Interview with The Real News
As Yemen’s cholera epidemic spirals out of control and millions face famine, AlterNet reporter Ben Norton says the U.S. is complicit in the humanitarian crisis caused by Saudi-led war.
Aaron Mate : It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The UN says Yemen’s cholera epidemic is worse than ever. At the same time it’s canceling a new effort to help. The World Health Organization has scrapped a new vaccination program inside Yemen because it says the country is too dangerous.
Yemen has been decimated by a Saudi led bombing campaign. The WHO decision means nearly 1 million cholera vaccines won’t be delivered. On Wednesday, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien blamed outside parties for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
Stephen O’Brien: This cholera scandal is entirely man made by the conflicting parties, and those beyond Yemen’s borders who are leading, supplying, fighting, and perpetuating the fear and the fighting. This is a manmade crisis, and the sheer scale of humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people is a direct result of the conflict and serious violations of its national law. Humanity simply can not continue to lose out to politics.
Aaron Mate : The UN says 7 million people, including more than 2 million children, are on the cusp of famine. The US has been key backer of the Saudi led war on Yemen, and appears to have intensified that support since President Trump took office.
Ben Norton is a reporter with AlterNet’s Gray Zone Project. Welcome, Ben.
Ben Norton : Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Aaron Mate : Thanks for joining us. Let’s start with the humanitarian situation. The UN warning of millions of being on the cusp of famine, and canceling a cholera vaccination program just as the epidemic is spiraling out of control.
Ben Norton : This is absolutely catastrophic. And in general there hasn’t been enough attention for the past 27 months to the war in Yemen in which the US and the British governments are entirely complicit. But this has really pushed things beyond the brink.
For more than two years now, humanitarian organizations have warned that millions of Yemenis are on the brink of famine. But compounding that even further is, starting on around April 27th, there has been a massive outbreak of cholera. And for those who don’t know, cholera is, as the World Health Organization puts it, a quote, “easily treatable disease.”
This is a disease that’s been eradicated in the West, that in much of the world is not a problem. But in war-torn Yemen, there has been a horrible epidemic. Just since April 27th, according to the UN, there have been more than 320,000 cases. Every several seconds, there is another case suspected. At least 1,700 people have died. And those are just the recorded the numbers. The actual figures are probably even higher.
This is really tearing a country that has already been torn apart by war even further. And the fact that the UN is now abandoning their vaccination program against cholera should be an enormous scandal. It should fill all the front pages of newspapers, and the headlines of large media outlets, but of course, there is very little attention.
And even when there is media attention, it frequently downplays the complicity, the leadership role of the US in this conflict. Many leading experts, even the New York Times editorial board and others, have acknowledged that, were it not for US support, the Saudi-led war against Yemen could not be waged.
So I mean, looking at the role of our government as Americans, and seeing that the blood that not only Donald Trump has, but also the Obama administration had, these are things that we can’t ignore. And the cholera epidemic is unfortunately only one development of the extreme crisis in Yemen which the UN has repeatedly warned is the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. The worst in the world. Even worse than Syria.
Aaron Mate : But Ben, in that clip I played before from the UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien, he didn’t name names. He blamed the warring parties and the outside powers who are fueling the war. But someone could interpret that to say that he means all sides. So equally the Houthis and their bakers on one side, fighting the forces on the ground loyal to the former president who they deposed, as well as the Saudi led campaign from above. So to what extent can we pin the blame for this crisis on just one side?
Ben Norton : Well of course the blame for the crisis is the war, and there are two sides to the war. So of course everyone is complicit in creating that. However, not everyone created the war. Saudi Arabia, with the backing of the US and the UK, and also the United Arab Emirates, is what began the war. Again, this doesn’t mean that the Houthi rebels, and that their allies who are loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, that doesn’t mean that they haven’t committed atrocities of their own.
But the vast majority of the atrocities, the vast majority of the civilian casualties, have been perpetuated by the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition, which has relentlessly bombed civilian areas, which has targeted civilian areas intentionally, and which has led to the destruction of more, or at least the damage of more, than half of the medical facilities in Yemen.
At this point approximately 55% of medical facilities and health centers in Yemen are either completely not functional or only partially functional. The majority of that damage is because of airstrikes and fighting. The Houthis don’t have an air force. They’re not bombing South Yemen.
And also at this point the Houthis, in alliance with elements of the former Yemeni government that were allied with the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who have kind of a coalition where they’re sharing power together, they control the majority of the populated areas of Yemen.
And again this is not an endorsement necessarily for what their political program is. But the fact is that they control the majority of the populated areas, and in order to restore power to a leader named Hadi, the former leader, who actually fled to Saudi Arabia after stepping down himself, after staying too long through his term and canceling elections.
In order to put him back in power, in order to restore a pro-American, pro-Saudi government, Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen and began a brutal bombing campaign, carrying out more than 90,000 air sorties to restore this unpopular, unelected leader.
Yes, it is true everyone involved in the war has dirty hands. That’s why we need to oppose war. Wars are absolutely catastrophic for civilian populations.
However, both sides are not equal. You have the coalition which is led by Saudi Arabia and backed by a dozen countries and you have the Houthi rebels, whose only real major political ally are elements loyal to the former ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
They’re not equal sides and there’s not equal complicity. It’s very clear that the majority of the civilian suffering has been caused by the US-backed coalition.
Aaron Mate : Yeah, I think that point you make about the only party in the conflict which has an air force is the Saudis, is a very important one, in the same way that in Syria for so long only one side, the Saudi regime and Russia were the ones bombing from the air.
On the front of US support for the Saudi campaign, there’s a new report today in The Intercept that says that the US has doubled its fuel support for the Saudi bombing campaign since the deadly strike on a funeral not too long ago.
Ben Norton : Absolutely. In October of 2016, the US-backed Saudi coalition bombed a funeral gathering three times. It was a triple-strike attack, killing well over 100 civilians and injuring more than 500. So more than 600 casualties including both injuries and deaths in this single attack. And this is one attack out of thousands.
The Yemen Data Project, which is a project organized by Western academics, Yemeni academics, and former Yemeni government officials and even some current Yemeni government officials, has been meticulously gathering information about the bombing campaign, and also about the atrocities committed by the Houthis and Saleh alliance. And they found that of the thousands, of the tens of thousands of airstrikes carried out by the US-Saudi coalition, at least one-third have hit civilian areas.
I’ve actually interviewed myself Martha Mundy, who’s a professor emeritus of the London School of Economics, who is a specialist, a leading expert on the agricultural economy of Yemen. And she, who is a part of this project, has meticulously gathered this data and shows that there is basically no doubt, considering the targets that have been hit, considering the extremely small probability of them being hit, there is almost no doubt that the US-Saudi coalition has been intentionally targeting civilian infrastructure. Especially production of food.
So related to all of this is not only is there a complete imbalance for the two sides, but there are mountains of evidence suggesting that the US-Saudi coalition has in fact intentionally been targeting civilian infrastructure, including food production and health services, exacerbating the crisis.
The goal has been to create such an incredible crisis within Houthi-Saleh-held territory, which is the majority of the civilian population, that they rebel and ask for intervention from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
And another point to mention that’s really important: When we’re talking about the retake in areas in Yemen, the major city that the Saudi-UAE-US coalition controls in Yemen is in the south. And it’s the heart of the south in a city called Aden. Aden is probably the second-most important city in Yemen after the capital in the north, Sana’a which is controlled by the Houthis and the popular committees back by Saleh.
In the south, what is almost never acknowledged is that the horrible government that the Saudis and the UAE have created in this area is actually right now going after many Yemeni activists. The government is in fact infiltrated by a lot of Wahhabi extremists who are from Saudi Arabia who share Saudi Arabia’s extremist ideology. And they’re imprisoning and torturing political opponents. They’re going after LGBT Yemenis. They’re going after progressive Yemeni activists and secular activists. They’re even going after people who are secessionists. And at this point it looks very clearly like Yemen is not going to be able to be put back together.
So I mean, the reality is that these areas that have been retaken from the US-backed coalition have not been able to create any kind of functional government that is any better than the other territories. And unfortunately at the end of the day, again it is civilians who have been suffering because of all of this.
Aaron Mate : You know Ben, there are some headlines mad recently about the fact that Saudi Arabia donated $66 million to fight the Yemen cholera epidemic. I won’t even comment on that, and also I want to ask you the figure we have in time so child deaths inside Yemen, is that one child dies there now every 10 minutes of preventable illness like cholera.
Yet the official death toll that we’ve heard from the UN remains as 10,000. And what I’m wondering is if that death toll takes into account the amount of people who are being killed because of the humanitarian situation that’s been directly caused by the war. Dying from illnesses they can’t be treated for because the bombing has made life so impossible and the infrastructure so devastated.
Ben Norton : Oh, absolutely. And this is a a very important point to underscore. There are very few international observers on the ground inside Yemen. In fact the Saudi-led coalition backed by the US has imposed a blockade on the country. Not only has it been attacking Yemen with more than 90,000 air sorties, it controls its air and water space.
What that means is that the only flights that can go in and out are international aid organizations. Mostly the UN. And even those have been severely restricted.
So there are very few journalists, very observers, and when we look at these figures, they’re all incredible conservative. In January, this is in January of this year, nearly six months ago, the UN estimated that more than 10,000 civilians had been killed in violent deaths. But that is only a small percentage of the overall deaths.
In fact according to the UN, in 2016 more than 63,000 Yemeni children died from preventable diseases. Mostly from hunger and preventable diseases. And that’s just one year. That’s probably a conservative estimate. This is a war that’s been going for 27 months.
The catastrophe, the civilian catastrophe and the toll is unfathomable, and we really only have an idea of a small glimpse of what’s actually happening. I would estimate that in a conservative estimate, very conservative, I would say probably more than 100,000 civilians have died from all these humanitarian causes.
Yemen actually has the worst food crisis in the world. I mean Nigeria, and Somalia are on this, and South Sudan, and Yemen are all lumped in the same category by the UN, and Yemen has the worst food crisis, even compared to South Sudan where genocide is ongoing.
It’s hard to wrap our minds around what’s been happening, and there’s been very little media attention which has allowed it to happen.
And in response to that, Saudi Arabia of course is carrying out some cynical PR moves. And the donation of $66.7 million dollars by Saudi crown price Mohammed bin Salman is complete cynicism and complete public relations. Unfortunately that’s the reality.
The reality is also that more than 30,00 Yemeni health workers have been working inside the country without pay for more than 10 months. So you have tens of thousands of people who are going without pay, you have international aid organizations like the World Health Organization who are cutting their program for vaccinating against cholera in Yemen, and that one of the main reasons they’re doing that, and this is important to underscore too, is because, one, they don’t have that much funding, and two, the US is, under President Trump, significantly decreasing funding for the United Nations and its aid programs.
The US supports about one-fifth of those programs, and Trump is cutting that significantly. And the US ambassadors Nikki Hayley bragged about it in this kind of macabre, sadistic quote about how the US is saving all this money by cutting support for international aid organizations.
So yes, I mean the Saudi crown prince may throw some pennies at this program, but the reality is that $66.7 million pales in comparison to the more than $100 billion that the Obama administration did in arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the additional $110 billion arms deal that Trump just signed with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia can’t buy $220 billion in weapons and then donate $66 million and claim that it actually cares about Yemeni lives, when it’s using those weapons to continue killing Yemenis.
Aaron Mate : Ben Norton, a reporter with Alternate Gray Zone Project. Ben, thanks as always.
Ben Norton : Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Aaron Mate : And thank you for joining us on The Real News