Dick Durbin: "Count Me In" for Tying Saudi Arms to Stopping Yemen Famine

03/27/2017 02:33 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2017

On March 24, I had the opportunity to ask Illinois Senator Dick Durbin about U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, the Saudi blockade at Hodeida, and what Durbin could do to pressure Saudi Arabia to stop the famine in Yemen. Here is the text of our exchange:

Q. "I'm very concerned about U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, I'm very concerned about the United Nations' famine warning for Yemen - and the Red Cross - and particularly the Saudi blockade at Hodeida which the UN and the aid groups say is the thing that could tip Yemen into famine, with hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children at risk of starvation. Ten Senators yesterday sent a bipartisan letter to Tillerson saying: we need a diplomatic surge within weeks in order to save Yemen from famine. I wonder what you can do using your leverage with the Saudis, publicly and privately. Trump wants to sell them more weapons. That’s an opportunity for Congress and the Senate to exert leverage. What can you do to stop the famine in Yemen and open up Hodeida to humanitarian aid and the Red Cross?"
Sen. Durbin: "I hope you saw Nick Kristof's piece ... he talked about worldwide famine, and really zeroed in on Yemen, because what the Saudis are doing with their blockade he believes has created famine circumstances in that country. I didn't know about this letter by my ten colleagues, I certainly would join in it in a heartbeat. And if we have a chance to bring up a Saudi arms sale and condition it on some move toward resolving that conflict and lessening the human suffering, count me in."
In Yemen, the World Food Program estimates that 80% of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In short, millions of innocent people will starve to death without concerted and urgent action in the coming weeks...In Yemen, we ask that the Department of State work urgently with stakeholders to persuade combatants to permit humanitarian groups increased access to Red Sea ports like Hodeida to deliver much-needed assistance to vulnerable communities.

Here's what Nick Kristof said about Yemen:

In particular, the catastrophe in Yemen - the country with the greatest number of people at risk of famine - should be an international scandal. A Saudi-led coalition, backed by the United States, has imposed a blockade on Yemen that has left two-thirds of the population in need of assistance. In Yemen, “to starve” is transitive. The suffering there gets little attention, partly because Saudi Arabia mostly keeps reporters from getting to areas subject to its blockade. I’ve been trying to enter since the fall, but the Saudi coalition controls the air and sea and refuses to allow me in. In effect, the Saudis have managed to block coverage of the crimes against humanity they are perpetrating in Yemen, and the U.S. backs the Saudis. Shame on us.

Some in the Trump Administration want further military escalation. This week, the principals committee of senior national security aides may consider a proposal from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to escalate U.S. support for the Saudi-led assault on Hodeida. But some advisers to President Trump share the concerns that led the Obama Administration to reject this proposal in the past: that the assault was unlikely to succeed in dislodging the entrenched, well-armed rebels and would worsen the humanitarian crisis.

Senators have spoken up about the need for urgent diplomatic action to pressure the Saudis to open Hodeida to food imports and avert famine. Now the question is what Members of Congress will do to back up that demand with pressure. You can add your voice here.

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