While the world has been transfixed on the epic tragedy in Syria, another tragedy — a hidden one — has been consuming the children of Yemen.
Battered by the twin evils of war and hunger, every 10 minutes a child in Yemen dies from malnutrition, diarrhea, or respiratory-tract infections, UNICEF reports. And without immediate medical attention, over 400,000 kids suffering from severe acute malnutrition could die, too.
Why are so many of Yemen’s children going hungry and dying?
Since 2014, Yemen has been wracked by a civil war — a war that’s been exacerbated by intervention from Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally. Since 2015, the Saudis have been pounding this nation, the poorest in the Middle East, with cluster bombs and explosives.
And the U.S. has been helping, selling the Saudis advanced weapons and providing intelligence and logistical support.
This nearly two-year-old bombing campaign has killed thousands of innocent Yemenis and sparked a severe humanitarian crisis. A desert country, Yemen imports 90 percent of its food. But thanks to a Saudi naval blockade and the bombing of the country’s main port, imports have dried up.
Subsequent shortages have led food prices to soar. Meanwhile, the war has left millions of people unemployed and displaced. Unable to buy the high-priced food, they’re forced to depend on humanitarian aid for their survival.
UN and private relief organizations have been mobilizing to respond to the crisis, but a staggering 18.8 million people — out of a population of 25 million — need assistance. The situation is only getting worse as the war drags on and the winter cold sets in.
At the same time, the UN Refugee Agency has received less than half the funds it needs.
The nation’s health system is also on the verge of collapse. Less than a third of the country’s population has access to medical care, and only half of its health facilities are functional. Diseases such as cholera and measles are spreading, taking a heavy toll on children.
The only way to end the humanitarian crisis is to end the conflict. That means pushing harder for a political solution and calling for an immediate ceasefire. Until that happens, the United States should stop its military support for the Saudi regime.
Despite the repressive nature of the Saudi regime, for decades U.S. administrations have supported the Saudi government both diplomatically and militarily. Under Obama alone, weapons sales to the Saudis reached a whopping $115 billion.
Concerned over the high rate of civilian casualties, on December 12 the White House took the rare step of stopping the sale of 16,000 guided munition kits. This is a great step forward, but it represents only a small fraction of total U.S. weapons sales to the Saudi regime.
In fact, at the same time the White House announced it was blocking this $350 million deal, the State Department announced plans to sell 48 Chinook cargo helicopters and other equipment worth 10 times as much.
Moreover, the coming Trump administration might well restore all sales. That’s why it’s important for Congress, which has the authority to block weapons sales but seldom actually does, to step forward and take a stand.
Selling weapons to a repressive regime should never be allowed. And today, when these weapons are leading to the death of a Yemeni child every 10 minutes, the sales are simply unconscionable. The time to stop them is now.
Medea Benjamin is a cofounder of CODEPINK and the fair trade advocacy group Global Exchange. She is the author of Drone Warfare (OR Books, 2012) and has played an active role in the Green Party. She has a Master’s degree in both public health and economics. In 2012, she was awarded the US Peace Memorial Foundation’s Peace Prize; she is also recipient of the 2014 Gandhi Peace Award and the 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize from the Fellowship of Reconciliation.