Counting the Real Costs of the War on Yemen

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

The fighting in Yemen has killed at least 57,000 people, and the real death toll is likely much higher:

The database gives an indication of the scope of the disaster wreaked in Yemen by nearly four years of civil war. At least 57,538 people – civilians and combatants – have been killed since the beginning of 2016, according to the data assembled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED.

That doesn’t include the first nine months of the war, in 2015, which the group is still analyzing. Those data are likely to raise the figure to 70,000 or 80,000 [bold mine-DL], ACLED’s Yemen researcher Andrea Carboni told The Associated Press. The organization’s count is considered by many international agencies to be one of the most credible, although all caution it is likely an underestimate because of the difficulties in tracking deaths.

The “official” death toll remains frozen at around 10,000, and that has allowed the outside world to shrug at the plight of Yemen’s civilian population and conclude that the war can’t be as bad as all that. Marc Lynch recounted a conversation he had with someone in the government:

Our government must know that the death toll is much higher, but it is choosing to accept a very low number to minimize the consequences of our indefensible policy there. When senior U.S. officials are hiding behind obviously outdated and inaccurate information to justify our government’s indifference to the disaster that we have helped to create, there isn’t going to be any urgency in bringing the conflict to a halt. The governments responsible for destroying Yemen predictably have no interest in an accurate accounting of the true costs of the war, and our government is no exception.

Those killed in fighting don’t account for most of the war’s casualties. The 57,000+ killed don’t include the hundreds of thousands that have already perished from hunger and disease, who are victims of this war just as much as the others, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the 14 million people on the verge of famine. The response to Yemen’s extraordinary humanitarian crisis has also been hampered by inadequate information.

Samuel Oakford reports:

As the fight for Hodeidah puts an increasing number of civilians in the line of fire, the UN may have a strategic interest in making such strong statements. Declarations of famine, or even the threat of them, often lead to greater leverage, increased funding, and more media attention.

But the UN cannot declare a famine simply because large numbers of people are going hungry, or even dying. It adheres to the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system – a method of analysing food insecurity designed to pull the process of declaring famine away from politics by using uniform measures that can be reliably compared across countries.

The problem is that collecting the necessary data to determine the extent of food insecurity in the country has proven to be difficult or impossible in many parts of Yemen. Even though we know from reports on the ground that there are clearly parts of Yemen where people are already suffering from famine, there won’t be a declaration of famine because of a lack of reliable information. Oakford continues:

The fact is that the data often follows the deaths. Thomas pointed out that in Somalia, where famine struck in 2011, more than half the starvation-related deaths were adjudged to have occured prior to the UN’s phase 5 declaration.

The same happened in South Sudan. By the time two counties were briefly under IPC phase 5 there in 2017, most of the deaths had already happened. A small portion – 1,500 or so – of those who ultimately perished from starvation-related causes died in those two counties during the period, said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, and author of several books on famine.

“It may be that we are going to have a non-famine declaration [in Yemen], but an indication that hundreds of thousands may have died,” de Waal said. “A million people could die without a [phase] 5 famine being declared.”

Yemen can’t wait for famine to be formally declared, and if the rest of the world doesn’t do something to avert mass starvation in Yemen until after such a declaration it will already be too late for many hundreds of thousands of civilians, and it might end up being too late for as many as 14 million people.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.