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‘Criminal’ obstruction of aid in Yemen, says watchdog

The situation is ‘absolutely unsustainable’.

A woman from the Muhamasheen community holds her son at a charity clinic in Sanaa Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS
A woman holds her son as they wait at a for relief supplies at a clinic in Sana'a, Yemen.

More than 200 shipping containers of medical supplies, some needed for COVID-19, have been held up since June by Houthi rebels seeking to control aid flows and earn trucking fees: That’s just one allegation of aid obstruction and manipulation detailed in a new report by Human Rights Watch on the restrictions of life-saving assistance to millions of Yemenis.

In today’s report, “Deadly Consequences”, the US-based watchdog calls for sanctions against Yemeni officials responsible for actions it says may be breaking international humanitarian law because they are denying civilians the aid they need. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says both the northern rebel Houthi authorities and the internationally recognised government led by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which controls much of southern Yemen with its allies, are imposing “onerous bureaucratic requirements” to control the flow of aid or use it as a political bargaining chip. 

Houthi officials denied the allegations, saying they were simply overseeing aid agencies’ work. HRW did not get a response from the government. 

After more than five years of war, pitting the Houthi rebels against a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which backs the largely exiled government, UN agencies say most of Yemen’s 30.5 million people need assistance to get through 2020.

Despite huge needs stemming from mass displacement, food shortages, and economic collapse, plus the impact of COVID-19, the UN says only about 30 percent of this year’s $3.3 billion in humanitarian relief needs are financed. It is warning that the country faces a possible famine and a public health disaster, even as programmes are being cut back.

Aid manipulation and aid diversion have led to a slump in donor confidence and are having a “devastating impact”, the report says. One donor official told HRW the situation was “absolutely unsustainable”. HRW’s report itemises the problems in humanitarian operations that are holding donors back. 

Rules and regulations

Agreements on aid projects in Houthi areas often reached stalemate over demands for project assets – for example the handover of cars and computers, HRW reports. As well as problematic negotiations over projects, the Houthi authorities have issued 385 directives regulating aid groups in just 20 months, some of which allegedly violate humanitarian principles such as independence and neutrality.

Surveys to gauge people’s needs are often restricted or blocked, meaning evidence for project planning is becoming increasingly out of date, the report says. In one case, data from a nutrition survey to assess hunger was withheld from aid agencies that supply food aid.

Houthi officials actively interfere in beneficiary lists, commonly demanding names are added and lists handed over, HRW reports. Ministries or contractors close to the authorities are suspected of significant diversion of cash and supplies. Independent third party monitors, paid by aid agencies to flag possible fraud, have been intimidated or arrested, while the Houthi authorities also restrict aid worker visas and travel permits.

Concerns over aid interference and fraud are not new, but efforts to negotiate smoother operations have shown insufficient results to restore donor confidence.

The report says aid agencies find less difficulties in parts of the country controlled by Hadi’s government in southern Yemen, but obstruction and interference still hinder them: Aid shipments have been detained at the port, new regulations introduced, and delays in signing off project agreements reported. One interviewee told HRW that government officials are “copying” their Houthi counterparts in demanding more control and oversight.

Concerns over aid interference and fraud are not new, but efforts to negotiate smoother operations have shown insufficient results to restore donor confidence. Major donors in February threatened to withhold funds unless they saw greater respect for the independence and impartiality of humanitarian operations. The United States has already cut funding for Houthi-controlled northern Yemen in protest.

And a new aid headache has emerged in the last week: Houthi authorities say they cannot run the airport given worsening fuel shortages in the territories they control, and have cancelled UN, Red Cross, and NGO aid flights (commercial civilian flights have been banned for several years by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition).

Observers say this move may be a gambit on the part of Houthi rebels, who are counting on the UN to intervene with the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition, which have been preventing regular shipments of fuel from reaching northern ports, citing a breach of agreements on tax revenue. By blocking aid flights, which carry aid personnel as well as medications, a UN official told TNH, the Houthis are attempting “to twist our arm… to keep our people hostage”. 

The UN reportedly contends that the Houthis need about half as much fuel as the rebels say they need to run the Sana’a airport, and the official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the Houthis are using the flight suspension to make the UN “feel the repercussions” of not pressuring the coalition to lift its fuel restrictions. 


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