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Biggest challenge of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is making the world pay attention

September 28, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Yemen’s civil war has killed more than 10,000, as a coalition led by Saudi Arabia fight against Houthi rebels and their allies. Diplomats from Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. met in Geneva Thursday seeking to establish an international inquiry into atrocities in Yemen. William Brangham speaks with U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick about the cholera outbreak and other crises.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Diplomats from Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. met in Geneva today to iron out a resolution that would establish an international inquiry into atrocities in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and its allies are aligned with one faction of Yemen’s civil war. They stand accused of causing massive civilian casualties amid a punishing bombing campaign, with American support. The Saudis deny this, and they say the time is not right for an international probe.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, a disastrous humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate.

William Brangham has that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Yemen has been torn apart by a two-year-old civil war, as a coalition led by Saudi Arabia fight against Houthi rebels and their allies.

Over 10,000 people have died, more than 40,000 have been injured, and over three million are malnourished. On top of it all, an outbreak of cholera has killed 2,000 people since late April, and 700,000 people currently are infected.

For more on all of this, I’m joined now by Jamie McGoldrick. He’s the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Yemen.

Welcome to the “NewsHour.”

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen: Thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Can you just give us a snapshot of how the humanitarian situation is in Yemen right now?

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: Well, after two-and-a-half years of war, you see things collapsing.

The economy has collapsed. The conflict is raging, obviously, and people are facing a number of threats. The most recent one you mentioned is cholera, where you have some 700,000 people who have been affected by it and over 2,000 people dead.

Those numbers will go up to the end of the year to 850,000. And then it will peter out and all disappear for a few months. Then it will come back again, because the conditions are in place. And the conditions are people can’t afford to buy clean water, feed their families properly, and the fact that they have very little resilience anymore.

And that is what is causing these outbreaks. And the lack of systems for health to treat the people is one of the big factors.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, is it infrastructure, is it water, is it food? What is driving cholera in particular?

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: Well, it is a combination of them.

The water sanitation systems have collapsed. They have been struck by airstrikes, or they have been bombed. And they no longer function. There is cross-contamination between water supply and the other parts of the sewage.

And at the same time, people who after two years of war are very weak, nutritionally very weak health-wise, and so it takes up very quickly as a disease and then affects people very quickly, as we saw.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You mentioned this issue of food. I understand that shipments, food and other aid, have been hard to get into the country. Is there enough food to feed people who need the food now?

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: Well, there are two things.

Food is getting into the country, but not in the numbers that we need, because the ports like Hodeida are being restricted in terms of movements. And bringing food in other parts of the country is quite a challenge.

But the other big issue is that people can’t afford to buy food. People’s purchasing power is diminished. Eighty percent of the population are actually less well off than they were two years ago.

And there’s one person out of every four who has no purchasing power. And what that means is that, tomorrow, there are seven million people that can’t tell you how they will feed their families tomorrow. That is how desperate the thing is.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Would you put that as the greatest challenge among the challenges, the many that you face? What is the greatest one?

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: Well, the greatest challenge is to get media attention and get the world’s attention to the suffering of Yemen.

It has been going on for too long now. And the results, the numbers are incredulous, where you have got 20 million people out of a population of 27 million who need some sort of assistance. And 10 million of those are in real acute need, starving, not able to feed their families, no access to health care, no access to clean water.

And it is just a recipe for further and more desperate catastrophic humanitarian situation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, obviously, it has got to be difficult too with active fighting going on to try to deliver humanitarian aid. Are the combatants getting in the way of you doing your job?

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: Well, they do in any conflict.

They are there to restrict access and movement. And we find that from all sides, who don’t understand what their obligations are, which that we are supposed to have unfettered access to populations in need.

But we are often instrumentalized by the parties and they use us as part of the war effort. And that happens with imports. That happens with moving people around. It happens with getting visas even. And so they try to control how we work.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There was a recent U.N. report that said that the Saudi airstrikes had been largely responsible for the civilian deaths, including the deaths of children.

What have you seen on the ground? You live there. You are there all the time. The impact of those Saudi airstrikes on strikes on the civilians?

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: Well, I think, like in any conflict, and this one in particular, is that the civilian population, who have no skin in this game, they are the ones who suffer most.

And a combination of airstrikes, a combination of bombing and fighting, all sides have been guilty of what is taking place. The international humanitarian law violations and the protection that should be afforded to civilians and civilian infrastructure has been absent in this crisis.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You said that both sides in this fight are to blame for some of the casualties here.

But how would you apportion blame, the civil war vs. the Saudi bombing here, as far as the destruction that you have seen?

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: The physical destruction has mostly been done by the coalition, because they have got the aircraft.

There is a lot of other destruction taking place because of bombing and shelling and local fighting that takes place as well. There is no side in this crisis that is innocent. There’s no good guys in this fight.

The only people who are in this fight who are suffering are the average citizen of Yemen, who really doesn’t have any control over how this turns out.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Have you appealed, yourself, to the Saudis to say, please, be a little more discrete in your bombing campaigns, try to ease up on the civilian population?

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: We — every time there is an incident, every time we have a problem, we ask all the parties to the conflict to recognize that, under the Geneva Conventions, international humanitarian law, they have responsibilities.

And the responsibilities are to protect civilians and avoid like the sort of damage that takes place to structure and to people’s lives. Unfortunately, one of the features of this crisis has been almost a blatant disregard by the parties to their obligations under international humanitarian law.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As you know, the Saudis have also been very resistant to any investigation into their actions in Yemen.

How is this conflict ever going to come to an end? How are you ever going to be really be able to help the people fully there if one of the main belligerents seem to have no constraint on its actions?

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: Well, I think there are two things.

The investigation should happen whenever there’s an incident of any kind, regardless of who is alleged to have taken it. And right now, we would call for any investigation into any action on any side that takes place.

The way this will stop is for the war to end. There is no military solution to this. There has been no progress made militarily really in the last two-and-a-half years.

The only thing is peace. We have to get the political situation back online, because, right now, the humanity is suffering because of the lack of politics.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Jamie McGoldrick, thank you very much for being here.

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: No problem. My pleasure. Thanks a lot for having me.

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