"A Forgotten Crisis": Yemen's Aid Workers Speak Out About the World's Worst Humanitarian DisasterMonday, July 24, 2017 By Amy Goodman and Juan González, Democracy Now! | Video Interview
"An absolute shame on humanity." That's how the international aid organization CARE is describing the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The number of cholera cases in Yemen has now topped 368,000, with 1,828 deaths. The World Health Organization estimates some 5,000 Yemenis are falling sick daily -- and Oxfam projects the number of suspected cases of cholera could rise to more than 600,000, making the epidemic "the largest ever recorded in any country in a single year since records began." We speak to Shabia Mantoo, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, in Yemen, as well as Kjetil Østnor, Oxfam's regional manager for the Middle East and Yemen.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: "An absolute shame on humanity." That's how the international aid organization CARE is describing the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The number of cholera cases in that country has now topped 368,000, with 1,828 deaths. The World Health Organization estimates some 5,000 Yemenis are falling sick each day, and Oxfam projects the number of suspected cases of cholera could rise to more than 600,000, making the epidemic, quote, "the largest ever recorded in any country in a single year since records began." Aid groups are warning the risk of disease spreading will increase with Yemen's monsoon season, as the ongoing US-backed, Saudi-led bombing campaign has devastated the country's health, water and sanitation systems. This is a spokesperson for the World Health Organization speaking on Friday.
FADÉLA CHAIB: Yemen's cholera outbreak is far from being controlled. The rainy season has just started and may increase the paths of transmission. Sustained efforts are required to stop the spread of this disease.
AMY GOODMAN: The cholera epidemic comes amidst a looming famine, with the United Nations warning 19 million of Yemen's 28 million people are in need of some form of aid. This is the UN emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O'Brien, speaking Wednesday.
STEPHEN O'BRIEN: Seven million people, including 2.3 million malnourished children, of whom 500,000 are severely malnourished, under the age of five, are on the cusp of famine, vulnerable to disease and ultimately at risk of a slow and painful death.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Wednesday, the United Nations demanded media access to report on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, after the Saudi-led coalition blocked three foreign journalists from traveling on a UN aid flight to the capital Sana'a. This is UN spokesperson Farhan Haq.
FARHAN HAQ: We do want not just to be able to bring in aid, which is, of course, a crucial aspect of the work we do, but we also want the world to know what's going on. And so, steps like this do not help, because, again, this has been a large man-made humanitarian problem. The world needs to know, and journalists need to have access. ... As our colleagues have said, this partially explains why Yemen, which is one of the world's largest humanitarian crises, is not getting enough attention in international media. The lack of coverage is hindering humanitarian workers' effort to draw the attention of the international community and donors to the man-made catastrophe that the country is experiencing.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go directly to Sana'a, Yemen, where we're joined by Shabia Mantoo. She is the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, in Yemen. Joining us from London is Kjetil Østnor, Oxfam's regional manager for Middle East and Yemen.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let's start in Yemen's capital. Let's start in Sana'a. Shabia Mantoo, what do you see there? How bad is the catastrophe right now?
SHABIA MANTOO: Well, that's exactly it: It's catastrophic. Yemen is now entering third year -- its third year of conflict, and we just see that humanitarian needs are escalating every single day. And every single day, the situation on the ground gets worse. So we're continuing to always see and hear reports of civilian casualties. We have an unprecedented cholera crisis in the country. And the country is also on the brink of famine. And we have millions of people who have been displaced from their homes, trying to seek safety. So, the situation is absolutely abysmal here on the ground. And we, as humanitarians, are truly overwhelmed and trying to cope and respond as best we can.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what's been the response of the Western nations as well as of the Arab countries of the region to this deepening catastrophe?
SHABIA MANTOO: Well, we've been saying that Yemen is a forgotten crisis, because, at present, it's the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, based on the amount of people in need. At present, there are about 20 million Yemenis who require humanitarian assistance in the country. So, it is the largest humanitarian crisis. But, across the world, it receives very little attention in comparison. So we have been calling for more support to urgently address the humanitarian needs in Yemen. And at the same time, we've been calling for more attention on the crisis, for more attention on the human suffering and the people that are really bearing the brunt of the conflict, which are civilians. So, at present, if we look at the appeal for Yemen, it's only -- it's less than 35 percent funded. So we do require urgent support. We're already in July. A half-year is gone, and we have many more humanitarian needs arising.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the effects of the US-based -- of the US-backed Saudi bombing campaign against Yemen?
SHABIA MANTOO: Well, as a humanitarian organization, our interest is really in ensuring that there is peace in Yemen. As long as military action continues between the parties, we are going to see humanitarian needs arise. So we've been advocating for peace. We do need more support for the humanitarian response. But that alone is not going to cut it. We do need a peaceful political solution. So there needs to be an end to the war. That needs to be negotiated. The peace process needs to be supported. And that's what we're really advocating for.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But now, the UN has had to pull back on its plans for a cholera vaccination program because of the threats, of the dangers to medical workers in the region. Could you talk about that?
SHABIA MANTOO: Well, look, to be honest, I mean, those are decisions made by each of the parties responsible for leading that response. Now, with us at UNHCR, we're concerned primarily with displacement and also the issues relating to displaced persons. In terms of the health response, that's coordinated by humanitarian partners and national health authorities, but that's perhaps something that I wouldn't be best to speak to.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let's bring Kjetil Østnor into the conversation, of Oxfam. Talk about the situation. You have projected the number of suspected cases of cholera could rise to more than 600,000, making the epidemic "the largest ever recorded in any country in a single year since records began"?
KJETIL ØSTNOR: Yeah, that's correct. The numbers -- the latest number that I saw today was 390,000 cases just since the 27th of April. So, in less than three months, it's 390,000 suspected cholera cases. And, of course, we know that the rainy season is coming up. The rainy season in Yemen is basically July to September. So, with the rain, we suspect that the caseload will continue to rise for the next couple of months. We've seen some indication of maybe the deaths slowing down, and we're happy for that, but we think the worst might not be over. We don't know. At least we have to prepare for the worst in every possible way.
So we need a massive effort to respond to these cases. As you said earlier there, it's -- for the last week, it's about -- was about 5,000 new suspected cholera cases every day. So we need a massive aid effort to stop the cholera crisis in Yemen. And we also need a massive aid effort to respond to the wider crisis. Seven million people are on the brink of famine. Fifty million people have no access to clean drinking water or sufficient sanitation and hygiene facilities. And, of course, as the latest speaker said, we need a ceasefire to be able to travel and access the whole country safely. We need a ceasefire immediately in Yemen.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Last month, on Capitol Hill, the Senate voted 53 to 47 to approve the sale of $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. A surprising number of senators voted against the deal. The vote came just weeks after Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia, his first foreign trip abroad as president. During the trip, he signed an arms deals totaling $110 billion. This is President Trump speaking in Saudi Arabia.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Every country in the region has an absolute duty to ensure that terrorists find no sanctuary on their soil. Many are already making significant contributions to regional security. Jordanian pilots are crucial partners against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and a regional coalition have taken strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kjetil Østnor, what about this -- these new deals, arms deals, between the United States and Saudi Arabia? You've been calling for a suspension of these sales by the UK and the United States to the Saudis.
KJETIL ØSTNOR: To be honest, we think it's shameful that both the UK government and the US government is selling arms to the Saudi-led coalition, arms that are used in Yemen. So, there's -- on several occasions, we have called for the suspension of arms sales. And so, we call on the international community, the US, the UK and other arms brokers, to become peace brokers instead of arms brokers. That's what is needed. We don't need more weaponry. Bombs will only fuel the conflict. US and the UK government needs to bring the parties to the table to find a peaceful solution, not to sell more bombs.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Kjetil Østnor, Oxfam's regional manager for Middle East and Yemen, speaking to us from London, and Shabia Mantoo, the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, speaking to us from Sana'a, Yemen. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we'll be talking about Iran. Stay with us.