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Frankly, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.
We live in a world saturated with information; in a few taps and clicks even the most basic of decisions can be guided by an obscure Wiki page. Nothing new there. Yet, as the power of the internet grows, our intoxication with it does likewise and we recede further into our comfortable, sepia-filtered lives. As we do, we continue to chronically fail to preserve the most basic of human rights to millions of people around the world.
Whole countries have been allowed to suffer, their struggles neglected by the people and media of Britain. Yemen has sat at the top of the list of the worst humanitarian crises for years and, as we thoughtlessly continue with our lives, the people of Yemen are left questioning what they have done to deserve such neglect. I too was left with a similar question when I began to research the extent of the crises and indeed even as I write this, I struggle to come to terms with the answers.
The war in Yemen has been waging for many years. In late 2014, the Houthi gained control of Sanaa, a rebel movement that arose from the instability brought about by President Hadi, who gained power after an Arab Spring in 2011. Alarmed by the rise of the Houthi group (who were believed to be backed by Iran), Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states began an air campaign against them. They received support from the UK, US and France. Four years of military stalemate followed, until in November 2017, the launch of a ballistic missile caused the Saudi coalition to tighten its blockade. In June 2018, the coalition launched an attack against the Houthi-controlled port city of Al-Hudaydah; 6 months later there was a ceasefire.
By August 2019, fighting erupted again.
Throughout this war, the UK has been sending humanitarian aid while also selling weapons to the Saudi coalition, action that MP Andrew Mitchell defended on Newsnight as a necessary evil.
“Paradoxically, if the weapons are supplied by Britain, we have more chance of ensuring that those weapons are used in accordance with the rules of war.” He went on to say that, “Britain is effectively complicit in creating a famine, in the 21st century,” a position he noted as absurd as, “one arm of the government in supplying the weapons and the other arm getting food in there.”
The need for humanitarian aid is paramount and calls for it often reiterate the same catchy facts: worst humanitarian crisis in the world; a child dies every 10 minutes from malnutrition or disease; the cholera epidemic is the largest recorded in history; and coronavirus has brought the healthcare system to complete collapse. Yet, while such trivia often makes up for most media coverage, there is little work being done to truly portray the extent of the devastation and the heartbreaking stories of Yemeni adults and children grappling with their very survival.
Journalists have reported that there is difficulty in getting into Yemen, as both sides of the conflict must agree to their entry. Though this poses difficultly, especially for fresh video footage, this does not account for the extent of the dismal coverage over the course of the many years that the conflict has been raging. To put the extent of the negligence in perspective, the Royal Wedding in 2018 had triple the amount of coverage that Yemen had over the course of the whole year.
Western bias against the Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern world runs deep and has grown stronger. Rampant islamophobia now festers in many Western societies. It comes as a direct consequence of a failure in education systems to ensure an adequate understanding of the wider world and is facilitated by misinformation and media distortion of the relationship between jihadist groups and the wider Muslim population. It is common to see an aspect of extrapolation between a certain group’s violent ideology to the religion as a whole, a heinous misconstruction of a peaceful religion’s beliefs.
Yet, the bias cannot simply be held as an offshoot of islamophobia but an amalgamation of this and of a long-standing, preconceived stereotype of what someone from the Middle East might be like. It is more ignorance of an area that is very different from our own and a lack of historical understanding as to why conflict originates in the first place. Furthermore, a stereotype of violence and an assumption of war, famine and other civil unrest, adds to this picture.
Charles Krauthammer wrote about the media coverage in the Middle East, “knowing very little about the history of the Middle East and seeing two peoples vying for the same territory, the media incessantly draw the two parties as morally equivalent.”
So part of it is an inherent bias, founded upon a perpetuation of negative and uninformed stereotypes but once we compare the treatment of Yemen’s crisis with other humanitarian crises in the world, we begin to see that Yemen might in fact be one of the lucky ones that has actually been reported on: a horrifying prospect indeed. Often favouring news that is more anglo-centric, it is frightening to see how little we know of what is going on in the wider world.
Central African Republic, Somalia, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Nigeria, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo: this is barely a substantive list but how many of these countries did you know were going through humanitarian crises?
Moreover, running parallel to ignorance is detachment; having grown accustomed to the horrors of war and famine through books, games, films, and TV shows, it has become difficult to truly comprehend reality and distinguish it from the short-lived emotions expected from us with fiction. To put it simply, we are less compelled to act if the news does not reach us.
The saturation of information has led to complacency both in terms of education of current affairs in the wider world and doing something about it when we see it. We simply assume that if there was something horrible going on in the world, then we would know about it, through mainstream media or social media: someone, somewhere will be angry – no?
So perhaps the fundamental problem is the devaluation of human suffering. The glitterati of Hollywood is more outrageous and absorbing. The fault, therefore, is very much on us, too. Our complacency and ignorance is the first thing that needs to change.
It is not enough to expect news to reach us. We need to shift our focus away from our own bubbles. Once we have learned of these atrocities, action needs to be taken. I hope that we can learn this lesson and grow some compassion before we, in our laziness, have wiped out a whole country.