Famine looms in Yemen as world looks on at war, rights defender warns

Ireland urged to use role in UN to push for peace, accountability and ‘end to misery’

Millions of people in Yemen are facing starvation because of a war that continues to be largely ignored by the rest of the world, a leading Yemeni human rights defender has said.

Speaking ahead of the sixth anniversary of the middle eastern conflict, Radhya al-Mutawakel warned a lack of accountability and sense of impunity has enabled warring factions to continue killing thousands in a country which has been totally cut off from the rest of the world.

“This is a man-made disaster, people are being starved and have no source of income,” Ms al-Mutawakel told The Irish Times via Zoom from her office in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. “People think the airstrikes are getting less but none of it is stopping, people are still dying. People are stuck, they cannot get their lives back. We cannot believe this is happening to us in the 21st century.”

“We know peace in Yemen is very possible. If the international community decided to put real pressure on all parties in the conflict, change could happen.”


Described as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, Yemen’s conflict has resulted in an estimated 233,000 deaths over the past five years, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure, according to UN figures.

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Houthi rebel group ousted the country's government from the capital Sana'a. In January, US president Joe Biden announced an end to US support for the Saudi offensive and reversed Donald Trump's designation of Houthi rebels as terrorists. However, earlier this week the rebels rejected the US ceasefire plan, arguing it offered nothing new and would exacerbate the country's volatile situation.

Severe malnutrition

The UN has warned that the country is on the brink of what could be the “worse famine we have seen for decades” with more than half of Yemenis not having enough to eat and 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished.

As a member of the UN Security Council, Ms al-Mutawakel says Ireland has an important role to play in pressurising those involved in the conflict to lay down their arms and reconsider peaceful solutions.

“I’ve learned that small countries with clean hands like Ireland can do a lot. Accountability should be pushed for alongside peace. Every Yemeni wants peace – real and sustainable peace.”

Colm Byrne, humanitarian manager with Oxfam Ireland, warned the continued closure of ports and airports is preventing food and fuel reaching a country which is 90 per cent import-reliant.

Unlike other humanitarian crises such as the Syrian conflict, most people cannot seek asylum abroad, he said. "It's a country surrounded by water on one side, it has no commercial flights leaving and the other border is with Saudi Arabia. Very few people are getting out and people are so poor anyway they don't have the resources to travel."

‘Terrifying hopelessness’

Yemenis have lost any hope for the future, he added. “With Covid-19 here in Ireland we’re constantly looking for a timeline to get out of the pandemic. Imagine living in a country where only half the health centres are functioning and there’s no fuel or running water. The sense of hopelessness in Yemen is terrifying.”

In February, the European Parliament condemned the conflict "in the strongest terms" and renewed its call for an "EU-wide ban on the export, sale, update and maintenance" of arms to the Saudi-led coalition.

The parliament also called on Saudi Arabia to “immediately stop its blockade of ships carrying fuel” and said “all parties must urgently refrain from using the starving of civilians as a method of warfare”.

UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has called for a “nationwide ceasefire”, the opening up of Sana’a’s airport to commercial international traffic, and the introduction of economic measures to ensure the flow of commodities through the Hudaydah port in the west of the country.

However, last week Mr Griffiths said the country’s war was “back in full force” and spiralling towards massive famine. “We know what the people of Yemen want,” he said. “An end to the misery, to the lives thrown away for illusory military gains, to the tragedy of Yemen’s families desperate for a way out of this misery.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast