How a ruthless war festered into the world’s worst cholera outbreak

In August, 500,000 Yemenis were suffering from cholera, an extremely contagious bacterial infection. Astoundingly, merely a month later, this figure had risen to 700,000. Left untreated, cholera can kill within the first few hours of infection. With Yemen’s public services in a state of disarray, the death toll has climbed to more than 2,000 since late April. The cause of this current state of emergency means that it extends far beyond the health issue.   Violence has plagued Yemen since 2014, when the Houthis first became a prominent insurgent force in the country. The following year, Saudi Arabia launched a destructive air campaign aimed at controlling the rebels and bolstering Yemen’s UN-recognised government. Saudi Arabia has fronted a coalition of Sunni Arab states against the Shia Houthi rebels.

Cholera in Yemen

Using airstrikes, an air and naval blockade, and ground troops, the Saudi coalition have attempted to grind Yemen to a halt. The Saudi air force is culpable for the majority of civilian deaths during the conflict, twice as many as the other groups combined. The UK provides the Saudi coalition with arms, which was the subject of a recent high court case.

It has been strongly suggested that the cholera outbreak is due to the Saudi coalition’s tactic of striking civilians and vital infrastructure. Devastatingly for Yemeni citizens, only 45% of health facilities are in operation, leaving the remaining services under immense pressure. The blockade of Houthi controlled areas has caused food, fuel and medical supplies to become scarce. This has lead to the closure of the country’s cancer centre, lack of treatment for diabetics, and complete unavailability of dialysis. Moreover, the government has suspended pay for public sector employees working in rebel-held areas and, as a result, about 30,000 health workers have not received a salary for almost a year. In May 2017, Trump reversed a decision made under the Obama administration to prohibit the sale of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, agreeing to sell $500m worth of such weapons as part of a $110bn deal. Since the start of the conflict, Britain has sold nearly £3bn (figure from 2016) worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. For us as British citizens, the very serious question raised by this is the accountability of our government for alleged war crimes in Yemen.

Under the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), if there is even a chance that weapons sold on the international market are being used in a way that violates international humanitarian law, trade must be suspended immediately. Amnesty International has recorded over 32 unlawful airstrikes from the Saudi coalition side, in which 300 civilians have been killed.

Britain is a signatory to an international convention which bans cluster bombs. Despite this,  British-made cluster bombs have been found in Yemen. Apparently assured by Saudi Arabia, the UK government is effectively ignoring global treaties which are put in place to protect people in war zones, as well as snubbing the UN, along with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International and Oxfam.

Materials disclosed to the court reveal that in February 2016 the head of the Export Control Organisation advised the then business secretary that exports to Saudi Arabia should be suspended. Despite this, the High Court in London dismissed a legal challenge from the NGO Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which sought to halt arms sales to Saudi.

Public opinion is drastically opposed to our country’s complicity in the deaths of innocent civilians: only 18 per cent of respondents to a July 2017 poll commissioned by the Independent supported arms transfers to Saudi “while the Middle Eastern state is engaged in Yemen’s civil war”. Yet the UK still continues to fund the coalition.

STAND supporters across Britain want to clarify our condemnation of the transgression of international humanitarian law taking place, which has culminated in a health crisis and broader humanitarian emergency. Fears of a growing radicalisation in Yemen are mounting, due to the absence of governance and civil society. Now is the time for concerted global action.


This blog post was written by STAND UK's Student Director Daisy Goodall, who studies Politics and IR at the University of Bristol.

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