Joyce McMillan: World is turning blind eye to its biggest catastrophe

Diphtheria is easily preventable but in war-ravaged Yemen it is now a death sentence as the United Nations and the world turns a cynical blind eye, writes Joyce McMillan.
A Yemeni child suffering from diphtheria receives treatment at a hospital in the capital Sanaa.  (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)A Yemeni child suffering from diphtheria receives treatment at a hospital in the capital Sanaa.  (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)
A Yemeni child suffering from diphtheria receives treatment at a hospital in the capital Sanaa. (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)

There it is again, flitting across my laptop screen, the plea from Medecins Sans Frontieres – or perhaps UNICEF, this time – to support their work in Yemen, a country now devastated by almost three years of war. I could send something, I probably will.

Yet somehow, it seems a completely inadequate response to the entirely human-made disaster sweeping that destitute country; a disaster that raises troubling questions about the utter failure of our governments and global institutions, 70 years on from the founding of the United Nations, to protect those who most desperately need their help.

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Yemen has always been a country with problems, of course. Even before the war, its GDP per head of population was at least 15 times lower than that of the UK, making it the poorest country in the Middle East. Its landscape at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula is rough and often arid; and the combination of a warming climate and rapid population growth has created water shortages and food supply problems which have helped destabilise an already vulnerable economy and promote social unrest and conflict.

Back in 2011, many people in the West enjoyed the romantic film comedy Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, starring Ewan McGregor, in which a British expert takes on the unlikely job of creating a salmon fishery for a rich Yemeni sheikh. Paul Torday’s 2007 novel, on which the film was based, has a more satirical tone, foreshadowing the tragedy of a country undermined by its lack of water and by powerful people at home and abroad who appear barely to give a damn about the fate of its 28 million people.

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Today, the neighbouring Saudi government and its allies – armed and supported by Western powers – are waging a military campaign in support of the existing Yemeni government that has involved extensive bombing of civilians, a blockade on food and medical imports, and something close to complete breakdown of the country’s fragile infrastructure, in areas from water and food supply to health care. Iran, meanwhile, is accused of supporting Yemen’s violent Houthi rebels. As a result, some 20 million people – two thirds of the population – are thought to be facing starvation. And as healthcare networks have collapsed, a weakened and hungry people has seen the return of diseases conquered a generation ago, even in this least developed of countries – first cholera, and now the easily preventable and treatable bacterial disease diphtheria, which once struck fear into the hearts of parents across Scotland’s cities.

This week, the BBC featured a report from a village where diphtheria has broken out. It was almost impossible to listen to the voice of a mother describing her bright little daughter’s fear and horror on realising she had contracted a disease that amounts to a death sentence if untreated, or to the agony of a parent who knows that her daughter could easily be cured if powerful people hundreds or thousands of miles away had not conspired to make it impossible.

So what can we do, we citizens of the West, to help put the needs of the suffering women and children of Yemen on the agenda of our governments and international institutions not as a footnote, but as a central driver of future policy?

This week, Norway decided to stop supplying arms to the Gulf monarchies of the United Arab Emirates on the grounds that it cannot be sure they will not be used against Yemeni civilians. We in the UK now also need to do some hard thinking and campaigning about our country’s large and ignominious role in promoting and growing the global arms trade, and on the sheer indignity of making so many high-value British jobs dependent on flogging powerful weapons of destruction to regimes that we then timidly criticise for using them.

The remains of weapons partly made in Glenrothes, for example, are said to have been found in the ruins of Yemeni towns bombed by the Saudis.

And in truth, it’s this web of financial and commercial dependence that makes it impossible for our global institutions to function as they should.

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The UN has, in theory, the power to take the situation in Yemen out of the hands of those who treat the welfare of the country’s people with contempt; but the fact that the permanent Security Council nations are so complicit with the forces that have neglected the impact of climate change, over-armed the entire region, and then decided to use this suffering country as an arena for their power-games, renders them almost useless as protectors of the weak, and champions of the people.

In the end, only pressure from their own citizens will ever change that balance of power. If we want international institutions that work, we need national governments that will take international law seriously, and act to uphold it. If we want to protect the weak, we need national governments that will resist the temptation always to ally themselves with the economically strong, while ignoring the humanitarian cost. And in the meantime, we need to support those organisations that are in a position to act, and to uphold the basic human values our governments so often neglect.

As I write, Medecins Sans Frontieres and other organisations are ordering up the vaccines and anti-bacterial medicines needed by Yemen’s little diphtheria victims, and fighting to get them into that struggling country. If just one mother is spared the sight of her child choking to death from a completely preventable disease, their efforts will have been worthwhile. So I will send my donation, but not without also renewing my determination to campaign, here at home, for an economy and a future less entangled with the deep causes of war in Yemen, and less complicit in bringing about the disasters which we then desperately try to remedy – even though for thousands in Yemen, it is already much too little, and too late.