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Why Isn’t There More Outrage Over Yemen?

Yemen is suffering one of the greatest contemporary man-made humanitarian disasters.
yemen airstrikes sa'ada

Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch was talking about the war on Yemen last week, and said this:

What I find more disturbing, understanding the limited coverage, is the absence of a framing of a narrative into the terror that’s being brought on the Yemeni people. You know, there’s this global outrage when Brussels Airport and a coffee shop is struck, and Yemenis are asking me, “Why is there no global outrage when our schools, when our universities, when our hospitals, when our clinics, or when football fields, when playgrounds are bombed with U.S. bombs? Where is the outrage at attacks on civilians here in Yemen?” [bold mine-DL] And the absence of that parallel framing, of that comparison, is very, very difficult for Yemenis to understand.

This touches on something I said in another post on the war. War crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen are treated as accidents even when they aren’t. Despite the fact that they illegally declared an entire region of the country to be a military target, Saudi claims that they don’t attack civilian targets deliberately are often accepted at face value. Client governments are usually given the benefit of the doubt even when they don’t deserve it.

That still doesn’t explain why there isn’t more outrage about the humanitarian crisis created by the Saudi-led blockade. Considering that Yemen is suffering one of the greatest contemporary man-made humanitarian disasters, how is there not more outrage against the governments responsible for creating that disaster? How is it that it can be greeted with such indifference outside of the country where it’s happening? I offered some possible reasons last week, and I’ll say a little more about it here.

I suspect that the lack of international outrage stems in part from the example set by political leaders in each country. There is some public debate and criticism in Britain about the Cameron government’s support for the war, but there isn’t a lot of it. There is almost none here because very few members of Congress want to say anything about it one way or the other. If we assume that most people take their foreign policy cues from political leaders, there is so little outrage because there are so few politicians even talking publicly about the war, much less criticizing it. Because the blockade is the result of a U.N. Security Council resolution, the other major powers are implicated in the disaster the blockade has caused, and that gives them an incentive not to draw attention to it.

Unfortunately, a lot of coverage of the war in the West has accepted the framing of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war that the Saudis and their allies would like it to have. Despite Iran’s negligible role in the conflict, this framing allows the Saudis to present the war dishonestly as “self-defense” against Iranian “expansion” that many Western audiences are already predisposed to believe. That in turn makes it easier for many people to continue paying little or no attention to the victims of the Saudi-led intervention. The Saudis are supposedly on “our” side in regional conflicts, and so their abuses and wrongdoing are not judged as harshly or they are simply ignored all together. The civilian victims of military campaigns by U.S. clients and allies tend to be overlooked in Western media more often than civilian victims of other governments, and this conflict has been no exception.