Catastrophic Death Toll in US-Saudi War on Yemen Has Been Grossly Downplayed
The UN and corporate media have for years claimed only 10,000 Yemenis were killed in the US/UK-backed Saudi/UAE war. But Yemen’s actual death toll is 70,000 to 80,000. Patrick Cockburn on the whitewashing of the catastrophic war
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Ben Norton.
The United Nations has warned that 14 million Yemenis are at serious risk of famine as the United States continues backing a brutal Saudi and Emirati war which many observers say borders on the genocidal. As Yemen suffers from the worst humanitarian catastrophe on earth, the UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock said that the danger of famine is, quote, “much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives.” Mainstream corporate media outlets have largely ignored or glossed over this catastrophic war since it began in March 2015, despite the fact that the U.S. and British governments have played key roles supporting the relentless Saudi bombing campaign. And even when media outlets have acknowledged the war, they have frequently downplayed and whitewashed just how criminal the assault has been.
One of the most repeated myths that has been endlessly rehashed in the past few years is the claim that only 10,000 Yemenis have been killed from the violence in this war. After 21 months, virtually all major media outlets are still repeating the same death toll, that 10,000 Yemenis have died, which is a figure from January 2017 from the United Nations. Still, in October 2018, this 10,000 death figure is still being repeated by the Associated Press, Agence France Presse, and the New York Times, among other outlets. And this absurd reporting has shown how Yemen’s death toll has been grossly downplayed for years.
Well, a new report in the British newspaper The Independent dispels this 10,000 death toll myth once and for all. In a new piece, titled The Yemen War Death Toll Is Five Times Higher Than We Think, veteran reporter Patrick Cockburn reports that at least 56,000 civilians and combatants were killed in Yemen in the 21 months between January 2016 and October 2018. It’s less than two years. Virtually all of those killed were Yemenis, along with a smaller number of mercenaries hired by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
This figure, this staggering figure of 56,000 dead, is based on the research of scholar Andrea Carboni, who is part of the group the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, ACLED. This researcher said he suspects the total number of people killed in fighting since the start of the U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen is actually between 70,000 and 80,000 dead. Between 70,000 and 80,000 dead, which would be seven to eight times higher than what most media outlets are reporting. And this number of deaths is actually increasing by more than 2,000 per month. As fighting is intensifying, specifically at the port of Hodeida- this is a major Yemeni port city that has been under attack by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And this is still a conservative estimate, because when figures differ this researcher has always erred on the side of using lower estimates. Moreover, this figure does not even include deaths from malnutrition or diseases such as cholera, and Yemen has been suffering from one of the worst cholera epidemics in recorded history.
So joining us to discuss this is the author of this shocking report that is extremely important, as it shows how dozens and dozens of media outlets have been repeating false information on the war in Yemen for two years now. The author, Patrick Cockburn, is an award-winning journalist and a longtime Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. Patrick is also the author of several books, including most recently The Age of jihad. Thanks for joining us again, Patrick.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you for inviting me.
BEN NORTON: Of course. So let’s just start by reviewing some of the details in this report. I mean, I did summarize a lot of them. But just for emphasis, it’s really important that people understand that since January 2017, the United Nations and the Associated Press and other media outlets have been repeating this claim that only 10,000 Yemenis were dead, were killed in the fighting. But you show that actually, in just 21 months, it’s actually over 56,000.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes. You know, it’s been difficult for a long time to prove how many Yemenis were being killed because of difficulty of access, because the Saudis and their allies kept job playing down how many casualties there were. Finally we have figures which are very credible, that are based on multiple sources; from local reports, primarily. There’s quite an active media, local media in Yemen. Local reports in the Yemeni media about how many people are being killed in each incident. And this group ACLED, which is based in Sussex University in the UK, has been assiduously collecting this information, checking it very rigorously, and has finally published it.
So you know, I think it will be, it should be, difficult in the future for people to stick to this very old figure of 10,000 dead which, as you said, is two years old. I can’t think of any other war where you had, first of all, such an enormous underestimate, and second, people have been happy to go along with a figure which is almost two years old, and wasn’t that great to begin with. It was probably an underestimate. Probably come from health facilities. A lot of people never make it to the surviving health facilities in Yemen.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, and I actually want to walk through some of this misleading reporting here, Patrick. And then I want to get your take. So back in January 2017, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reported that 10,000 Yemeni civilians had been killed and 40,000 more Yemenis had been injured. This is January 2017. The war began in March 2015. So this is nearly two years into the war. And they said 10,000 civilians have been killed. Since January 2017, this figure it has stayed the same despite the fact that there have been thousands of U.S. and UK-backed Saudi airstrikes targeting schools, homes, even most recently vegetable markets in which more than a dozen civilians were killed. And in August Saudi Arabia bombed a bus full of children, killing over 50 civilians. So not only has the 10,000 figure not been updated, but in fact, some sources have actually decreased the 10,000 figure, as if Yemenis somehow returned from the dead.
So in August 2018, 19 months after UN OCHA reported that 10,000 Yemeni civilians had been killed, instead most recently the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights claimed that 6,600 Yemeni civilians had been killed, and 10,500 had been injured. So somehow the number of civilian deaths decreased by 4,000. And those were the confirmed deaths. I mean, of course it’s- there’s a reason that it went down. It’s because those are the specific names they had. But it shows that the reporting on this has been so bad that actually the number has not only stayed stagnant, it has actually decreased over time. Can you respond to that?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah. It is astonishing, and it is an indication of how coldly reported the war in Yemen has been. You know, you compare it with any other war in the region, certainly with Iraq, with Syria, you know, great international attention to civilian casualties in, certainly in Syria. Yet really very little interest in how many people are being killed in, in Yemen.
Now, you know, there is some sign that this is changing over the last few weeks in reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the general discrediting of Saudi Arabia. But I wonder, once the Khashoggi affair begins to be forgotten, whether that Yemen will fall off the media map again. It hasn’t been even- it hasn’t been too difficult to work out over the last couple of years that the fighting was getting more intense, rather than less. And there is an important point to be made here, that there have been reports in the last couple of days that 10,000 troops backed by or supplied by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are massing around the port of Hodeidah, this is the last lifeline into Yemen, with the intention of attacking it. So already we’ve seen, you know, the casualties before December last year were generally under 2000 dead a month. Now every month over 2000 and going up. So this new escalation will mean that even more Yemenis will be dying in the conflict.
BEN NORTON: Yeah. You’re referencing a few things here, for our viewers. One was the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a columnist for The Washington Post. He was killed in a consulate in Turkey, the Saudi consulate in Turkey. And I agree with you that it’s interesting to see how there has been more attention in the media to Yemen in response to that killing. But of course, it seems to only be temporary. And then you also referenced the attack on the port of Hodeidah. This is on the western coast of Yemen. It is a crucial lifeline, as you mentioned, where 80 percent of humanitarian aid comes into Yemen.
And this is actually a good segue, Patrick, as I wanted to ask you about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. The United Nations has said for years now that Yemen is suffering from the worst humanitarian catastrophe on the planet. This is because of the war, which is backed by the U.S. and the UK, and this is a bipartisan war here in the United States. It began under President Obama, and has continued under President Trump under Democratic and Republican administrations. And what’s interesting is that even when people do acknowledge the death toll, even if journalists acknowledge that the 10,000 figure is grossly understated, what is mentioned even less, virtually never, is that there have also been hundreds of thousands of deaths in Yemen from humanitarian causes; specifically, preventable diseases, malnutrition, and hunger. And looking at some of these reports, it’s also staggering how little attention these have gotten.
So UNICEF reported that in 2016 alone, 63,000 Yemeni children died from preventable causes; mostly disease and malnutrition. And then in 2017, in November, the group Save the Children reported that another 50,000 Yemeni children had died from hunger and disease. That means that in 22 months of the U.S.-UK-Saudi-Emirati war on Yemen, in 22 months between the beginning of 2016 and November 2017, at least 113,000 Yemeni children died from preventable causes. So this is in addition to what you’ve been reporting, Patrick, on the likely 56,000 who were killed in violence. In addition to that, we see well over 100,000 Yemeni children died from preventable causes. Can you respond to this, as well?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, it’s horrific. And you know, it’s not- a point, actually, that the UN was making recently, I don’t think got picked up very much, was, you know, that famines are pretty uncommon. You know, there was a famine in Somalia some years ago. There was another smaller one in South Sudan. But a famine like this, as big as this, this is very uncommon. I mean, it’s entirely manmade. And one could say it’s been taking place in view of the whole world. But actually it isn’t, because the news of it isn’t being reported.
Now, some of this news is difficult to access. But quite a lot of it is not. You know, it’s pretty obvious what has occurred; that Yemen was always the poorest Arab country, and dependent on imports from the outside. These imports are being cut off. The economy’s being destroyed. So even such such food that is available is too expensive for much of the population. They can’t buy it.
The other point is when you have a population that is just on the edge of starvation, and has been so for some years, that they get weaker and weaker. So any disease, any increase in hunger, will carry them off. You know, we’ve had this very big cholera epidemic which has killed at least 2,000 people. You know, we’re talking these figures as if there was somebody going house to house checking. But there aren’t. You know, far more people dying in their homes, in camps, far from the main roads. So the real figures are probably much greater. And you know, it’s rather extraordinary that this story has been sort of kept off the front pages, has not been leading the news anywhere in the world. And maybe that will change, now. But you know, given what we’ve seen over the last few years, I’m not confident in that.
BEN NORTON: Yeah. And then finally, I want to talk about another important detail that you mentioned at the end of your most recent report, you’ve reported on this in the past as well, and your colleague Robert Fisk has at The Independent, reported on how Saudi Arabia is in fact intentionally targeting food production inside Yemen. You mentioned that the famine, the near-famine conditions that affect 14 million Yemenis who are on the verge of famine, this is a manmade catastrophe. It’s not a natural disaster. It’s an intentional strategy being pursued by the U.S. and UK-backed Saudi coalition that is trying to force the population into submission.
And specifically, in your reporting you cited the research of Professor Martha Mundy, who is a Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics, who is a world expert on Yemen’s agriculture and on the food production inside Yemen. She has documented in meticulous detail how the Saudi coalition, with support from the U.S. and the UK, has been intentionally bombing food depots, has been bombing farms, has been bombing vegetable markets and stores inside Yemen to starve the population. Can you speak about this important detail as well, which gets almost no attention in mainstream media?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah. Again, this is very important, because this is a meticulous study of what’s happened, really, from the … You know, this bombing started in the spring of 2015. It was led by Saudi Arabia, and particularly was the initiative of the Crown Prince, but at that stage he was defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, who has become so notorious since because of the Khashoggi murder. Originally the operation was called Decisive Storm, and apparently they thought it would take a few weeks. By the end of 2016, according to the study, they appear to have become more and more frustrated. So they had started [attacking] infrastructure, food production, food storage.
If you go from that period to today, 220 fishing boats on the Red Sea are being destroyed. The fish catch is down by 50 percent. You know, this means a lot for people who are already on the age of starvation. And the attack on the economic infrastructure as a whole means that, you know, there are secondary effects if the price of fuel goes up. So you know, you are an impoverished farmer, and he can’t afford the fuel to put in a pump to irrigate his land, or enough … they don’t have the money to hire a tractor or rent a tractor for a week or so, because no fuel has become more expensive.
All the evidence is that there is a very deliberate economic war going on, directed at the Yemenis, in order to drive them to negotiate. It hasn’t happened yet. It probably won’t happen. But all this is intensifying the hunger and the starvation. Making It easier for cholera to spread; most people have no resort except dirty water. So all these things are coming together with this intensifying of the military war, and heavy civilian casualties, and the worsening famine in all parts of the country.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, Patrick, and on that note of economic war, another key detail that’s been largely glossed over is that the Saudi-backed government in South Yemen moved the central bank from the North, from the capital of Sana’a, which has prevented thousands of workers- especially medical workers- from being paid for two years now. So we have seen that more than half of the medical centers in the country have been destroyed or damaged, and that even the medical workers who are still working to try to save lives have not been paid.
So thanks for joining us here at The Real News and discussing the importance of this kind of independent journalism, and reporting critically on the war, because you’re one of the only people doing it. Thanks a lot, Patrick.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you.
BEN NORTON: We were speaking with Patrick Cockburn, who is an award-winning journalist and a veteran reporter for The Independent. We were speaking about his most recent report that shows how, although many media reports have claimed only 10,000 Yemenis have died in the U.S.-backed Saudi war, in fact, the figure is likely between 70,000-80,000. I’m Ben Norton reporting for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us.