Millions at Risk for Starvation

The U.S. must work to stop the humanitarian crisis in war-torn Yemen, the head of Oxfam tells a Tufts audience

children with basket of moldy bread in Yemen

The United States “can and will be complicit in the starvation of fourteen million people” if it does not halt its military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that is fighting in Yemen, said Abby Maxman, president and CEO of Oxfam America, speaking on November 26 at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Maxman and the leaders of four other major humanitarian organizations had released a joint statement earlier the same day calling for swift action by the United States and warning that without an immediate ceasefire, opening of ports, and other measures to stabilize the economy of Yemen and allow aid organizations to provide relief, “countless” Yemenis will likely die this winter.

The United States has significant influence on the conflict, which has extended for more than three and a half years and has led to “the largest humanitarian crisis today,” with a civilian being killed every three hours and famine threatening millions, Maxman said. Oxfam believes it is essential to help alleviate suffering by providing humanitarian aid, but “without getting at underlying causes, that’s not good enough,” she added. “This is a conflict that can be stopped.”

Abby MaxmanAbby Maxman
The war in Yemen, which has evolved into a proxy war, pits a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition against Iran-allied Houthi rebels. It has killed thousands of civilians and led to the worst cholera outbreak in history, with more than one million people infected, Maxman said. The United States supports the coalition with intelligence assistance and arms sales, although earlier in November the Trump administration announced that the U.S. would stop refueling the coalition’s aircraft engaged in the war.

A growing number of U.S. lawmakers, including some Republicans, have criticized the U.S. involvement in the war, and support for that position increased in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, Maxman said. The CIA concluded with a high degree of confidence that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia ordered Kashoggi’s murder, but President Trump has refused to rebuke Saudi Arabia, at times referring to the importance of arms sales to the kingdom for the U.S. economy.

Despite the president’s position, momentum for a change in U.S. policy is rising among those who believe “the U.S. stands for more than just a dollar sign,” Maxman said. “We have a responsibility to use our global leadership for good and not just ‘anything goes, as long as you can pay for it.’” She said Oxfam was urging its supporters to call Congress to back bipartisan efforts to end U.S. involvement in the war, as well as promoting peace talks to end the conflict.

When questioned by Fletcher research professor Alex de Waal during the question-and-answer period after her talk, Maxman said she supported prosecuting the men in charge of the coalition’s military campaign for war crimes. De Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation and author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, pointed out that United Nations Security Council Resolution 2417 states that using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime. He asked whether it’s time that the “crown princes” behind the crisis in Yemen be prosecuted.

“I would say, yes, it is time,” Maxman said. “We’ve seen the weaponization of food and aid. . . . It’s appalling, in this day and age, that this can continue to happen.”

In addition to Oxfam America, the signatories to the joint statement to which Maxman referred in her talk were the leaders of the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, CARE US, and the Norwegian Refugee Council, USA. The statement acknowledges that the U.S. is a generous humanitarian donor in Yemen, but says, “these contributions pale in comparison to the harm caused by U.S. military support and diplomatic cover to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at

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