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US lawmakers call on Trump administration to restore aid to Yemen

Citing coronavirus concerns, Democrats in both the House and Senate describe a dire need for aid in war-torn Yemen, where virus mortality rates remain around 25 percent
Hashem Mahmoud Atin, a ten-month-old displaced Yemeni child suffering from acute malnutrition and who is unable to reach a hospital for treatment, is held by his mother on 3 September (AFP/File photo)

Scores of lawmakers are calling on the State Department to reconsider US assistance to Yemen that was suspended by the Trump administration earlier this year. 

Led by Congressman Ted Deutch, more than 50 Democratic House Representatives submitted a joint letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing their concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen. 

The Trump administration in March halted $73m in aid over fears that the Houthi movement was seizing control of the funds. 

In the letter, sent on Wednesday, lawmakers called the cuts "shortsighted", stressing that aid to Yemen is more important than ever given the extra assistance needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic in the war-torn country. 

"The challenges in Yemen are multifaceted & complex, but progress is impossible w/o sustained US engagement and restored US assistance," Deutch said in a post to Twitter, sharing the letter. "Democrats in Congress stand ready to actively assist the State Department in bringing peace and stability to the people of Yemen".

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As of late June, around 25 percent of confirmed cases in Yemen were fatal - one of the highest Covid-19 mortality rates in the world -  with only a few hundred ventilators available for a population of 27.5 million.

With only half of the country's medical facilities functioning, and with fewer than 10 medics for every 10,000 people, Yemen is more than 50 percent below the basic health coverage benchmark outlined by the World Health Organisation.

In addition to a reinstating of US aid, the lawmakers asked the State Department to pressure Gulf allies, namely the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, "to deliver significant contributions to humanitarian funding for Yemen".

Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, has been leading a coalition against the Houthi movement in Yemen for years, and are often criticised - particularly by the US Congress - for the civilian death toll caused by air strikes. 

In August, the UN warned that Yemen was approaching both famine and economic collapse, after the agency's fundraiser for Yemen in June fell short of its goal by $1bn, leaving a large gap in funding for its aid programmes.

"Only 21 percent of the 2020 humanitarian appeal for Yemen is met, primarily because of a drop in funding from Gulf states," the lawmakers noted. "Saudi Arabia has delivered less than 5 percent of its $500 million pledge [and] neither the United Arab Emirates (UAE) nor Kuwait has pledged or delivered any funding at all."

A push from the Senate 

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also submitted a companion letter with 18 signatories, all Democrats, to Pompeo on Wednesday. 

Republicans have refused to sign onto either initiative, standing by the White House's stance that restoring US aid to Yemen could empower the Iran-backed Houthi movement.

"While USAID faces challenges disbursing aid in Houthi-controlled areas, any suspension risks the lives of countless Yemenis, while letting Houthi leaders off the hook for their own failures," the Senators' letter reads. 

"Cutting humanitarian assistance will prolong the conflict in Yemen by allowing Houthi leadership to deflect blame for their failure onto the United States and lessening U.S. credibility as a voice for peace in Yemen. To be clear, we do not believe the Houthis should be given a pass for impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance, failing those they rule, and attacking Saudi Arabia, but we also do not believe that the Yemeni people should be punished for these failures.

The messages from lawmakers comes a month after a coalition of humanitarian groups sent a similar letter to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), also asking for aid to be restored. 

The humanitarian groups said that while they "harbor no illusions about the difficult operating environment across Yemen", the suspension of aid is "increasingly out of step" with the situation on the ground.

"In such dire circumstances, it is not justifiable to withhold funding for some humanitarian activities in order to leverage improved operating conditions for others," the August letter read.

Yemen has seen a resurgence in fighting this year with the number of bombings in the first half of 2020 doubling those of the previous period.

Famine and hunger are on the rise, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and if humanitarian assistance does not improve, the number of people facing acute food insecurity this year will increase to about 3.2 million people.