Yemen’s humanitarian crisis: a ‘brighter future’ ahead?

Author: Lilly Felk
Date: 25. May 2022

While the war between Russia and Ukraine has captured the world’s attention for the last few weeks, there is another conflict, the civil war in Yemen, which has seen recent developments that deserve closer attention. Yemen has been the stage of a complicated and protracted conflict for seven years now. The conflict, which started when Ansar Allah, a Shiite armed group backed by Iran (also referred to as “the Houthis”), took over Yemen’s capital Sanaa in September 2014, has only escalated in recent years.

In the last month, however, the conflict has taken a new turn. For the first time since 2016, all conflict parties in Yemen have agreed to a two-month truce during Ramadan. Even though there are reports that fighting has continued in the region of Marib and that the Saudi coalition has continued attacks on the civilian population, UN officials, such as Martin Griffiths, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and other spectators have been positive about the truce. This optimism is also related to another shift in Yemen’s conflict landscape, namely the signing over of power from President Hadi to a presidential council, headed by former interior minister Rashad al-Alimi on April 7.

No doubt, a truce is better than continued fighting, and a new government that resides within Yemen and not – as Hadi used to – in Saudi-Arabia, might break new ground in Yemen’s transition to a more peaceful future. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that Yemen is the host of 20.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, up to 19 million people who are food insecure and 4.2 million people who are displaced due to the conflict – numbers which have only increased in the last few months. Hence, with these numbers in mind it is understandable that, before the escalation of hostilities in Ukraine, Yemen was often referred to as the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis in the world.

This crisis is likely here to stay, as a recent U.N. high-level pledging event that was supposed to raise funds for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis raised only $1,3 billion, a mere 30 per cent of what was found necessary to cover the Humanitarian Response Plan by the U.N. This suggests that donors are currently focused elsewhere, likely on supporting Ukraine. With hopes high that the recent developments will support negotiation efforts and have a positive influence on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, the aim of this post is to recall some of the challenges related to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and discuss the role of the current truce and the shift in government in this crisis.

Humanitarian needs: an increasing trend

Before the truce and shift in government, humanitarian needs in Yemen have increased steadily over the last few months. This trend can be traced back to a variety of factors, one being the escalation of the conflict at the beginning of this year, which was initiated when the Houthis launched a series of strikes on targets located in the United Arab Emirates which are part of the Saudi anti-Houthi coalition. This escalation marked January 2022 as the month with a record high of civilian casualties.

At the same time, at the beginning of the year, UN OCHA announced that it had to cut vital assistance programs to Yemen due to a lack of funding. WFP has also stated that 8 million people are currently only receiving half of a standard WFP food basket and that it might have to reduce nutrition programmes to treat and prevent malnutrition. The recent crisis in Ukraine adds on to this crisis by further decreasing funding options and causing grain shortages for humanitarian programs around the world and the MENA region specifically.

Aid obstruction and missing accountability in Yemen

The new presidential council of Yemen has stated that the reduction of humanitarian suffering as well as a peaceful resolution of the war mark some of their prime targets. Some NGOs have reported that the truce has already given them better access to Yemen’s civilians and the UN records a drastic drop in civilian casualties since the truce was called. Hopes are also put on the commitment to discussions about the Houthis reopening road access to Taiz, which has contributed to the humanitarian crisis in the past. Together, this makes some see a ‘brighter future’ for Yemen.

However, even though the developments of the last few weeks have fostered optimism about improving the humanitarian situation, Yemen has not only been titled the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, but also the ‘worst international response’ to a crisis in the world in the past. Humanitarian aid has become high stakes in political strategy-making for conflict parties, which has often interfered with the distribution of aid to Yemen’s population. Thus, time and again, the Saudi-recognised government of Yemen among others has accused the Houthi militia of using humanitarian aid to blackmail and recruit soldiers.

The Houthis have also been charged with diverting foreign aid to civilians and intercepting the flow of humanitarian goods in the country. These findings were documented at length in a report issued by Human Rights Watch in 2020 which documents the obstruction of aid by the Houthis and other armed groups. HRW and others have also recorded the imposition of restrictions against humanitarian organizations and workers, as well as the detention and torture of humanitarian aid workers. On the opposing side, however, the Saudi-led coalition has also used humanitarian aid as a part of their strategy. One clear example is through the blocking of access of aid to the Hudaydah port and directing aid to ports outside of Houthi-controlled areas. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen described this move as utilizing ‘the threat of starvation as an instrument of war.’

Considering that the obstruction of humanitarian aid by conflict parties and the arbitrary opposition to aid operations are forbidden under international law, this situation makes accountability for the obstruction of humanitarian assistance paramount. The Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute, and other documents also prohibit the use of starvation as a method of warfare. Up until October 2021, the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen has served as an accountability mechanism for human rights violations and international law violations in Yemen’s conflict. Unfortunately, their mandate was not renewed, an unwelcome development as the number of civilian casualties has doubled in the direct aftermath and this signifies an immense set-back for advocacy work related to abuses in the country.

Looking to the future

Amidst the euphoria about the recent developments and even though some reports have argued that access and delivery of humanitarian aid has become easier in the last weeks since the truce started, one should keep in mind that the humanitarian situation has not only recently worsened due the escalation of the conflict at the beginning of this year, the continuing cuts to funding of humanitarian aid to Yemen and the spillover effects from the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Yemen has also faced a history of aid obstruction and recently lost the only official international accountability mechanism, which might have acted as a counterweight to this trend.

While expert opinion holds that an inclusive peace settlement is the only solution that will sustainably improve the lives of Yemen’s population, it remains to be seen if the truce is here to stay and whether the reshuffle of the Yemeni government can bring the conflict parties to a negotiation table in the long run. In the meantime, restoring accountability for the obstruction and instrumentalisation of aid would be paramount to avoiding further unnecessary civilian harm. Ongoing and coming negotiations in Yemen should work to discourage such tactics in the future and have to grapple with the fact that the delivery of humanitarian aid has long been a highly politicized issue.

Lilly Felk is a graduate student of Peace Research and International Relations at Tübingen University and a former research intern at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict in Bochum. Her research interests include the role of identity in conflict, migration policy and the triple nexus. She works as a freelancer in peace education for the Berghof Foundation.