As the Trump administration resumes weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia for its devastating bombing campaign in Yemen — including precision-guided weapons the Obama administration had suspended on human rights grounds — a State Department official told Congress that the two-year-long conflict has led to the largest starvation emergency in the world.
Gregory Gottlieb, an acting assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that the conflict — which the U.S. is a silent partner to — has left the majority of the Yemeni people struggling to find food.
“In Yemen, more than 17 million people — an astounding 60 percent of the country’s population — are food insecure, including 7 million that are unable to survive without food assistance,” said Gottlieb. “This makes Yemen the largest food security emergency in the world.”
Gottlieb was testifying at a Senate hearing on foreign aid funding and humanitarian crises in Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia.
USAID is the foreign assistance arm of the State Department — the same department that signs off on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March 2015, the U.S. has approved more than $20 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia — and looked the other way as the Saudi-led coalition has bombed civilian infrastructure, hospitals, and children’s schools.
Last week the UN warned that the majority of Yemen’s population is suffering and on the brink of famine. Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, criticized both sides of the conflict for restricting the flow of aid, but said that the Saudi-imposed naval blockade was particularly devastating for the desert country, which imports most of its food.
The Saudi-led coalition has persistently attacked fisherman, who account for another major food source in Yemen.
The situation has worsened as the Saudi-backed forces prepare to retake the Western port city of Hodeida, once the waypoint of 70 percent of Yemen’s food and aid imports. Near the beginning of the war, Saudi Arabia bombed the cranes that port workers use to unload ships — slowing the pace of work to a crawl. Since then, airstrikes by the coalition have made it virtually impossible for aid to reach the port.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Yves Daccord, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, urged the U.S. to help clear access to the port. “You can ensure access to the port. You make sure ensure that the blockade is done with a humanitarian exception.”
He continued: “It will make a lot of difference for a lot of people. … There is no choice. There is no market anymore in Yemen. So the blockade needs to cease, or needs to be managed.”
Last week, 52 members of Congress sent a letter to the State Department, urging it to pressure Saudi Arabia into making the port accessible. “Right now, the U.S. must act urgently to avert famine and employ our diplomatic clout with the Coalition members to ensure that humanitarian goods can get into the port of Hodeida,” the letter read. “The lives of hundreds of thousands of children are at stake.”
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the leading Democrat on the committee, acknowledged the port was a “major entry point for humanitarian assistance,” and said it was “unclear as to the current abilities to get current humanitarian aid into Yemen.”
Last year, USAID gave Yemen $56 million in humanitarian aid, but it is unclear if aid will continue at all under Trump. According to a budget outline released last week, Trump wants to slash 28 percent of USAID’s funding.
The Obama administration supported Saudi Arabia’s air war for more than a year, supplying weapons and intelligence, and helping refuel Saudi aircraft.
But after the Saudi Arabia bombed a funeral in Yemen’s capital city in October, the Obama administration put a hold on a transfer of precision-guided weapons, citing “systemic, endemic” concerns about their targeting. The Trump administration greenlighted the transfer in March.
In addition, the Trump administration has intensified its military operations against al Qaeda in Yemen, loosening counterterrorism rules and accelerating the pace of bombings and drone strikes.