Photo: In the Harat Al-Masna’a slum in Sana’a, Yemen, a man walks with his three-year-old daughter. On the left is a former textile factory which hosts 231 families of former factory workers. Photo: Giles Clarke for UNOCHA - Photo: 2017

UN Worried about Persistent Humanitarian Disaster in Yemen

By Santo D. Banerjee

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) – As Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, enters the third year of a cruel military conflict with no end in sight to the suffering of the people caused by a humanitarian catastrophe, a senior UN official has urged the Security Council members to use their political and economic powers to pressure warring sides to commit to a path of peace.

7,600 people have been killed and 42,000 injured since March 2015. According to the UN, more than 60% of civilian deaths have been the result of air strikes by a Saudi-led multinational coalition that backs President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against the Houthi rebel movement.

“In Yemen, there are no winners on the battlefield. The losers are the Yemeni people who suffer by this war,” said Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Yemen, briefing the Security Council’s open session on October 10.

“The people [of Yemen] are getting poorer while influential leaders get richer. They are not interested in finding solutions, as they will lose their power and control in a settlement,” he warned, adding: “The parties must climb out from their trenches, and put an end to the hostile rhetoric.”

Ould Cheikh Ahmed said: “The Yemeni people want this war to end, at a time the gap between them and those in power grows. Yemeni youth, women and civil society groups are calling for peace, stability and accountability for crimes committed. In the southern governorates, past injustices and calls for greater autonomy remain unaddressed, and need to be tackled.”

Yemenis, he added, have many positive ideas to address all of these issues in a peaceful manner if the parties are willing to be flexible and listen to the people. “If they do not, the fissures in Yemen’s political and social fabric will become wider, and there is a severe danger of further fragmentation, with an increase in the potential of terrorism,” he warned.

The UN Special Envoy made an impassioned plea for ushering in peace: “The bloodshed and the destruction of Yemen has to end. There are no excuses. There are no justifications. People are requesting the United Nations for a solution regarding the payment of salaries while others are hindering talks as if they were ignorant to the suffering of millions of Yemenis. Many of the powerful in Yemen benefit from the current conflict at a time their citizens face the worst suffering in the history of Yemen.”

Also briefing the Security Council, John Ging, the Director of Operations at the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) confirmed: “The human cost of this conflict has been devastating: air strikes, shelling and ground fighting continue in urban areas where civilians are killed and injured, and the critical infrastructure that they rely on is being destroyed.”

The international community, he added, has witnessed the devastation in which the Yemeni people now live, and it is the result of this crisis that has left some 15 million people lacking adequate access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, and health services. “Seven million people are faced with the threat of famine; and all this is exacerbated by the largest single-year cholera outbreak ever recorded,” he warned.

As the conflict continues, Ging added, two million people remain displaced. “They live in crowded, unsafe, unsanitary and undignified spontaneous settlements where shelters are exposed to the elements – made of rags, cardboard and just about anything else that they can find on the streets. This remains a man-made crisis, generating intolerable suffering for the Yemeni people.”

He highlighted three of the challenges facing the Yemeni people and humanitarians: humanitarian access and its limitations, the impact of civil servants’ salary interruptions and how it’s impacting on food insecurity and critical services, and the continued risks to commercial access to the country.

Humanitarians face unacceptable obstacles from all sides in carrying out relief efforts in Yemen, he said. The biggest problem is the prevention of humanitarian access. For example, the authorities in Sana’a regularly deny access and have also arbitrarily delayed or denied dozens of requests for humanitarian personnel to enter the country via Sana’a. Humanitarian partners also report a freeze on the issuance of visas by the authorities in Aden for international non-governmental organizations for several weeks now.

“These obstacles are abhorrent in a country where the threat of famine looms over millions, where there are over 800,000 suspected cases of cholera across 90 per cent of communities and where only 45 per cent of the health facilities are functioning,” Ging declared. “Quite simply, these obstructions cost lives. We hope that recent commitments made by the parties translate into the prioritization of unfettered humanitarian access.”

The interruption of regular salary payments for one and a quarter million civil servants is a further driver of humanitarian need, particularly food insecurity, and it is affecting nearly a quarter of the population – public employees and their families. Where food is available, even in markets, people lack the cash now to buy basic necessities. The prices of which have risen significantly.

Recent market analysis puts the average price of a food basket 30 per cent higher than pre-crisis and in some cases as much as 60 per cent higher, despite the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism facilitating the majority of Yemen’s food requirements each month, on average.

The price of cooking gas is now more than 70 per cent higher than pre-crisis in Aden and Hudaydah. This reality is having a negative effect on the capacity of the population to cope and now people are taking to such acts as selling assets and taking on debt to buy food.

“Children are paying a particularly high price, not least the 460,000 who are severely malnourished,” the Director of Operations at the OCHA said. “Even if the fighting stopped today, stunted growth and delayed cognitive development will linger for an entire generation. The loss of livelihoods for adults also means thousands of children are forced to work rather than go to school, with child marriage rates also increasing as families claim incapacity to support their children.”

Besides, the lack of civil servant salaries has disrupted the provision of basic services to the wider population. Already stressed critical services are unavailable if employees are not present to operate them, most notably in the health, water and sanitation, and education sectors. He asked the Security Council for its support in finding ways to prioritize salaries for these sectors. “It’s not difficult to draw a clear link between the near-absent health, water and sanitation services and the unprecedented cholera outbreak.”

The $2.3 billion Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan to reach 12 million people in need of humanitarian support and protection this year has received only 55 per cent of the resources needed.

“Despite the complexity of the response, this year, humanitarians have already reached seven million people with direct assistance. We therefore encourage [UN] Member States to directly support our efforts and to do more through the response plan,” the UN relief official said.

Also the UN Special Envoy warned, the conflict is creating a desperate situation in every facet of daily life. The economy is shrinking even further and the use of dwindling state revenues to fund the war continues to hinder the salary payments on which millions of Yemenis depend.

“There are continuing efforts to reactivate the Central Bank and the neutralization of the Yemeni economy as recently discussed in the Track II event held in Germany for the interest of repayment of salaries to Yemeni civil servants, and those in the education and health sectors. This will hopefully decrease the humanitarian and economic strife,” he added.

In Yemen, some 17 million individuals are food insecure and over one third of the country’s districts are now in severe danger of famine. The destruction of infrastructure and breakdown of public services have fuelled the world’s worst outbreak of cholera, which has already killed more than 2,100 individuals and continues to infect thousands each week.

“Future Yemeni generations will suffer and bear the burden of this conflict – including the massive destruction, the malnutrition, the lack of education and the economic deterioration. The outlook can only become bleaker in the absence of a political solution,” Ould Cheikh Ahmed warned.

“An agreement to end the war is urgently required so that a new Yemeni unity government, supported by the international community, can begin the process of rebuilding the economy and state institutions,” he implored.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed welcomed the efforts of the World Bank and UNICEF to mitigate the impact of the economic crisis. The first disbursal of cash assistance to the most vulnerable Yemeni households took place on 20 August. The 400 million US dollar programme will reach all of its beneficiaries in the coming weeks and months. This programme is providing vital support to these households, and maintains a critical safety net system.

He noted that an agreement on securing humanitarian access remains essential, but it cannot replace a solution, which is a part of a larger comprehensive peace deal. He explained that he has had meetings with both Yemeni and international officials and that he is discussing a proposal that includes humanitarian initiatives to rebuild trust as well as bringing the parties back to the negotiations table.

“We hope this commitment will translate into action and deepen their engagement with me on the basis of these initiatives in order to reach a peaceful political solution,” he said, assuring that the UN will continue to utilize all its political, logistical, administrative, and advisory facilities to support the country but only the warring parties could bring peace. “They are accountable for a failure. I reiterate that the only viable path for the future of Yemen is a negotiated settlement,” he added.

The recent resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council, supporting the national committee for human rights and establishing a Group of Experts to examine alleged violations and abuses of international human rights and international law is a significant sign of increased engagement of the international community and a step forward towards accountability and reducing future violations.

“I have consistently reminded the warring parties of their responsibilities under international humanitarian law and human rights law, including their obligation to stop recruitment of child soldiers and to end sexual and gender-based violence. Targeting civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure is unacceptable,” the UN Special Envoy said. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 October 2017]

Related IDN article: Yemen War Brings Saudi Policies under International Scrutiny

Photo: In the Harat Al-Masna’a slum in Sana’a, Yemen, a man walks with his three-year-old daughter. On the left is a former textile factory which hosts 231 families of former factory workers. Photo: Giles Clarke for UNOCHA

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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