Editorial & Opinion

Whitehouse and Reed helped pave the way for a humanitarian crisis in Yemen

The violations of international law and the war crimes committed by the Saudi coalition with the assistance of the United States in Yemen is foremost in our concerns right now, particularly since there are efforts being made to commit United States’ ground troops to an assault on a densely populated city in a mission whose success could lead to the
Photo for Whitehouse and Reed helped pave the way for a humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Published on June 15, 2018
By David Oppenheimer

The violations of international law and the war crimes committed by the Saudi coalition with the assistance of the United States in Yemen is foremost in our concerns right now, particularly since there are efforts being made to commit United States’ ground troops to an assault on a densely populated city in a mission whose success could lead to the starvation of millions.


David Oppenheimer, right

After joining some Republicans and only nine other Democrats, including Senator Jack Reed (Democrat, Rhode Island), in blocking discussion of the United States’ role in Yemen in the Senate, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) defended the vote he made back on March 21st.

“I share the concerns of many colleagues about the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Yemen,” said Whitehouse. “I don’t see how precipitous withdrawal of the limited support the United States military provides would make things better in achieving our humanitarian or strategic aims, and voting on it without hearings or committee work seems rash.”

At the time Whitehouse was calling for more committee work, more than a million cases of cholera had been reported in Yemen and a diphtheria epidemic had spread to all but one of Yemen’s 23 governates. As many as 18 million people were food insecure andh 14 million were at risk of starvation

Merotxelll Relano, representing the United Nation’s Children’s Fund in Yemen, reported that water and sanitation systems were collapsing and that more than half of Yemen’s health facilities were out of service, cutting off nearly 15 million Yemenis from access to safe water and basic healthcare. Up to three million people had been displaced by the bombing and fighting.

Let’s look at events in Yemen since March 21st with an eye towards that valuable humanitarian role that Whitehouse invoked, as well as a reminder that the Senator blocked discussion of Yemen, denying a vote on our presence there. Keep in mind the timing of the detailed process of committee work Whitehouse feels necessary, given conditions and how things have evolved. Given the available obvious facts, does this seem like a salient concern?


According to Physicians for Human Rights deliberate attacks on health care facilities are constantly occurring:

On March 15, mortar shell hit the Military Hospital (al-Askari Hospital) in Taizz, damaging the building, destroying medical equipment, and injuring 11 outpatients. On March 25: A mortar shell hit al-Hais Hospital in al-Hudaydah, killing a doctor and injuring four others. On April 27, mortar shells hit the hospital again, causing major damage. On April 27, a missile hit the National Blood Transfusion Center at al-Sabeen Maternal Hospital in Sana’a, damaging devices and putting the center out of service. Also on April 27, a missile hit the National Blood Transfusion Center at al-Sabeen Maternal Hospital in Sana’a, damaging devices and putting the center out of service. …..Most of Yemen’s health care infrastructure is non-functioning. Assessments show that only four out of 10 facilities in Taizz Governorate currently function. 66,261 new suspected cholera cases and 33 deaths were reported from Jan to May 2018. 1,100,720 cumulative suspected cases of cholera and 2,291 associated deaths (28 percent of children under the age of five) were reported as of May 2018. Rates of new infections have decreased, but recent cyclones and flooding may reverse the trend. A 25 percent increase in diphtheria cases (1,217 to 1,522), and a 10 percent increase in deaths (77 to 85) were reported in March 2018.

Numerous observers have reported bombing attacks on healthcare facilities as well. The United States has been using its capabilities to designate certain places as civilian in nature and supposedly set off limits to attack. Observers have questioned the efficacy of this and even wondered if this was doing more harm than good.

Senator Reed obliquely referred to our role in this area when his defense of his vote to not allow discussion of the United States role in Yemen included implications that our presence there was helping make things safer for the Yemenis. No reporter in or out of the state of Rhode Island asked any questions about this assertion.

Hospitals have been bombed and then either hours later, to kill first responders, or days later, bombed again. Since the Saudis provide no record of where they bomb to the us, despite us logistical support, we have no idea exactly what we are enabling when we refuel planes or provide logistical information. It has been known since 2017 that the United States, when refueling planes, does not keep track of which or how many Saudi planes are being refueled. Apparently, information about refueling in the area combines United States and Saudi planes, leaving specific facts unavailable. Senator Reed maintains that the information that we don’t receive and the unobtainable facts are allowing us to make things better for Yemen than if we were not involved.

The sinister context of the words: HUMANITARIAN AID

Senator Whitehouse’s use of the term humanitarian aid was almost Orwellian in the sense that at the end of 2017, amidst outcry throughout the civilized world, the Saudis announced that they were lifting the blockade that had been depriving Yemen of food and medicine. They replaced it by an announced program of humanitarian aid and then proceeded to allow supplies to land in Yemen, only to place it in warehouses until it was searched for weapons and contraband. Apparently, it was hard to get this searching done, although in late spring the International Red Cross seemed to manage to light a fire under those doing the inspection and more food has been cleared to be sent out to help.

The Saudi coalition then conducted a concerted effort at destroying infrastructure approaching the harbor where the warehouses were located, basically ensuring that even if the supplies were released, it would be hard to transport them to where they were needed. This was the state of the “humanitarian aid” initiative at the time of the Senator’s invoking the phrase.

The United States Agency for International Development has increased the amount of supplies sent to Yemen more than once since December 2017. However, their reports inform us that at the end of April, the coalition was blocking entry of 11 vessels carrying 117 metric tons of food.

I guess discussing the United States role in Yemen on the floor of Congress would have impeded this humanitarian aid that conveniently was not reaching anyone. According to a United Nation’s panel of experts, this phase of humanitarian aid is just an extension of the original blockade, and the coalition is “essentially using the threat of starvation as a bargaining tool and an instrument of war.”


What cannot be contested, and lengthy committee hearings would not be needed to ascertain this, is that the Saudi assault on Yemen is an all out attack on its civilian population and that the United States is abetting war crimes. Less than a month after the Senate vote, the Saudis deliberately destroyed the water system in a Yemeni district that had served as a haven for displaced people, leaving 7500 people without water. The system had been destroyed by Saudi bombs in 2015 and rebuilt by UNICEF in 2017. The destruction of infrastructure to provide clean drinking water to civilians is clearly a violation of international law and the fact that the same system was targeted twice pretty much destroys any notion of accidents or coincidence.

The Saudi targeting of health care and water facilities is only part of the picture. Schools and wedding parties have been bombed and an all out assault on the growth, selling and storing of food has been conducted. The Center For the National Interest has determined that hundreds of airstrikes have targeted farms, marketplaces and food storage facilities. Fishing vessels are routinely attacked as well.

Perhaps not coincidentally for a Senate that confirmed Michael Pompeo as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after he clearly avoided firm statements against torture, paving the way for torturer and destroyer of evidence Gina Haspell as CIA director, the presence of at least 18 secret prisons in the south of Yemen operated by the United Arab Emirates, part of the United States supported Saudi coalition, is completely ignored. Hundreds of men have been swept up into these prisons where torture is ubiquitous.

So, realizing that our Senators decided that this situation is nothing they are overly concerned about, where are we now?

For the moment, disregarding all moral considerations and horror at the humanitarian abuses listed above that our Senators have brushed aside, where, as a result of their explicitly defended decision to trust Trump and the military with the status quo, what is happening right now? Are the Yemenis safer and healthier due to our humanitarian aid mixed with the support of the Saudi military assault, is the war being conducted in a more moral way, is United States policy serving our interests and, as Senator Reed reminds us constantly, how does this impact “the troops”?

Will us ground troops join a coalition attack on the Houthi held port where virtually all essential supplies come in?

In a horrifying development that international aid groups warn could worsen what is already the world’s most devastating humanitarian crisis, the Trump Administration is reportedly considering a plan to greatly expand the United States’ military role in Yemen in an effort to help the Saudi-backed forces seize the country’s main humanitarian aid port. United Arab Emirates have asked for United States support and participation in the Saudi led drive to capture Hudaidah, the port city where nearly 85 percent of all humanitarian food aid arrives. Houthi rebels currently control the city.

Yemen has to import virtually of its food and if Hudeidah, Yemen’s third largest city, is caught in a crossfire, hundreds of thousands of people will be at risk from the fighting and the port, the lifeline not only for food aid but Yemen’s access to medicine, will be destroyed. With an imminent threat hanging over the city now, numerous human rights groups warn that the battle to retake Hodeidah would spell humanitarian disaster.

“Given the grave humanitarian implications, if the attack goes ahead, we are calling on the parties to halt an attack,” Daniel Gorevan, a spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council warns, “Hodeidah is a very densely populated area, and our predictions are that up to 100,000 people are at a risk of displacement or being caught in the crossfire.

“Hodeidah is essentially a lifeline for millions of struggling Yemenis. Twenty-two million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and the goods and the fuel and the medicine that comes through Hodeidah is a lifeline for those people,” Gorevan added.

The International Red Cross is concerned about fighting occurring in the densely populated city. Then again, it has been admonishing the Saudi/United States coalition about the targeting of hospitals and schools in air attacks to no avail.

Now Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the Pentagon seem on the verge of committing US troops to the invasion of this city.

[Editor’s note: The pictures are from a June 13, 2018 Anti Endless War and Excessive Military Spending protest outside Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s office]

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