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In-tray For The New President: Saving Yemen

08/11/2016 12:13

As we entered November, the people of the Western world were thinking of Hilary Clinton's emails, Donald Trump's surge in the polls and possibly even Christmas presents. Meanwhile, the people of Hodeida, Yemen were drinking seawater and eating grass to stay alive.

In our modern, 21st Century world of IPads, virtual reality, and fibre optic broadband, it is almost unthinkable that 14 million people risk dying of hunger in this war torn country.

Along with the United Kingdom, the United States is a key player in this conflict. It was US Secretary of State John Kerry, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and their counterparts from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who forged a 72 hour ceasefire to the conflict only two weeks ago. In the same month, Houthi rebels fired on the USS Mason, and the US warship fired back into Yemen for the first time.

Whether or not the President-elect will be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump on Wednesday morning, Yemen will be on the agenda.

It is fitting therefore that in New York last week, the UN Security Council met to discuss Yemen for the first time in six months. I watched as its Members were told that Yemen is in the midst of a crisis, which is already a catastrophe, and on the brink of becoming a tragedy.

Just like that, a terrible countdown to save the people of Yemen began.

The Roadmap

On Monday 31st October, the Security Council heard from the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed and the Under Secretary General for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O'Brien, before all Members gave their views on the crisis.

The mood was tense.

The UN officials wove a tapestry of despair in their contributions. A brief ceasefire ended disastrously a week before the meeting. The fighting is continually escalating, the economy is days from collapse, aid is not reaching vital areas and Al Qaeda are making gains across the country.

Their message was clear. A ceasefire is needed now. Humanitarian access is needed now. Clear support from the Security Council is needed now.

As the 'pen holder' - the country leading on Yemen at the Security Council - Britain has a vital role to play. The UK's excellent Representative, Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, clearly and clinically laid out what needs to happen next:

1. The need for an immediate and permanent ceasefire.
2. A return to negotiations based on the UN Special Envoy's Roadmap.
3. Greater accountability for any violations of International Humanitarian Law.
4. Commitments by all sides to immediately and drastically improve humanitarian access.

It is encouraging that many other countries presented a similar set of proposals, including the US Representative, Ambassador Samantha Power.

Prior to the recent, failed, ceasefire, the UK had distributed a draft Resolution to Council Members based on the above steps. This needs to be tabled immediately.

A show of unity from the Council, passing a clear message to the belligerents, will make an unrivalled diplomatic, political and moral difference to this conflict.

The Obstacles

However, as with any crisis where the stakes are so high, the way forward is full of obstacles.

Russia and a number of other countries used their statements at the Security Council to attack the UK and USA for what are perceived to be 'double standards' in arms sales and support for the ongoing airstrikes. Russia has already blocked a public statement from the Council condemning the bombing of a funeral in September, where 140 people were killed.

This politicking will not save the people of Yemen. In fact, it may cost more lives if the Security Council is frozen by petty bickering.

It is difficult to take Russia's fabricated outrage too seriously when you see the appalling bombings and warfare it is waging in Aleppo, but this should give further incentive to the UK and US - a failure to act on the right side of history will leave both nations open to growing criticism and shrinking credibility.

Counting Down to Tragedy

As the Clinton and Trump camps wait anxiously for the results in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, the whole world is watching. The leadership of the United States is central to so many crises, and Yemen is chief amongst them.

When four fifths of a population require urgent humanitarian assistance and 3 million are suffering from acute malnutrition, any solution is a race against time. We need global leadership to get peace in Yemen, or it may become one of the great failures of Western diplomacy.

The path forward is clear. The UK's four point plan is sensible, practical and would pass a strong message that the fighting must stop. As we count down to a humanitarian tragedy, it may fall on the new President to stop the clock, end the violence, and save the people of Yemen.

Keith Vaz was born in Aden, Yemen, and Chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group for Yemen.

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