued violence, the persistent threat of famine and the destruction of its economy and health system, but also the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, a plague of locusts and historic floods that have killed at least 148 people.

PHOTO:  Children walk on the rubble of houses destroyed by airstrikes during the ongoing conflict in Saada province, Yemen, March 19, 2020.
Children walk on the rubble of houses destroyed by airstrikes during the ongoing conflict in Saada province, Yemen, March 19, 2020.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images, FILE

"The most significant challenge to sustained life-saving humanitarian action today is the severe shortfall in funding, which has been exacerbated by the U.S. suspension," said the leaders of Oxfam America, the International Rescue Committee, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE, Save the Children and Mercy Corps.

The United Nations reported this week that its pledge drive has received less than a quarter of the funds it needs for programs in the country. That lack of resources could not come at a worse time, as Yemen's currency drops even further, raising the price of food even more out of the reach of ordinary people; almost half of all children under the age of 5 are expected to be malnourished by the end of this year, the aid groups say.

Despite these dire warnings, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has not budged since it announced in March that it would suspend its operations for Houthi-controlled areas, where between 70 and 80% of Yemenis live.

Three times the size of Florida, Yemen is home to approximately 29 million people. Houthi-led forces seized the capital in 2015 amid mass protests fueled by the Arab Spring, and given their Shiite ties to Iran, Yemen's Sunni neighbors led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began an intervention to back the exiled Yemeni government.

Both sides have been accused of war crimes, including attacks on hospitals, clinics and water infrastructure. Oxfam and the Yemen Data Project reported this week that medical and water infrastructure has been hit during air raids at an average of once every ten days during the conflict -- damage that has not just killed civilians, but also disrupted access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation.

Since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in mid-March, three quarantine centers have been hit by airstrikes, according to the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project.

PHOTO: Students wearing protective face masks take final exams at a public school in Sana'a, Yemen, Aug. 15, 2020.
Students wearing protective face masks take final exams, after five months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, at a public school in Sana'a, Yemen, Aug. 15, 2020.
Yahya Arhab/EPA via Shutterstock, FILE

While the coalition's airstrikes have caused the majority of the war's civilian casualties, the U.S. has boosted its air power by providing midair refueling, training and by selling arms like so-called smart bombs. The Trump administration halted midair refueling in 2018, but President Donald Trump has vetoed Congress's push to end U.S. support or block emergency arms sales.

Last week, the State Department's inspector general faulted the agency for failing to "fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties" when it bypassed Congress and sold the Saudis and Emiratis $8 billion in emergency arms last year.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected that finding, saying last week that U.S. weapons sales "prevented the loss of civilian lives." He didn't elaborate, but the top U.S. diplomat has previously argued selling more arms to the coalition will pressure the Houthis into negotiations and protect Saudi and Emirati territory, which have been repeatedly hit by Houthi rocket and drone attacks.

But that hasn't borne out. The rate of bombings more than doubled in the first half of 2020 compared to the prior six months, with nearly 40% hitting civilians or civilian infrastructure, according to aid groups. A one-sided ceasefire announced by the Saudis in April fell apart as even the coalition failed to abide by it. And amid the ongoing fighting against the Houthis, the coalition has also splintered, with Emirati-backed separatists in the south fighting pro-government forces -- a divide that's continued even after a mediated settlement earlier this month.

The continued U.S. arms sales have also made USAID's pause on assistance all the more frustrating to humanitarian groups.

"Instead of supporting Yemen in this catastrophic situation, they suspended aid for the past couple of months to an already dire situation, but they continue to sell weapons and arms to the Saudi-led coalition," said Muhsin Siddiquey, country director for Oxfam.

PHOTO: Yemenis attempt to get a motorcycle out of floodwater caused by heavy rainfall in Sana'a, Yemen, July 29, 2020.
Yemenis attempt to get a motorcycle out of floodwater caused by heavy rainfall in Sana'a, Yemen, July 29, 2020.
Yahya Arhab/EPA via Shutterstock, FILE

"They can stop the war if they seriously want," he added, instead of "fueling the crisis and war."

U.S. officials have said that the Houthis are the ones weaponizing aid by harassing humanitarian workers or stealing or blockading supplies, and that the suspension will remain in place until their forces change their behavior.

"We're going to need the Houthis to change the way they do business and not use the humanitarian assistance as a weapon against their own people," David Schenker, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, said in March.

But with coronavirus's spread through the country -- largely undetected because of the lack of health care -- aid groups say it's the U.S. that's now using assistance as a cudgel to bring the Houthis to heel.

"The suspension of aid should not be used as a weapon or to hold hostage the Yemenis to improve the situation," Siddiquey told ABC News from Sanaa, Yemen's capital.

In their joint letter to USAID's acting administrator, the chiefs of the six aid groups also said the suspension could now be lifted because there had been "improved humanitarian access" in Houthi-controlled areas, an end to the their "tax" on humanitarian groups and "stringent accountability and monitoring mechanisms" to ensure aid is reaching the Yemeni people.

"But our ability to do so now is jeopardized unless the U.S. changes course," the letter added, warning, "Time is running out for tens of millions of Yemenis."