Six Years Later, Yemen Is Still Being Starved

The people of Yemen have been enduring a six-year siege ever since the beginning of the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition’s intervention. The coalition’s indiscriminate bombing campaign has claimed thousands of innocent Yemeni lives, but the more destructive and insidious side of the war has been the blockade and the economic warfare that has accompanied it. At least 130,000 Yemeni civilians have died as a result of starvation and disease since the intervention started. That is more than have been killed by shells and bombs, and that number is set to grow substantially as the country once again faces a famine created by the war and blockade. Tens of thousands already live in famine conditions, and hundreds of thousands more may join them unless the blockade is brought to an end.

The U.S. shares responsibility for this killing blockade. As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the US supported UNSCR 2216, which authorized an arms embargo that has become the pretext for trying to starve Yemen into submission. As an arms embargo, it has been a complete failure, but as a weapon against the civilian population it has been alarmingly effective. The US has also supported the enforcement of the blockade. As Bruce Riedel recently argued, the blockade itself is part of the Saudi coalition’s offensive operations, and the US needs to pressure the Saudis and the UAE to end it. All parties to the conflict are responsible for using food as a weapon, but the root of the problem is the blockade that has strangled normal commerce for more than half a decade.

Writing at Responsible Statecraft, Arwa Mokdad describes the effects that the blockade has had on the country since it was first imposed:

This blockade has destroyed the Yemeni economy by contributing to shortages and inflation that make it extremely difficult for ordinary people to survive. The price of available food has skyrocketed, and will keep rising if the blockade and war continue. Paired with the collapse of Yemen’s currency, millions of Yemenis are unable to purchase the limited food that exists in markets. Meanwhile, civil servants have not received salaries since 2016. Food in Yemen has become a luxury item to which only a select few have access.

A shortage of fuel is the most critical problem right now. Even when essential goods are eventually allowed in, there is not enough fuel to move them around the country. Likewise, fuels shortages have made it prohibitively expensive for people to bring their sick children to medical facilities. According to a new CNN report, over a dozen oil tankers are sitting offshore where they have been prevented from docking:

CNN obtained documents from the port’s arrival log showing that 14 vessels had been cleared by the UN’s verification and inspection body to carry fuel to the country. The tracking website shows those vessels are now sitting in the Red Sea between the Saudi-Yemen border and Eritrea, unable to unload their fuel.

The Biden administration has taken a few of the right steps in reducing US involvement in the conflict and reducing the burdens on the civilian population, including the latest decision to resume US aid that the Trump administration had cut off last year, but it has not brought nearly enough pressure on the Saudis to end their attacks or end the blockade. Saudi jets continue to pummel Sanaa, and Saudi ships continue to deprive the civilian population of much-needed goods. The resumption of US aid is welcome, but humanitarian aid alone cannot address the needs of tens of millions of malnourished people.

Antiwar members of Congress are putting pressure on the Biden administration to act on this as quickly as possible. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has been one of the leading opponents of our indefensible Yemen policy, and he issued this statement on Twitter: "With 400,000 children now at risk of starvation in Yemen, the US must tell the Saudis in no uncertain terms: immediately end the blockade and let humanitarian aid in." Congress will need to keep pressing Biden to rein in the Saudi coalition. We have learned over the last six years that it is only sustained activism to change US policy towards Yemen that produces results. The Biden administration has started moving in the right direction, but they have to be pushed to keep moving that way. The bipartisan group that challenged the Trump administration on war powers needs to hold Biden accountable and insist that he follow through on his commitment to bring the war in Yemen to an end.

UNSCR 2216 has provided the Saudi coalition with a legal fig leaf to commit what are for all intents and purposes crimes against humanity. The Saudi coalition has pursued a policy of deliberate mass starvation with Washington’s approval. Yemenis are being starved to death, and it is primarily the result of the coalition’s actions. There needs to be a new Security Council resolution that abandons the unrealistic political demands of UNSCR 2216 and forbids all parties to the conflict from impeding the delivery of essential food and medicine. Beyond that, the US needs to use the significant leverage that it has with Saudi coalition governments to get them to stop strangling Yemen.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is entirely man-made, and our government is one of the main authors of that catastrophe. The US has an obligation to use whatever influence it has to stave off the famine that our policy helped to create. America owes the people of Yemen sustained assistance in rebuilding the country because of our role in wrecking it. Before that can happen, the US needs to rein in the reckless clients that it has indulged for the last six years.

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.