Largely overlooked by much of the outside world, the conflict in Yemen continues unabated, with a devastating toll on civilians. In the space of just eight months since the latest conflict broke out in late March, the numbers in need of humanitarian assistance have risen to over 80% of the population: a staggering 21.2million people, including almost 10million children. Over 1,500 children have been killed and injured as a result of the war.
At a time when assistance is desperately needed, there are serious challenges in getting enough aid into the country and distributing it to affected populations. A de facto blockade on shipping, intended to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the country, has had the effect of preventing life-saving humanitarian and commercial supplies, including food, medicine and fuel from entering the country. At the same time, aid agencies are struggling to reach affected communities, owing to high levels of insecurity and restrictions placed on their access by armed groups.
While imports are now at last on the increase - thanks to UK efforts to remove obstacles and establish a UN Verification and Inspection mechanism - vital goods still remain in perilously short supply. This is particularly worrying, as Yemen imports around 90% of its food. According to Unicef, over 500,000 children are now at risk of dying of malnutrition. Health facilities supported by Save the Children are reporting a 150% increase in cases of severe acute malnutrition, while the World Food Programme is warning that the unthinkable prospect of famine threatens to become a devastating reality.
In the meantime, there is mounting evidence that war crimes are being committed in Yemen. The UN, the ICRC and other NGOs have accused all parties to the conflict of deliberately targeting civilians and civilian objects, including attacks in Taiz by Houthi forces, an attack on a wedding party and the destruction of an MSF-supported health facility by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. These are violations of humanitarian law and must be addressed.
Last week, Save the Children published a new report highlighting the devastating impact of the war on Yemeni children. It reported that a significant proportion of child deaths result from explosive weapons, such as missiles, large aircraft bombs, rockets and mortars. When used in populated areas, these weapons not only kill and injure civilians, but also damage and destroy civilian facilities, including hospitals needed to treat the ever-increasing number of injuries. The few medical facilities that are still in operation are running severely low in supplies and are desperately understaffed, with health workers killed, injured or forced to flee the violence.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Yemen published a report in October calling on the Government to support a ceasefire, intervene to support an increase in commercial and humanitarian imports into Yemen and ensure strict compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law.
The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of supporting development in Yemen and of providing aid to people affected by conflict, but more needs to be done internationally. The possibility of peace talks holds out some hope, but whether and when they will take place and what they may deliver remains uncertain.
In the meantime, it is increasingly urgent that everything possible be done to halt the catastrophic loss of life. The UK, with its international partners, should do everything in its power to help protect civilians from violence and ensure that vital aid reaches those who desperately need it.
David Jones is the Conservative MP for Clwyd WestSuggest a correction