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Yemen's Warring Parties To Meet. In The Meantime, Civilians Are Starving


Yemen's warring parties have said they'll take part in peace talks next month in Sweden. It'll be the first talks between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government in two years. The public's attention has recently been focused on the war there because of grim pictures of starving children and a growing disenchantment with Saudi Arabia. Save the Children said this week that 85,000 children may have died from starvation since the war began nearly four years ago. David Miliband recently returned from Yemen. The former British foreign secretary is now the president of the International Rescue Committee. Mr. Miliband, thank you so much for being with us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: What did you see when you were in Yemen?

MILIBAND: Yemen is a country that is in meltdown. It's a country where doctors and nurses are not being paid, where children are literally starving to death, where the United Nations has said 14 million people are on the risk of - at the risk of famine and where the institutions of government are simply not there to deliver the basic necessities for people. It's a war zone where the Saudi-led coalition have run 18,000 bombing sorties. And it's a war zone where the Houthi rebels launch missile strikes against Saudi positions but also into Saudi Arabia itself. And the victims are, first of all, the innocent people of Yemen.

MARTIN: Let's focus in on the humanitarian crisis there. I mean, why does it have to be that so many people are on the brink of starvation? I mean, why isn't food aid able to get in there to the people who need it?

MILIBAND: Well, there's a simple reason for that, which is that the war is preventing two things. It's preventing the flow of humanitarian and commercial goods. There's a chokehold on the port of Hodeidah, which is now the front line of the war. That port is the entryway for 80 percent of humanitarian goods, and only a fraction of what's needed is going through. Sana'a Airport is closed.

Secondly, the war is blocking the access of humanitarian workers. My own organization, the International Rescue Committee, has 800 staff working with and for us in Yemen, but we can't do our work because of the fighting. The absolute tragedy here is that 22, 23 days after Secretary Mattis and Secretary Pompeo called for a cease-fire - and they did belatedly argue for cease-fire - and it's being ignored notably this week by the Saudi-led coalition, which the U.S. and others are supporting, who have resumed the bombing. I can report to you from the front line that IRC staff are seeing an uptick in the bombing and the level of violence since the cease-fire.

MARTIN: So it's your belief that the humanitarian crisis will not abate until the war subsides. And you are seeing an increase in the bombing even after the Trump administration called for a cease-fire. So what is the answer here?

MILIBAND: The answer is for a cessation of hostilities, a cease-fire starting in Hodeidah. Secondly, it is the full flow of humanitarian goods and commercial traffic. And then, thirdly and critically, the United Nations special envoy, a very experienced British diplomat by the name of Martin Griffiths, needs to convene the parties to ensure that they begin to build a sustainable peace.

MARTIN: Didn't that already happen? Wasn't there an effort in that direction already, and the Houthis didn't show up?

MILIBAND: That's a very good point. And the - Martin Griffiths, the diplomat, tried to summon the parties to Geneva. There was then a falling-out about the Houthi delegation, and the Houthis refused to turn up. They're now being resummoned, but there needs to be international leverage. The United States has a deep relationship with Saudi Arabia. People like me don't say that the U.S. should break its relationship with Saudi Arabia. What we say is it should use its relationship.

MARTIN: It is your view that the only way the war is going to come to an end is if the U.S. pressures Saudi Arabia to end it.

MILIBAND: Well, the U.S. is the game-changer in this. The U.S. is the main arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. And the relationship the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia needs to be put to good use. It's vital that the rightful call by the secretary of defense and the secretary of state to halt this war that is doing no good for American interests, never mind American values - it's vital that that call is followed through diplomatically at the highest levels.

MARTIN: David Miliband is the president of the International Rescue Committee. Thank you so much for your time.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much for your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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