People walk near the site of aan aiir strike in Sanaa, Yemen. Picture: REUTERS
People walk near the site of aan aiir strike in Sanaa, Yemen. Picture: REUTERS

Yemen, the poorest country in the Persian Gulf and indeed the whole of the Middle East, has long been the most neglected.

Poor and neglected by the international community, it could not stand in starker contrast with its glitzy neighbours. Over the past two years it hit headlines for the most tragic of reasons. For many months now, the situation in Yemen has been described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Whereas the country was poor before the war — mostly due to corruption, civil war and economic mismanagement — the civil war has further depleted the country of basic life-sustaining resources and plunged Yemen into a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

The country remains in the grip of a war that is becoming increasingly complex. Essentially between the Houthis and the government forces, the war has now been joined by the Saudi-led coalition, which is backed by the US, UK and France, and a number of Gulf countries. In opposition to the coalition, Iran has been aiding the Houthis in their fight for increased power and influence.

The most serious humanitarian concerns include famine and cholera. Yemen’s ability to feed its population declined before the war but more than a third of the population is currently on the brink of starvation. One of the reasons is that Saudi Arabia blocked the Port of Hodeidah. As a result, the UN humanitarian aid office estimates that 10-million Yemenis need emergency assistance and millions of others are struggling to secure water, food and any form of shelter. The famine further stems from the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade on food imports. Even after the loosening of the blockade, Yemenis are still cut off from accessing aid.

An end to the conflict is not currently in sight. However,  there are already calls for accountability under the rules of international criminal law and international humanitarian law. It has long been argued that state-designed famine can constitute a form of genocide. The Irish potato famine — one of the quintessential examples of a famine that could have been prevented — was a form of genocide by the British. Famine as genocide has, however, not been prosecuted as a self-standing crime.

Deliberate famine (famine orchestrated by a state) in the context of armed conflict can also be prosecuted as a war crime, or a crime against humanity, if it is orchestrated by a state or used as a weapon of war. Deliberate famine differs from preventable famine in the sense that famine that may be preventable could also have been caused by government negligence. Deliberate famine is famine that is engineered by a government to paralyse its enemies. Although the deliberate starvation of an enemy population is as old as war itself, the crime has been under-recognised in international and domestic law. Economist and philosopher Amartya Sen effectively suggests that national governments may choose whether to allow their populations to starve in observing that, “Government officials responsible for crafting and pursuing faminogenic policies” should be considered perpetrators of international crimes.

The web of accountability is wide and the rhetoric is duplicitous. Countries such as the UK continues to call for an end to the bloodshed and hostilities while benefiting from the business of war by selling weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Apart from the countries supporting the Saudi collation, many countries with the means to alleviate the famine have been culpably passive. SA carries its own share of responsibility. On September 28 it abstained on a vote in the UN Human Rights Council. The vote concerned the extension of an international probe into alleged human rights violations in Yemen by both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels.

Regardless of the efficiency of this particular probe, consisting of an independent committee investigating the humanitarian situation in Yemen, SA sent the wrong message with questionable moral implications. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Ramaphosa travelled to Saudi Arabia earlier this year to ask the kingdom for money. In his budget speech in May, Ramaphosa again claimed that SA would prioritise human rights. As happens so frequently in foreign policy matters, this pledge has again not been honoured. I cringe prematurely if I think of how we would vote once we become nonpermanent members of the Security Council next year.

The roof of the building in Geneva in which the Human Rights Council meets can be described as the Sistine Chapel of Geneva. The Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo created a vivid ceiling depicting ‘the world on its head’. For prominent members of an international community committed to humanitarianism to sit in that room and ignore or even exacerbate the plight of the Yemeni population is indeed to turn the world on its head.

• Swart is research director at the Human Sciences Research Council and nonresident fellow of the Brookings Doha Centre.