We are failing to protect children in Yemen

During my time at Save the Children, I’ve worked with parliamentarians across a number of different humanitarian crises and conflicts, including the Nepal earthquake, the refugee crisis and the ongoing civil war in Syria.In this context, I am struck by just how far down the priority list the crisis in Yemen continues to be. It is the largest humanitarian caseload in the world right now, thanks to a persistent and systematic abuse of the rights of its people, including the death of children.

Save the Children has been working in Yemen for over 50 years. Life for children and their families was already very difficult, and the military operation launched last year by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition (in support of the Government of Yemen against Houthi opposition forces) has made things even worse. Over half of Yemen’s population urgently need food, don’t have access to clean water and are without adequate healthcare. And thanks to bullets and bombs, the death toll keeps rising: on average six children have been killed or injured everyday since March 2015. Children have also been recruited by armed groups, abducted, and raped. Hospitals and schools – which should be safe places even in war – have been attacked and humanitarian assistance denied.

Against this backdrop, there have been regular and credible allegations that violations of international humanitarian and human rights law have been committed by all parties to the conflict. A recent UN report documented 119 incidents by Saudi-led coalition forces, including attacks on weddings, mosques, ports and markets. In two recent incidents, coalition airstrikes on marketplaces are reported to have resulted in dozens of civilian casualties, including children.

The UK government has a long and proud history of supporting Yemen. In response to the current crisis, they have used their diplomatic clout to pave the way for peace negotiations – and offered relief by intervening to ease a de-facto blockade and by providing £85 million in humanitarian aid. But the impact of UK aid on the humanitarian crisis cannot be fully realised without equal attention to the protection of civilians.

As the fourth largest donor to the crisis and with a close relationship to Saudi Arabia, the UK is in a position of influence. The Government should use this influence to push all parties to the conflict to do more to protect children and their families, and to comply with their obligations under international law.

Not only will this help to protect the children of Yemen, it will reassert the UK’s commitment to “strengthen the rules-based international order”.

As Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary General of the UN, has already warned: a growing disregard and lack of respect for international humanitarian law is “causing enormous damage in the world”. Leaders are hoping to address this at the World Humanitarian Summit which took place in Istanbul this week; the UK can play its part by ensuring that all abuses of rights are investigated, regardless of our economic and strategic interests around a particular conflict.

Echoing the recommendations in the International Development Select Committee’s recent report, given the credible evidence of disregard for civilian life and for the rules of war, the Government should support an immediate international, independent inquiry into violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen.

This move will set a positive precedent for other conflicts, and most importantly help children like Wahiha*, a 13 year old girl living in Yemen, feel safe: “I feel scared when I see weapons and especially when I hear the sound of planes up in the sky. When you hear that sound it means a big explosion will follow and that people will be killed… Hospitals and schools are damaged too.”

Denisa Delic is parliamentary and advocacy officer at Save the Children