Yemen, Syria, and US Hypocrisy

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On December 13th, 2016, Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, delivered a powerful statement in response to the disastrous humanitarian situation in Syria’s eastern Aleppo. Power did not mince her words at the UN Security Council’s Emergency Briefing on the situation in Syria. At that moment, the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran had failed to agree to establish a safe corridor for the hundreds of thousands trapped in eastern Aleppo. The impending slaughter led Power to ask, “Is there literally nothing that can shame you?” Breaking from diplomatic jargon, Power appealed to the human conscious as she called upon the Security Council to take action to protect those trapped in Aleppo. Otherwise, she said, Aleppo would become the 21st century’s Rwanda.

Power’s powerful statement raises important questions: Is the U.S. really trying to be the moral lighthouse attempting to cast a shining light in this world of destruction? Better yet, is it even possible for the US to claim to be a champion of human rights when it has played a leading role in the massacre of millions across the globe?

The US Ambassador’s remarks were long overdue in what has been five years of diplomatic backlog. The UN has simply sat on its palms as over half a million Syrians have been killed and millions more have fled resulting in the largest refugee crisis since World War II. If anything, Syria has taught us that our peacekeeping bodies have failed to execute their basic mandates.

Yet another crisis that has not gotten nearly as much press coverage as Syria is the raging war in Yemen. Since March of 2015, the Saudi-led Arab coalition, supported and equipped by the US, has carried out massive airstrikes in the poorest country in the region. The coalition comprising of more than ten Arab states is fighting the Houthi rebels who took over the capital and ousted the Saudi-supported President Abd-Rabbuh Mansor Hadi. In the case of this second proxy war in the region, the U.S. is directly responsible for the “noose” around Yemen.

The US has long maintained an unwavering alliance with the repressive Saudi monarchy. Despite flagrant human rights violations, the US provides a steady stream of weapons to the kingdom, amounting to $110 billion just under the Obama administration. Rather than reassess its relationship with the brutal monarchy, in November 2015, the U.S. approved a sale of $1.29 billion to Saudi Arabia to replenish the Kingdom’s weapons supplies, including smart bombs that had become depleted in the war in Yemen. Additionally, the US provides intelligence assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. Despite reports issued by human rights groups alleging war crimes committed by the coalition, US support remains unyielding.

Not content with air strikes and cluster bombs, the US also supports the naval blockade that is starving Yemen, a country which prior to the war imported over 90 percent of its food. In September 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced Yemen’s healthcare was on the “brink of collapse” as a result of the Saudi-led onslaught. Displacement and the blockade has led to severe food shortages as an estimated 14 million people, more than half of Yemen’s population, are currently food insecure.

18-year-old Saida Ahmad Baghili, the “face of famine,” weighed just over 24 lbs when she was admitted to the hospital. In March of 2016, images of five-month old Udai Faisal, made their way into mainstream media. Shortly after the pictures were taken, the infant died of severe malnutrition, weighing just a little over five pounds at the time of his death. Sadly, the reality is that Saida and Udai’s cases are not outliers: almost half a million children under the age of 5 in Yemen suffer from severe acute malnutrition, a dramatic 63 percent increase since 2015. Yemen currently has the greatest level of humanitarian needs in the world as over 80 percent of the population is in need of assistance.

It is disingenuous and morally reprehensible to compare tragedies. US complicity in the war on Yemen is certainly no reason to ignore the war in Syria and the failure of the international community to stop the carnage in the country over past six years. But it does highlight the sheer hypocrisy of Samantha Power’s words. Can the US try to shame others when it has been backing the Saudi-coalition’s destruction of Yemen?

The US has carried out extrajudicial killings in Yemen since the early 2000s through its drone program. It has targeted wedding parties and killed hundreds of civilians. In October 2011, a drone strike killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year old American citizen, and at least six other civilians. Just as the label “terrorist” is used as a justification by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran to carry out extrajudicial killings in Syria, the US is also guilty of the same crimes.

The war in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions. Indiscriminate air strikes launched by the Saudi-led coalition have hit hospitals, schools, a refugee camp, funeral homes, and civilian neighborhoods. A March 2016 strike using U.S.-made bombs killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children at a market. Human rights groups have alleged that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for war crimes in the country. US-supplied weapons, including illegal cluster bombs, have been found at multiple sites, putting the US “at risk of complicity in unlawful attacks.”

The great tragedy in Yemen is that this is all preventable. “No act of barbarism against civilians” got under the skin of US officials as Congress failed to block further weapons sales to the kingdom in September 2016. This was despite an abundance of evidence indicating human rights violations by the Saudi government. Strategic interests seem to have trumped images of starving children.

For the US, it seems that there is nothing it will not justify. During President Obama’s eight years in office, the US bombed seven Muslim-majority countries. There is no doubt that Power’s words at the UN were necessary and long overdue but perhaps Yemenis found them to be a bit hypocritical. Syria and Yemen are both being destroyed by regional and international powers and in both cases it is civilians who are paying the price. Power’s evocative words at the UN must not render us oblivious to US crimes. For it too must answer Power’s question: “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”

Mobashra Tazamal is a human rights activist and holds an MA in Islamic Societies & Cultures from SOAS, University of London.