WASHINGTON ― Experts on humanitarian issues, including top U.S. officials, used a Senate hearing Tuesday to highlight how U.S. partner Saudi Arabia has exacerbated global hunger with its American-backed military campaign in neighbor state Yemen, where the United Nations says 17 million people lack access to sufficient food and a child under 5 years old dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes.
The Saudi-led coalition, which began fighting pro-Iran rebels in Yemen in March 2015, drew particular criticism for preventing the delivery of U.S.-purchased cranes to a vital port through which most food enters the country. Coalition jets ― which receive U.S. aerial refueling ― destroyed the original cranes in August 2015 in an assault on the rebel-held port city, Hodeidah. Last year, the Obama administration gave the United Nations’ World Food Program $3.5 million to buy and install four new cranes to enable deliveries of food, medicine and commercial goods. The coalition turned back the WFP shipment in January.
After hearing testimony on the crane issue from U.S. Agency for International Development official Matthew Nims and WFP director David Beasley, the hearing’s chair, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), told HuffPost he believes the Saudis are violating international humanitarian law.
During the hearing, Young noted that the WFP’s Yemen director had contacted the Saudi government about the crane delivery just recently, on June 27. Beasley said the Saudis provided no reply.
“In those 3 weeks, as we have waited for the Saudi response, more than 3,000 children have died in Yemen of preventable causes,” the senator said. “All the while, the Saudi government has delayed and obfuscated and floated red herrings [about why the delivery is impossible] ... I believe those Saudi arguments have today yet again been thoroughly and publicly been discredited. I believe we’re seeing a disturbing pattern of behavior.”
The hearing posed a particular challenge for Nims, a career USAID official now serving in a temporary leadership role under the Saudi-friendly Trump administration. He avoided placing direct blame on the Saudi-led coalition. But in response to questions from Young and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), he said coalition member countries’ naval blockade of Yemen contributed to aid delivery delays. He also said he was unaware of any U.S. government protest of the Saudi-led coalition’s initial destruction of the cranes at Hodeidah.
Young also pushed Nims to challenge excuses for the delay in the delivery of the cranes. Without mentioning the Saudis, or their U.S.-aligned partner in the Yemen campaign, the United Arab Emirates, the senator asked the USAID official to comment on claims that humanitarian aid has been stolen at Hodeidah and the port is not safe enough for the cranes.
“We have investigated this through our partners … we have had no evidence of any large-scale humanitarian diversions occurring at the port,” Nims said.
The relief experts agreed that the Yemen situation was urgent.
“I’ve never seen scenes like the ones that I saw [in Yemen] in my 27 years with the International Committee of the Red Cross,” said Dominik Stillhart, the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, referring to a recent visit to observe the response to a growing cholera outbreak that has already affected more than 300,000 Yemenis.
Beasley, a GOP politician with ties to President Donald Trump who took over the WFP earlier this year, said the humanitarian crisis could have major security implications as people become more desperate in a country where al Qaeda has long had a foothold. Experts believe the terror group’s influence has grown because of the chaos since the U.S.-backed coalition became involved in the fight between the internationally recognized Yemeni government the pro-Iran rebels.
Beasley’s logic is “consistent with my consultations with high-ranking military personnel and security experts as I try to determine whether there’s any strategic or military logic to the Saudis’ behavior,” Young told HuffPost. “I’ve come up empty ... I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot and undermining the security of partners like the United States.”
The senator is one of only a handful of mainstream Republicans to vocally criticize the Saudis. (GOP figures in the small libertarian minority have long been wary of the kingdom.) Last month, Young was one of four Republicans to join 43 Democrats in voting against the first portion of Trump’s proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
He believes that absent gestures of goodwill from the Saudis to show they are interested in complying with humanitarian law ― like allowing the cranes in ― criticism of the kingdom’s behavior will only grow.
“My fervent hope would be that my colleagues ... start to demand responsiveness from the Saudis,” Young said.
Asked if the Saudis’ new involvement in a regional crisis ― their Trump-endorsed fight against fellow U.S. partner nation Qatar ― might distract attention from Yemen, Young said scrutiny of Saudi intentions seemed to only be growing.
“I don’t think the conflict or the tension with Qatar is going to cast a shadow on this humanitarian crisis that has been deepened and broadened because of the Saudis’ behavior,” he added.