Countering aggressors isn’t the antithesis of humanitarian missions

Baraa Shiban
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is in its third week with no signs of it letting up. Worldwide, people are watching the news and the unfolding humanitarian crisis. The Middle East is no stranger to conflicts. That is why millions of people in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen can easily relate to the suffering of the Ukrainian people. The significant difference is how INGOs, media outlets, and commentators have reacted to the conflict in Ukraine compared to conflicts in the Middle East.

There seems to be a consensus amongst INGOs in their media campaigns when addressing the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. You cannot resolve the humanitarian problem without Russia stopping and reversing its military operation. The European Union and the United States came together to prevent the collapse of the Ukrainian state as such a scenario would be devastating to the whole of Europe and will open a humanitarian catastrophe beyond repair.

I am someone who lived through the horrors of war and watched as the Houthi militias stormed into the Yemeni capital by force. Many stories can be told about wars, from refugees trying to cross the border to families trapped behind frontlines to the sound of shelling through the night. Nothing is more devastating the seeing the collapse of your nation-state.

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One’s country is the safety net that keeps the cohesion social fabric and ensures the safety of all of its citizens. Nothing can replace the everyday peace and quiet that Europeans and many other nations have experienced for decades resulting from the law and order that runs smoothly through the state structure.

I escaped from Sana’a to the city of Aden in the South of Yemen after the Houthis started hunting down journalists, activists, and human rights workers. The rise of militias makes your own country very alien. It is not a story that is unique to me. My encounters with activists from Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq tell me a very similar story. Our region cannot overcome the many humanitarian crises with those militias in charge.

Yemeni fighters loyal to the Iran-backed Houthis raise their weapons during a rally in the capital Sanaa, on May 20, 2021. (AFP)
Yemeni fighters loyal to the Iran-backed Houthis raise their weapons during a rally in the capital Sanaa, on May 20, 2021. (AFP)

After I safely arrived in the United Kingdom, I was eager to share - with INGOs, policymakers, and the media - my experience. Unfortunately, I faced a considerable advocacy machine run by INGOs working in Yemen. Their view focused only on addressing the humanitarian crisis, not its causes—a very different approach than what we see happening with Ukraine. I wanted to see more work and calls directed towards reinstating the role of the Yemeni state.

After all, the humanitarian crisis is a consequence of the collapse of the state. Not investing in reinstating the country’s institutions will drive more people towards poverty and hunger.

INGOs have spent billions of dollars in countries like Yemen without tangible results. INGOs cannot replace the state, no matter how much money they pour into humanitarian programs. Militias cannot run a form, which is not just my conclusion.

In 2021, the former UN chief to Yemen Lise Grande testified to the US Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee. She said: “Ansar Allah – Houthis – now fully controls the instruments of the state in northern Yemen and has constructed its parallel state-within-a-state.” Her explanation detailed how the Houthis contributed to the collapse of the Yemeni state. Unfortunately, she delivered this testimony after she had left her post. It is not the party of the advocacy message that INGOs – including the UN – have told the international community.

Indeed, INGOs cannot resolve the conflicts in the Middle East. They are limited in their capacity and ability to provide sustainable solutions. However, they have the power to run advocacy campaigns and reach out to the international community. They play an essential role in setting the narrative and suggesting policy recommendations. They owe it to the people of the Middle East to tell their whole story and address the causes of these conflicts, like what we see happening in Ukraine. Countering the part of militias is not contradictory to the humanitarian mission. Countering Russian aggression is not in conflict with the humanitarian mission.

How can you resolve the economic collapse in Lebanon without addressing the dominance of Hezbollah over the economic and political life? How can you prevent Iraq from slipping into another conflict without addressing the role of the armed militias? How can you alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people without stopping the Houthis military conquests?

The Middle East is living through protracted conflicts, and each row has its circumstances, but the role of militias is a common dominator. Seeing what is happening in Yemen, people in Lebanon and Iraq know in which direction their countries are heading. Non-state actors are pushing those countries to the brink of collapse. The myth that states can coexist with armed militias is a theory that is proving its fatality and cannot address the humanitarian crisis or tackle its causes.

Read more:

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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