Is Yemen’s Man-Made Famine the Future of War ? | The New Yorker
The U.S.- and Saudi-backed war here has increased the price of food, cooking gas, and other fuel, but it is the disappearance of millions of jobs that has brought more than eight million people to the brink of starvation and turned Yemen into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. There is sufficient food arriving in ports here, but endemic unemployment means that almost two-thirds of the population struggle to buy the food their families need. In this way, hunger here is entirely man-made: no drought or blight has caused it.
In 2015, alarmed by the growing power of a Shia armed group known as the Houthis in its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of Arab states and launched a military offensive in Yemen to defeat the rebels. The Saudis believed that the Houthis were getting direct military support from the kingdom’s regional archrival, Iran, and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. The offensive quickly pushed the Houthis out of some southern areas, but then faltered; the rebels still control much of the country, including the capital.
A blockade of the rebel-held area is intermittently enforced by the Saudis, with all shipments of food and other imported goods subject to U.N. or coalition approval and inspections, driving up prices. Saudi-led aerial bombing has destroyed infrastructure and businesses, and has devastated the economy inside rebel-held areas. The Saudi-led coalition, which controls Yemen’s airspace, has enforced an almost complete media blackout by preventing reporters and human-rights researchers from taking U.N. relief flights into Houthi-controlled areas for much of the last two years. In June, I reached the capital by entering the coalition-controlled part of Yemen and then, travelling by road, crossed the front line disguised as a Yemeni woman in local dress and a face veil.
Human-rights groups question the legality of the Hodeidah offensive, as well as the Saudi-led blockade and aerial bombing campaign, on the grounds that they have created widespread hunger. The Geneva Conventions prohibit the destruction of “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” Alex de Waal, the author of the book “Mass Starvation,” which analyzes recent man-made famines, argued that economic war is being waged in Yemen. “The focus on food supplies over all and humanitarian action is actually missing the bigger point,” de Waal told me. “It’s an economic war with famine as a consequence.”
The world’s most recent man-made famine was in South Sudan, last year. There, the use of food as a weapon was clearer, with civilians affiliated with certain tribes driven from their homes—and food sources—by soldiers and rebels determined to terrify them into never coming back. In the epicenter of the famine, starving South Sudanese families told stories of mass murder and rape. Entire communities fled into nearby swamps and thousands starved to death or drowned. Gunmen burned markets to the ground, stole food, and killed civilians who were sneaking out of the swamps to find food.
In Syria, the images of starving children in rebel-controlled Eastern Ghouta, at the end of last year, were the latest evidence of the Assad regime’s use of siege-and-starvation tactics. With the support of Russia and Iran, the Syrian government has starved civilian enclaves as a way to pressure them to surrender. In Yemen, none of the warring parties seem to be systematically withholding food from civilians. Instead, the war is making it impossible for most civilians to earn the money they need buy food—and exposing a loophole in international law. There is no national-food-availability crisis in Yemen, but a massive economic one.
Martha Mundy, a retired professor of anthropology from the London School of Economics, has, along with Yemeni colleagues, analyzed the location of air strikes throughout the war. She said their records show that civilian areas and food supplies are being intentionally targeted. “If one looks at certain areas where they say the Houthis are strong, particularly Saada, then it can be said that they are trying to disrupt rural life—and that really verges on scorched earth,” Mundy told me. “In Saada, they hit the popular, rural weekly markets time and again. It’s very systematic targeting of that.”
De Waal argued that man-made famines will become increasingly common aspects of modern conflict, and said that defining war crimes related to food and hunger more clearly will become increasingly urgent. Hunger and preventable diseases have always killed many more people than bombs and bullets, he said, but if they are a direct result of military strategy, they should not be considered the product of chance. The war in Yemen and other wars being waged today are forcing a new legal debate about whether the lives of many people killed in conflict are lost or taken. “It is possible that they could weasel out from legal responsibility,” de Waal said, referring to commanders in such a conflict. “But there should be no escape from moral responsibility.”