09/21/2017 12:29 EDT | Updated 09/21/2017 12:35 EDT

Yemen In The Time Of Cholera

The country is experiencing the world's largest epidemic, and it has everything to do with the Arms Trade Treaty.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
A girl infected with cholera sits on a chair at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen May 7, 2017.

A sudden onset of severe diarrhea is usually the first symptom. Rapid fluid loss often leads to life-threatening dehydration. If left untreated, certain strains can cause death within hours. Those who survive initial symptoms must endure repeated vomiting, low blood pressure, extreme thirst and incapacitating nausea.

Cholera is one ugly disease. And more than half a million Yemenis are afflicted.

While cholera has been virtually eradicated in developed countries, Yemen is currently experiencing the largest epidemic in the world. Malnutrition, failing sanitation systems and the collapse of critical infrastructure have exacerbated the crisis.

On Sept. 13, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that the number of cholera cases in Yemen could hit 850,000 before the end of the year. The same week, dozens of national delegations were in Geneva at the third Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, considering matters related to the implementation of this landmark multilateral instrument.

And what does a cholera outbreak in Yemen have to do with the effective implementation of the ATT? Everything.

Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
Artist and activist Thiyazen al-Alawi paints a mural on a wall of a hospital as part of a cholera awareness campaign in Sanaa, Yemen, May 23, 2017.

The earliest cases were reported in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, where airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition destroyed the city's sewer system as part of an unrelenting military intervention, now into its third year. Organizations such as the ICRC and the United Nations, as well as academic institutions such as London's Queen Mary University, have pointed to the Saudi bombing campaign as the primary cause behind the outbreak, which is widely considered to have been entirely preventable.

Dire as the situation is, it is but the latest manifestation of the catastrophic humanitarian crisis inflicted upon Yemen. A UN panel has denounced the "widespread and systematic targeting of civilian targets" by the Saudi-led coalition in the impoverished country. There is a term for this: war crimes.

Yet the crisis continues to unfold while the international community looks on with disconcerting and shameful timidity. In real time. On social media and in The New York Times. In 2017.

However complex the regional security dynamics, the key factor that has enabled and sustained this crisis is remarkably straightforward: the unscrupulous and irresponsible transfer of weapons to Saudi Arabia despite the clear and present risk that they may be misused.

What does a cholera outbreak in Yemen have to do with the effective implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty? Everything.

Still, one won't hear states parties to the ATT drawing attention to such instances of flagrant non-compliance — not even during relevant sessions at treaty conferences. Last June, at the same time as the last Preparatory Committee for this year's Conference of States Parties, the United States — an ATT signatory — announced an arms deal in excess of $100-billion USD with Saudi Arabia. Not a single state present raised the issue.

Had it not been for civil society representatives, one of the largest arms deals in history — with a known human-rights violator — would have been unmentioned at a meeting for a treaty specifically designed to curb such irresponsible behaviour. Alas, the attention given to procedural matters at ATT conferences has come to the detriment of substantive discussions related to effective treaty implementation.

The United States is not the only culprit. States parties such as France and the United Kingdom, as well as states such as Canada that will soon join the treaty, continue to authorize weapons transfers to the Saudi regime, despite numerous, troubling and recurring red flags.

The crisis continues to unfold while the international community looks on with disconcerting and shameful timidity.

Peculiarly, the states that are engaged in irresponsible arms transfers tend to be among those speaking most loudly — and eloquently — about the importance of full treaty compliance. But for a growing number of observers, in and out of government, such rhetoric rings increasingly hollow and detached from reality.

The credibility of the still-recent ATT is being eroded. Irresponsible arms transfers to countries such as Saudi Arabia exacerbate armed conflict, enable the violation of human rights and sustain repressive regimes. They create conditions in which innocent civilians die, every single day — whether from airstrikes or their collateral effects. In the end, they help validate the skepticism of those who feel that the ATT will not prevent the most questionable arms transfers.

While there are other challenges facing the ATT, there is no more egregious violation of its spirit, objectives and specific provisions than arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. States parties must call out and scrutinize treaty violations — and ATT conferences are the obvious, natural forum at which to do so.

In the meantime, civil society will continue to point out any and all elephants in the ATT room. No matter how big. And whatever the pushback.

* Cesar Jaramillo was part of the international civil society delegation to the Third Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, held in Geneva from Sept. 11-15. A version of this article was first published during the conference by Reaching Critical Will.

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