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U.S. Support Of Saudi Bombing Campaign In Yemen Comes Under Scrutiny


Now to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, Yemen. Saudi Arabia is leading a bombing campaign there with U.S. support, and that support is under growing scrutiny. In the three years since the Saudis entered the war, the U.N. has documented more than 17,000 civilians killed or wounded, mostly from airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition. A deadly outbreak of cholera and severe malnutrition are adding to the crisis. David Miliband runs the International Rescue Committee, and I spoke with him when he was in Yemen earlier this week.

DAVID MILIBAND: This has been a really eye-opening trip because one can read about 22 million people in humanitarian need, which is the statistic for Yemen, but then when one sees, in the capital, malnutrition - babies having their - or young children having their arms measured for whether or not they're malnourished and then the red mark showing that they are severely acutely malnourished. I've seen lines, maybe a hundred cars and 30 trucks waiting for fuel because there's no fuel at the gas station.

I got as close to Hodeidah, which is the current center of the fighting. And there, our staff, who've evacuated there, told me about relatives who'd been killed by shelling and landmines and missile attacks. So what one feels is this is a country on the edge of catastrophe. It's a country that is crying out for a cease-fire that allows space for a political process to take place and for the humanitarian needs, which are desperate to be met.

SHAPIRO: We heard last month that there was a risk that if the siege on the port city of Hodeidah began, then access to medicine and food to the rest of the country would be cut off. Have you seen that happen?

MILIBAND: Well, we've already seen humanitarian supplies - medicine but also food, gasoline - we've seen that reduced by 50, 60, 70 percent as a result of the restrictions on entry to the port. If there is a full-scale siege, then yes, that will have an absolute devastating humanitarian effect for the 300,000 or so people who are living in Hodeidah. But it also threatens to cut off a lifeline for the rest of the country.

SHAPIRO: In other countries, when war is severe has broken out, people have fled. This has led to the current refugee crisis. In Yemen, there is really no place to flee to. So how are people who are caught in the middle of this getting by?

MILIBAND: Well, that's a really good point because, obviously, north of Yemen is Saudi Arabia, one of the belligerents in this fight. To the south is the sea and then Somalia. There have been a few refugees who've gone to Somalia. To the far, far east, you're into Oman. So what you have is two things going on. One, internal displacement, people moving from the front line of the battle to safer zones - and we've got about 3 million internally displaced people. But you also have people just staying in their homes trying to eke out a living. This was a very poor country before the fighting started. And the fighting that started, then, has sent this country into a terrible vicious cycle where the worst of humanitarian catastrophe - cholera, malnutrition - has struck hard.

SHAPIRO: Do you hold the U.S. at all responsible for this? The U.S. has supported the Saudi air campaign in Yemen.

MILIBAND: Yes, I think the U.S. has a threefold responsibility in respect to this crisis. First of all, the U.S. supported the coalition from 2015, the Saudi-led coalition. And they've effectively done so without demur. Last week, Secretary Pompeo certified to Congress that the Saudi-led coalition was taking sufficient steps to protect civilians even though 10,000 civilians have been killed. Secondly, there's also obviously the fact that the U.S. is 60 to 70 percent responsible for the arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the preponderant sales of arms.

And the third responsibility is a really important one. As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. should be leading the drive to tackle these threats to regional peace and security. The U.N. General Assembly is meeting next week in New York. President Trump will be speaking. Secretary Pompeo will be there. World leaders will be there. I want to see the world wake up to what's happening in Yemen. I want to see the United States taking the appropriate role for a global superpower, which is to be a diplomatic superpower, not just a military superpower.

SHAPIRO: This war has been going on for years, and that hasn't happened. What makes you think it would happen now?

MILIBAND: You asked me what should happen, not what I hope will happen. And I think that...

SHAPIRO: Understood.

MILIBAND: ...The growing severity of the crisis should be a wake-up call. Any person of good conscience who sees one of the poorest countries in the world pummeled in this way - and no side in this conflict is an angel. So what I am looking for is the world to come to its senses because, after all, who wins when a country like Yemen - 28 million people, a large country in the Middle East - is left in chaos? It's not the people of Yemen. There's no win amongst those who are fighting. I tell you who wins. The winners are the extremist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS who are growing in this country. This is not isolated from the world's global terrorist problem. If we're not careful, this will become the incubator of further terrorist problems.

SHAPIRO: David Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

Thank you for speaking with us.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.