The place in the world with the most violent conflict, Yemen, is also home to the world’s largest aid operation, or about $2 billion helping more than 11 million civilians in dire need. Yet the killing and the saving of lives are not simply parallel efforts. Since December, the United Nations has used the humanitarian cause to persuade the warring parties to negotiate a deal providing access for the delivery of aid. Out of shared compassion toward innocent life, the U.N. hopes, the Yemeni combatants could eventually piece together a political deal.
On Thursday, the U.N.’s special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, told the Security Council that Yemen may finally be “nearing the end of its war” – even as he admits the dangers of optimism in a country and a region so divided by tribe, religion, and big-power influence. He said the Houthi rebels and a pro-government coalition have expressed “unanimous desire” to quickly move toward a political solution for all Yemenis. That sentiment may be driven in part by the United Arab Emirates’ plan to withdraw the bulk of its forces.
The big breakthrough was a deal reached in Stockholm last December to open the port city of Hodeidah for safe passage of aid convoys. Last Sunday and Monday, the warring parties met again on a ship in the Red Sea. The urgency is obvious. After four years of war, tens of thousands of people have been killed and 80% of Yemenis need aid. The “real story has been – and should continue to be – the humanitarian catastrophe that continues to unfold in Yemen,” says David Beasley, head of the World Food Program.
The aid delivery is an apolitical activity that requires respect for humanitarian law. Such aid is “neutral, impartial, and independent,” said Mr. Beasley. Such qualities are also necessary for rule of law, which is the bedrock of democratic government. The deal thus puts universal ideals into the particulars of a temporary suspension of conflict.
Although challenges remain to deliver the aid, “they are not stopping the world’s largest aid operation,” says the U.N. relief chief, Mark Lowcock.
The Yemeni factions have another reason to cooperate. As tensions build in the Gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia along with its ally, the United States, Yemen could become a major battlefield for all-out war. Then the differences between Yemenis would surely look small. Better to bridge those differences now, starting with the most basic of common concerns: aid to the innocent people caught up in conflict.