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UN experts: Uptick in Houthi obstacles to Yemen aid delivery

‘Threats and incidents against humanitarian workers are increasing in Houthi-controlled areas.’

A displaced woman at a makeshift camp in Khamir, in Yemen's northern province of Amran. Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
A displaced woman at a makeshift camp in Khamir, in Yemen's northern province of Amran.

Houthi rebels are increasingly arresting and intimidating aid workers in Yemen, in addition to putting up bureaucratic obstacles that obstruct the distribution of humanitarian assistance, according to a new report by a UN group of experts on Yemen.

The New Humanitarian has seen a copy of the latest report by the Panel of Experts on Yemen, which was submitted to the UN Security Council in late January but has not yet been made public.

The 48-page report, which looks at various aspects of Yemen’s war in 2019, says that “violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law continued to be widely committed by all parties in Yemen with impunity” throughout last year.

For more than five and a half years, Houthi rebels and their allies have been fighting the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition. 

The conflict has left 80 percent of the population – 24 million people – in need of aid, and more than 12,400 civilians have been killed since 2015 in direct attacks including airstrikes and shelling, according to the Armed Conflict & Location Event Database (ACLED). Not included in the count are those who have died from hunger or treatable diseases like cholera.

Despite the massive need, Yemen’s war has been marked by accusations of aid diversion and obstruction, including a November 2018 Saudi blockade that led to warnings of famine. In June 2019, the World Food Programme temporarily suspended deliveries to 850,000 people in Houthi-controlled Sana’a, after the rebels refused to agree to a biometric registration system that the agency said was necessary to prevent aid fraud. 

The Panel of Experts report says “threats and incidents against humanitarian workers are increasing in Houthi-controlled areas”, and that “numerous administrative and bureaucratic impediments” by Houthi authorities mean NGOs face long delays and spend a large portion of their time in meetings.

It also mentions more direct threats to aid delivery, stating that “the issue of the manipulation of beneficiary lists and/or pressure to share these lists is of particular concern, and cases involving the use of violence and coercion at aid distribution points have increased in 2019”.

The panel also investigated nine “medical and nutritional” shipments that were delayed by Hadi’s government at the port in Aden – delays the report says the government had confirmed but did not explain.

Much of Yemen’s aid – as well as key commercial food imports – is brought into the country by ships that go to the Houthi-held north or the government-held south, which includes Aden.

The Houthi aid body, SCMCHA, has frequently accused international NGOs of trying to distribute expired or otherwise unsafe food and medication. Its head, Abdul Mohsen al-Tawoos, recently met with the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Lise Grande, and a statement released after the meeting said they had “reviewed joint efforts to overcome the problems facing some humanitarian activities”.

Yemen’s war will enter a seventh year in March. At the end of December momentum appeared to be growing towards peace talks – or at least discussions of de-escalation – but in the past few weeks there has been an uptick of violence in several parts of the country

Seven patients and their relatives flew out of Sana’a airport on a flight to Amman on Monday – the first of 30 patients scheduled for medical evacuation to the Jordanian and Egyptian capitals. But on Monday the Norwegian Refugee Council said thousands of Yemenis had already died because they couldn’t get the treatment they needed. The Saudi-led coalition, which controls the airspace above Yemen, closed Sana’a airport to regularly scheduled civilian flights in August 2016.


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