Friday, June 15, 2018
Standing by. That’s about all the Trump administration has done as America’s allies on the Arabian Peninsula intensify Yemen’s misery.
On Wednesday, a coalition led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia invaded the Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah, the home to 600,000 Yemenis and the lifeline for humanitarian aid that sustains most of the country’s people, launching its biggest offensive of the yearslong war in the Arab world’s poorest country. The attack began with coalition airstrikes and shelling by naval ships. News reports said the bombardment was heavy.
The United Nations and nongovernmental organizations like the International Committee for the Red Cross withdrew many of their staffs as the attack on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who seized Al Hudaydah two years ago, looked increasingly certain.
Meanwhile, United Nations diplomats have worked urgently to prevent a full-scale offensive; now those efforts will be even more important to try to limit the fighting. One proposal would have the United Nations or another independent agency manage the port and ensure that civilians receive desperately needed food and medicine. Experts have predicted that 250,000 people could be killed or displaced in the offensive.
Over the course of this conflict, President Trump has emboldened Saudi and emirati leaders. He shares their antipathy for Iran and will sell them virtually any weapon they want. The military contractor Raytheon is lobbying Congress and the State Department for permission to sell the Saudis and emiratis billions more dollars’ worth of precision-guided munitions.
The Trump administration, which also supplies the coalition with intelligence, refueling capabilities and other assistance, has sent mixed signals about the Al Hudaydah offensive. While the Pentagon urged the coalition not to attack, a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday made no such explicit request. Instead, he made clear to the emirate leaders “our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and lifesaving commercial imports.” He mildly called for all sides to work with the United Nations on a political solution.
The war began in 2014, when Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the ousted former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the capital, Sana, and much of the rest of the country. In 2015, the Saudi-led coalition, with President Barack Obama’s backing, launched airstrikes against the Houthi forces.
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both Sunni Arab nations, see the Al Hudaydah offensive as a way to break a stalemate in the war and deal a blow to the indigenous Houthis and their backers in Shiite-led Iran, which the Sunnis consider their chief rival for regional influence.
They have accused the Houthi rebels of using the port to smuggle in arms, including missiles, allegedly supplied by Iran to attack Saudi Arabia. A United Nations panel has expressed doubt that Al Hudaydah is a weapons transit point. Experts question whether Iran provided the missiles. Although coalition leaders have argued that the offensive can be carried out quickly, they have repeatedly miscalculated over the years, trapping their countries in a quagmire. The result has been countless civilian deaths, many attributed to indiscriminate coalition bombing attacks. Under international law, these attacks may qualify as war crimes in which the United States and Britain, another arms supplier, are complicit.
In all, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the war in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries and the battleground for a separate struggle by the United States and its regional allies against an affiliate of Al Qaeda. About 22 million Yemenis need humanitarian aid, and 8.4 million are at risk of starvation.
The Trump administration should speak with one voice to its Arab allies, making clear that an attack on Al Hudaydah is a disaster. Arms sales and perhaps other military assistance should be suspended. Working with the Houthis and the United Nations on a cease-fire and a deal for neutral control of the port could be the first step to a political settlement that is the only hope for peace.
oday, the Saudi-led coalition launched a full-scale attack on the port of Hodeidah in Yemen. The Saudis and Emiratis had been urged not to do so by representatives of many humanitarian organisations. Staunch allies of Saudi Arabia such as Britain have warned of the devastating consequences for civilians who will inevitably face the full impact of this military onslaught.
Although Theresa May and Boris Johnson have urged restraint in their personal contacts with the Emirates and with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, their warnings and fears have been ignored.
The problem for Britain is that we are complicit in this attack. It is part of the coalition that supports Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen. Yemen is already blockaded by the Saudi coalition. Repeated warnings that a manmade famine is being generated have been ignored. Britain, as the “penholder” on Yemenat the UN security council, nevertheless takes a nakedly pro-Saudi approach to the conflict. Indeed, a recent presidential statement drafted by Britain had to be suppressed by other members of that same security council. Britain rightly condemns the Houthis for launching sporadic missile attacks on Riyadh, but stays silent on the nightly air attacks by the Saudi air force that kill innocent civilians in Yemen. Last year, I was in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital: on one night alone, there were six terrifying bombing raids.
The British government finds itself not on the side of innocent families who fear the fire that falls from above, but on the side of the perpetrator who has launched a huge military gamble to take Hodeidah from the Houthis. The echoes of what the Russians did in Syria over Aleppo ring out. The government rightly condemned the brutal attack on innocent lives in Aleppo. Where is Britain’s voice of sanity in the looming humanitarian catastrophe in Hodeidah?
This reckless assault to capture Yemen’s main port threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. It is time for the government to make clear it will no longer support what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen and call for an immediate ceasefire. It should align itself absolutely alongside the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, a British international civil servant of huge experience. Any hope he has of achieving a ceasefire and the start of political negotiations is destroyed by today’s onslaught.
Indeed, cynics are saying that the whole reason for the timing of this attack on Hodeidah is to destroy any chance of Griffiths and the United Nations securing the ceasefire upon which those political talks must depend.
Be in no doubt, the immediate risk to civilians of this attack on the densely populated port is terrifying. The UN humanitarian coordinator, Lise Grande, states that “as many as 250,000 people may lose everything– even their lives”; the foreign secretary has acknowledged that 350,000 people could be forced from their homes into the desert beyond, where there is neither water nor food. The wider humanitarian risk is eye-watering: enormous numbers of innocent Yemenis will be at risk of entrapment, displacement, disease and starvation. Turning Hodeidah into a conflict zone would restrict access to the port through which a massive 70% of Yemen’s imports flow. Any disruption to vital imports will be measured in Yemeni lives. Indeed, it is doubtful whether this attack could comply with international humanitarian law.
Finally, apart from risking humanitarian catastrophe and derailing any prospect of peace, respected military experts make clear that the plan for the attack is “lunacy” – destined to fail or draw the coalition into a drawn-out and bloody battle. Even the general leading the UAE’s forces has reportedly admitted that pacifying Hodeidah, if indeed it is possible, will take a very long time. The attention of British ministers and MPs is inevitably focused elsewhere at this time, but we should be unequivocal in our message to the UAE and Saudi Arabia: they will be held accountable for any violations against civilians and breaches of the rules of war carried out by forces that they train, pay or give orders to.
Britain, along with our allies in the US and France, has unique influence to steer Saudi Arabia and the UAE away from this recklessness. Just consider what happens if Iran decides that the international rule-based system is not standing up for international humanitarian law and intervenes further. As supporters of the Saudi/UAE–led coalition and key arms suppliers, we bear a unique responsibility. We cannot look the other way as this catastrophe in Yemen unfolds. We must stand true to our values, to strategic common sense, indeed true to our allies’ best interests and make clear that we can no longer support their war in Yemen.
Thousands of Yemeni lives may hang on us doing the right thing. All our energies in this matter must be dedicated to supporting the United Nations in achieving a ceasefire and the start of the political negotiations upon which the future of this poor, tragic and beautiful country depend.
What is supposed to be a celebratory time for women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia has become another opportunity to advocate for further gender equality in the country.
As the right to drive in one of the world's most conservative countries becomes reality later this month, female activists continue to be arrested for their support of gender parity.
Here's a history of Saudi women's rights and the proposed changes underway in this strictly religious country.
Significant moments in history:
The Saudi government has tight control over women's rights and freedoms. Under the strict interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism, women have limited agency over their decisions to move, dress and work. It takes years, even decades in some cases, to reverse these laws.
Schools: Girls were not allowed to attend school until 1955 and the first university for women did not open until 1970. Male and female students are still separated in different schools, and are only taught by members of their own gender.
Politics: Nora al-Faiz became the highest female government representative in 2009 when she was elected as deputy education minister for women's affairs. It would be another four years before women were allowed to serve on the Shura Council, which serves as an advisory group to the king. The country was also the latest to give women the right to vote in 2011 and to run for local office in 2015.
Right to drive: The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in September 2017 that women would be allowed to drive starting on June 24. Ten women were issued the first round of licenses on June 4.
A long battle in the fight to drive:
Protests against the driving ban date back to 1990, and grassroots campaigns have since popped up in the national fight for the right to drive. A campaign led by Manal al-Sharif called #Women2Drive started in 2011.
While women lack autonomy over many aspects of their lives, the right to drive is one of the most pronounced movements in the country. Saudi Arabia is the only country that still denies women the ability to drive.
The crown prince said he wants women to help the economy, and has begun lifting bans against women participating in the workforce. But women would need more freedom of movement to get to work, a rationale that prompted the ban's lifting.
Arrests: More than a dozen women have been detained by Saudi authorities.
"They are behind bars and they should be behind the wheel," Amnesty International's Samah Hadid said in an interview with USA TODAY.
International support for the detainees came pouring in after the news went viral. Human rights advocates say the act is a "smear campaign" by the government to dispel any hope for progressive changes.
"The message is don’t get any ideas. You don’t actually have any rights," said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.
Whitson said jailing activists is an act by the Crown Prince to quash dissent in Saudi Arabia and that human rights decisions are his to make alone. She explained that imprisoning those most vocal about Saudi women's rights is a tactic to silence and threaten anyone who wants equality.
"I, the crown prince get to decide, I gift you rights. You may not demand them," Whitson said.
The crown prince is known for promises make changes in the country, something that the right to drive initiative seemed to prove.
In addition to allowing women to drive and wanting to include them in the workforce, The Washington Post reported that the crown prince wants to curb extremism in his country and appeal to both the religious conservatives and social liberals. The prince even lifted a decades-long ban on Saudi movie theaters.
But human rights advocates like Hadid said these changes aren't enough. Without action that supports women's liberation, the promises act as just a mirage for the Saudi people.
What women still can't do:
There's still great disparity between men and women in Saudi Arabia.
Women are expected and encouraged to wear the traditional abaya, a long black robe that covers most of a woman's skin.
Without a husband or a male guardian, women have little agency over everyday decisions. They are not allowed to travel, open a bank account, apply for a passport, achieve an education, work, get married or go abroad without permission by a close male relative.
Women and men are also still largely separated from each other. They do not attend the same schools or work in the same spaces. It is against Wahhabism for men and women to be in close proximity to one another if they are not related.
Whitson said that although the right to drive is an important step forward in achieving equality for women in Saudi Arabia, there is still much work to be done in ridding the country of guardianship laws.
Like millions of Pakistani children, Ahmed had to work to support his family. The sexual abuse he suffered is as commonplace as the government’s failure to act.
Awad was 12 when his employer started sexually abusing him. He had a new job in a factory in Kasur and, he says, he knew such abuse was common.
It continued for more than a year. “He used to take my name, and say, ‘Awad you are my gift’ … He said that and kept hurting me.” In Awad’s mind, this was part of his job. “I could not refuse, because he paid me.” All Awad remembers from this time is feeling shame.
The abuse of child workers in northern Pakistan is an open secret. Awad, an orphan who has spent time on the streets and in shelters for children, says he knows many other youngsters who are abused in factories and workshops in Kasur, an extremely conservative city in Punjab.
Ahmed, 11, was sexually abused by the owner of a restaurant in which he worked. “He used to kiss me, and do wrong things to me,” he says. “He used to tell me he won’t let me work at the restaurant if I did not let him do the bad things. He used to tell me he will make sure I won’t work any more … I was scared every day.”
Ahmed was reluctant to tell his parents about the abuse. “I thought people would make fun of us … I would not be able to bring money home. Everything was against me.”
About 3.8 million children work in Pakistan. The majority are employed in the agriculture sector, but many work in leather and shoe factories, in mechanics’ workshops and restaurants.
They are vulnerable to “street sexual abuse”, says Jawwad Bukhari, chief executive of the Alpha Foundation, a local organisation focused on getting children off the street and into schools. “Sexual exploitation of children is an absolute kind of occurrence in this town, and it is immediately connected with work. You can say it is a product of how labour makes children vulnerable,” says Bukhari, who has spent years trying to help children avoid abuse.
Interviews with children, families, organisations and officials in Kasur reveal that many working children, particularly boys, are expected to indulge in sexual activity with employers, peers and acquaintances, often in return for work or accommodation. Victims are often threatened to keep silent, and the mechanism of fear almost always works.
Bukhari estimates at least 90% of all working children in Kasur under the age of 14 experience sexually harassment or other forms of exploitation, and says he has come across hundreds of cases. Few government institutions seem to address the issue. Police in Kasur characterise it as a cultural problem. Spokesperson Sajil Ali says: “It is happening everywhere and there is nothing we can do to physically stop it, until [they] change their minds.”
Waseem Abbas, from the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau, says his department regularly raids homes and locations where they have received a tipoff about gangs or rings of sexual predators, but he too believes lack of awareness and poverty are at the heart of the problem.
“Predators do not realise how inhuman it is to carry out such an act with a child,” Abbas says. “Often these children have no shelter, no families – and those who have families, have to feed them, so they have no choice but to let this become part of their jobs.”
While his department offers shelter and psychological help to street children and those who run away from home, abuse is too widespread in Pakistan to challenge, says Abbas. Tackling the sexual exploitation of children is apparently not a priority for the government, says Bukhari. “They know how widespread it is, they even forget to put it on the core agenda of child welfare. That is the extent of their seriousness.”
According to Sahil, an organisation that works on the sexual harassment of children in Pakistan, more than nine children are abused countrywide each day. Mamtaz Gohar, a senior programme manager at Sahil, says the organisation’s “cruel numbers” reports reflect the scale and nature of the issue. Types of abuse include unwanted kissing or touching, oral sex and rape.
In 2015, a long-running child pornography ring was uncovered after video footage of an estimated 300 children being sexually abused came to light in Hussain Khanwala village. The perpetrators were found to be young men in their 20s and 30s. A commission into child abuse, set up following the Kasur case, found that in the first six months of 2015, 577 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in Punjab.
“Those who are capable of abusing children at such a large scale have protection systems often associated with the government,” Bukhari says. “So obviously it makes sense that the government will neglect the issue.”
In January, Kasur became the focus of renewed scrutiny when the mutilated body of eight-year-old Zainab Ansari was found dumped near her home. She was one of 11 girls between six and eight who were raped and killed in Kasur by the same culprit, who was later found. For Bukhari, these cases were the tip of the iceberg. “The real work we need to do is secure children who are already manipulated in the labour force,” he says. Ahmed did eventually tell his parents, but they did not report the abuse. They were ashamed, and feared the police would not act. Through a friend, Ahmed’s parents managed to find him another job in a shoemaking factory.
Bukhari helped Awad find employment in a leather factory, where he says he feels safe. He continues to be propositioned in the street but now, he says, he has learned how to protect himself.