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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

A famine in Yemen must not be allowed to happen

Up to 13 million people are at risk of starvation unless the fighting stops. It's time Iran took its ability to halt this bloody conflict seriously

A group of homeless children in Hodeida, Yemen. AP/Nariman El-Mofty
A group of homeless children in Hodeida, Yemen. AP/Nariman El-Mofty

The latest UN report into the potential humanitarian disaster in Yemen left no one in any doubt as to the scale of the disaster now facing this benighted country.

Even before the start of its latest war, Yemen was ranked as one of the world’s poorest nations. Now, after three years of relentless fighting, it appears the country is at the point of collapse, with the latest sobering warning from UN officials claiming that as many as 13 million civilians − around half the population − could be at risk of starvation in the next three months unless a way is found to halt the fighting.

The UN has made several similar warnings in the past, which have faced criticism for placing too much of the blame for the situation on the Saudi-led coalition, and not sufficiently recognising the role the Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers have played in causing the crisis.

It was, after all, the Houthi rebels who provoked the conflict when they overran large tracts of the country three years ago, deposing the country’s democratically elected president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, and capturing the country’s capital Sanaa. The Saudi-led coalition was set up, with international backing, to restore Yemen’s internationally recognised government, but its hopes of winning a quick victory have stalled in the face of the fierce resistance put up by the Houthi rebels, who have been helped considerably by the arms shipments and other support they have received from Iran.

But this is all history now, and it is clear that, whatever the outcome of the conflict, there will be no winners. And, no matter what one might think of the war’s rights and wrongs, the unavoidable fact remains that the conflict has now reached the point where it is incumbent on the international community to find a way to stop the bloodshed. Otherwise, as Lise Grande, the UN’s resident coordinator for Yemen warned earlier this week, the world will witness its first major famine of the 21st century, one that is on a par with those that devastated countries such as Ethiopia and Bengal in the previous century.

“I think many of us felt as we went into the 21st century that it was unthinkable we could see a famine like we saw in Ethiopia,” she said in a BBC interview. “Many of us had the confidence that would never happen again, and yet the reality is that in Yemen that is precisely what we are looking at.”

The challenge now is for the international community to fix this bitter dispute when so many previous diplomatic initiatives to resolve the crisis have drawn a blank.

As someone who covered the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s, as well as both of the Palestinian intifadas, I know only too well the difficulties of resolving intractable conflicts.

In Bosnia, four years of appalling bloodshed, during which awful atrocities were committed by all the participants, only came to an end when the administration of President Bill Clinton, which had initially resisted calls to become involved, finally decided to intervene, and dispatched the forthright Richard Holbrooke to negotiate a peace agreement. It has − the Kosovo conflict notwithstanding − lasted to this day, with some of the former combatants, such as Croatia, now formally members of the EU.

The Oslo Accords, Mr Clinton’s ambitious attempt to resolve the long-running dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, was another example of creative diplomacy attempting to resolve an intractable problem. And, had it not been for the untimely murder in 1995 of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of the architects of the agreement, the Accords might have resulted in the Palestinians achieving their dream of freedom from Israeli control. Instead Rabin’s murder by a Jewish fanatic in effect halted the Oslo process, and ended Palestinian hopes of an end to Israel’s military occupation.

It is worth reflecting on these historic bouts of diplomacy because, when assessing the current state of diplomatic efforts to resolve the Yemen crisis, it seems clear that it needs some form of dramatic intervention by the outside world if the UN’s predictions of mass starvation are to be avoided.

The obvious candidate for such a task would be US President Donald Trump, who has clearly demonstrated a penchant for taking on seemingly insoluble issues following his ground-breaking summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore earlier this year.

So far as Yemen is concerned, though, even the indomitable persuasive powers of the American president might struggle to achieve any meaningful progress.

Previous diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have foundered on the Houthi rebels’ unwillingness − encouraged by Iran − to make concessions.

Houthi reluctance even to consider engaging in diplomacy was most recently evident during last month’s UN-sponsored attempt to revive the negotiating process in Geneva when, after waiting for three days for the Houthi delegation to turn up, the scheduled meeting was eventually abandoned.

Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy charged with the Herculean task of promoting a peace plan for Yemen, insists that the process is not dead, and that he remains hopeful of persuading the Houthi delegation to engage in talks.

One fact that could help to encourage the Houthis to be more constructive is the prospect of the Trump administration intensifying its confrontation with Iran next month with the imposition of new sanctions.

Mr Trump is putting pressure on Iran as much for its meddling in the affairs of the Arab world as his dissatisfaction with the 2015 nuclear deal.

The tensions between Washington and Tehran would certainly be eased if Iran took the UN-sponsored peace initiative seriously, thereby raising the possibility of ending the conflict, and the prospect of millions of innocent civilians facing death by starvation.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor