Crisis Already Here, Warns Humanitarian Chief, as Permanent Representative Blames ‘Imposed War’ on Houthi Fighters, Islamic State
Only an end to war would reverse the suffering endured by the people of Yemen, a civil society representative from that country told the Security Council this morning, emphasizing the conflict was taking the greatest toll on women.
Radhya Almutawakel, Chairperson of the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, emphasized the need for a long-term commitment to promoting peace in the face of hostile extremist groups, impending famine and the outbreak of previously eradicated cholera. She urged the 15-member Council to establish an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate violations of human rights, stop the sale of weapons to those involved in such violations, and demand an end to aerial and ground attacks targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Among other critical steps, the Council should also ensure the release of all arbitrarily held, and forcibly “disappeared”, civilian detainees and demand unhindered humanitarian access, she said. It was still possible to turn the situation around and chart a path towards peace, democracy and economic development, irrespective of the tough circumstances on the ground. “We hate war, we want to live” was the most common refrain heard from the vast majority of Yemenis not involved in the fighting.
Describing the conflict as the result of accumulated mistakes by all concerned, she said there were real opportunities to end it and forge a fair settlement that would set Yemenis on track to building a State grounded in the rule of law. She described extremists groups as “virtual landmines” in Yemen’s future, noting that her organization had documented grave violations by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, including strikes on homes, markets, hospitals and schools that had resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, most of them women and children. It had also documented extensive violations by the Ansar Allah armed group — as well as extrajudicial executions by the forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi — and allied parties and armed groups, she said.
Yemenis expected the international community to take serious steps to restore confidence in the ability of the United Nations to ensure the maintenance of international peace and security, as well as the promotion of justice, she said. The Council should make a unified effort for the revival of peace talks, for the “comprehensive” inclusion of all Yemini parties in those negotiations, and for the legitimate participation of civil society, women and youth, she said, adding that Council members should “stand beside Yeminis” and end the transfer of arms to all the warring parties.
Briefing on political aspects, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen, said Yemenis were paying the price for the reluctance of key parties to embrace — or even discuss — the concessions needed for peace. The absence of stability, economic opportunity and rule of law meant that Yemen will remain a haven for extremist groups, he warned, while affirming that an attack on his convoy in Sana’a on 22 May had only increased his determination to pursue a negotiated political settlement. He urged the Council to convey strongly to the parties that they must engage immediately with the United Nations to seek agreement on steps to avoid further bloodshed, halt the slide towards famine, and recommit to a peaceful end to the war.
Stephen O’Brien, Under—Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, described Yemen as the world’s largest food-security crisis, with 6.8 million people one step away from famine. “Crisis is not coming,” he said. “It is here today — on our watch.” There had also been an extensive resurgence of cholera, with twice as many people suffering than in the last six months combined, he said, pointing out that 150,000 cases were projected for the next six months. Echoing the Special Envoy’s appeal for efforts to keep the key port city of Al Hodeidah open, he said the parties must commit to ensuring that all other ports and land routes remained open for humanitarian and commercial goods, while the international community ensured that essential institutions were preserved and civil servants paid.
Yemen’s representative likened the situation in his country to a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, describing Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, “the leader of the criminal coup”, as sitting in a cave while claiming the right to rule. The terrorism of the Houthi movement and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) — controlled by “hidden hands” and Iranian intelligence — were “leading our lives to a nightmare”. They had ended the Yemeni dream of a democratic federal State, he said, adding that the war had been imposed on the Government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Government had nevertheless extended a peaceful hand on the basis of the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative and Security Council resolutions, he said. Urging the Council to criminalize massacres by the Houthis, he asked how many Yemenis must fall victim before the United Nations took action. He also appealed to the Council to continue a unified effort to end the suffering in Yemen by taking a firm stance against the “kill masters”.
Also speaking today were representatives of Bolivia and Uruguay.
The meeting began at 10:07 a.m. and ended at 11:16 a.m.
ISMAIL OULD CHEIKH AHMED, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, said violence on the west coast and other parts of the country demonstrated the manner in which the conflict was laying waste to civilians, their homes and their livelihoods. Parties to the conflict must urgently come together to prevent the further deepening of a catastrophic situation, he said, declaring: “I will not hide from this Council that we are not close to a comprehensive agreement.” It was deeply troubling that key parties were reluctant to embrace — or even discuss — concessions needed for peace, he said, noting that Yemenis were paying the price for needless delay. Seven million Yemenis were at risk of famine and half the population lacked access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene services, increasing the risk of cholera.
Military action had so far been averted in Al Hodeidah, he continued, adding that he had told Government and political leaders in Sana’a that they must reach a compromise on the situation in that port city. Regrettably, the Ansarallah — General People’s Congress — delegation in Sana’a had not agreed to discuss such an agreement. He said that his proposal — covering security, economic and humanitarian elements — would allow commercial and humanitarian supplies into Al Hodeidah while halting the diversion of customs revenues and taxes that could be spent on salaries and services. An agreement to avoid clashes in Al Hodeidah should be negotiated in parallel with an agreement to ensure the resumption of civil service salaries, the non-payment of which had been driving millions into destitution, he said. He welcomed efforts to create a trade finance facility that would allow importers access to hard currency, thus ensuring the availability of key commodities.
He went on to caution that Yemen remained fertile ground for extremist groups, with Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula operating in Hadramout, Aden, Al-Dhali’, Ma’reb and Shabwa governorates. “The absence of stability, economic opportunity and rule of law means that Yemen will continue to be a haven for such groups unless there is lasting peace.” He expressed deep concern over reported efforts to suppress and undermine the work of journalists, human rights activists and civil society, including a death sentence handed down on 12 April to journalist Yahya al Jubayhi by a court run by the Houthis and the General People’s Congress, emphasizing that threats against the Ba’hai community were also a matter of concern. Yemeni women, on the other hand, were playing an important and effective role, he said, describing his recent meeting in Sana’a with representatives of the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security.
Growing demands by the southern governorates for greater autonomy demonstrated the urgent need for a peace agreement, he emphasized, noting that an agreement on Al Hodeidah and salaries should be a first step towards a national cessation of hostilities and renewed discussion on a comprehensive agreement. However, negotiations even on such first steps had been slow to start, he said. Calling upon local authorities to investigate the 22 May attack on his convoy in Sana’a, he said that incident had only increased his determination to pursue his efforts towards a negotiated political settlement. “I urge the Council to strongly convey to the parties that they need to engage immediately with the United Nations to agree on steps to avoid further bloodshed, to halt the slide towards famine and to re-commit to a peaceful end to the war,” he said, reminding members of the thousands killed and the millions affected by man-made hunger, violence and famine.
STEPHEN O’BRIEN, Under—Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the situation in Yemen continued its downward spiral towards total social, economic and institutional collapse. The country was now the world’s largest food-security crisis, with more than 17 million people food insecure, 6.8 million of whom were one step away from famine. “Crisis is not coming,” he emphasized. “It is here today — on our watch.” The United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism had facilitated more than 7.6 million metric tons of goods, including 3.8 million of food, through Yemen’s Red Sea ports, he said, noting, however, that people’s ability to buy food was diminishing. Residents of Taizz, Hajjah, Sa’ada, Al Jawf and Marib, where fighting continued, faced rising commodities prices. The economy was collapsing, employment had all but disappeared, and food and fuel prices had skyrocketed. Yemen’s institutional capacity to respond was crumbling, notably due to the Central Bank’s failure to operate in the interests of those it was supposed to serve, following its move from Sana’a to Aden. More than 1 million civil servants had not been paid for months, and although humanitarian workers had been helping the poor, professionals were now also requesting food assistance, he noted.
The strain on Yemen’s system had become all too evident over the last month, with the extensive resurgence of cholera, he continued, pointing out that the country’s debilitated health system had taken longer than usual to detect warning signs, and that the health workers who would have been maintaining disease-surveillance systems had not been paid. Twice as many people were suffering from cholera than had done so in the last six months combined. Noting that 150,000 cases were projected for the next six months, he said the scale of the outbreak was a direct result of the conflict. “Had the parties to the conflict cared, the outbreak was avoidable,” he said, emphasizing that the United Nations and its partners were helping authorities on all sides — from Aden to Sa’adah, and from Hudadyah to Taizz — to tackle the challenge. The United Nations had scaled up assistance, quadrupling the number of diarrhoea treatment centres in the last months and establishing 136 oral rehydration corners, he said. Synchronized interventions in the water and sanitation field were in place, supporting 1.6 million people.
More broadly, humanitarians had reached 5.8 million people this year, but their ability to respond would depend on sustained funding, he said. While the 25 April High-level Pledging Conference for Yemen had generated $1.1 billion in pledges, the overall $2.1 billion humanitarian plan was only 24‑per‑cent funded. He went on to point out that there was only intermittent access at Al Hodeidah port, a lifeline for Yemen, due to diversion or the Coalition’s delays in clearing goods, which, coupled with the threat of an attack on the port, had sapped the confidence of traders. While it had previously taken an average of one week to sail into the ports, it now took five times as long, he said, noting that shipping companies were avoiding Red Sea ports due to rising costs.
Appealing to States to ensure that all efforts were made to keep Al Hodeidah open, he stressed that the parties must also commit to ensuring that all other ports and land routes remained open for both humanitarian and commercial imports. Noting that Yemen faced the triple threat of armed conflict, famine and disease, he said the cruel irony was that they were man-made threats that could easily have been prevented. A sustainable political agreement was the only solution, and in pursuing that, violence must be reduced, violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law ended and unimpeded access to those in need allowed. The international community should ensure that the Yemeni people were protected, all ports and land routes remained open, essential institutions were preserved and civil servants were paid.
RADHYA ALMUTAWAKEL, Chairperson, Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, said the group operated across Yemen in extremely difficult and complicated conditions, in attempting to document and give voice to victims and survivors of human rights violations perpetrated daily by all parties to the conflict in her country. “We hate war, we want to live” was the most common refrain heard from the vast majority of Yemenis who were not fighting, she said, emphasizing that the conflict in Yemen was the result of accumulated mistakes by all parties. Yet, there were real opportunities to end the conflict and realize a fair settlement that would set Yemenis on track to build a State grounded in the rule of law, she said. War had destroyed the basic and limited infrastructure that had taken decades to build, led to the collapse of the health system, prevented children from being able to attend school and undermined the development of an entire generation.
War had also led to a humanitarian crisis that was so acute that famine was imminent among millions of internally displaced people, while thousands of others had been affected by the outbreak of cholera, she continued. “If you put your lens closer to Yemen, you would easily catch the terrifying absence of State institutions,” she said, emphasizing that Yemenis aspired to a strong administration capable of providing security and basic services. War had provided an ideal environment for extremist groups to take hold and flourish, particularly as they strengthened their local power. Such groups were virtual landmines in Yemen’s future and could not be weakened in the absence of law and order, she said, emphasizing that Yemenis needed the international community and the Security Council to fulfil their responsibility to protect them. Throughout the last three years of war, all parties had committed grave violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, she noted, declaring: “This cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.”
She went on to state that the Mwatana Organization had documented grave violations by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which had led to the killing of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children. That collation had struck residential compounds, public markets, cultural and heritage sites, hospitals, schools, bridges and factories. The organization had also documented extensive violations by the Ansar Allah armed group, including the use of landmines. It had also documented extrajudicial executions by the forces of President Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi Mansour and allied parties and armed groups. Both parties shared responsibility for the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and civilian facilities, child recruitment, denial of humanitarian access, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and violations against the freedom of speech, as well as for the harassment of minorities and the disappearance of a free press, among other grave violations.
The war was taking the greatest toll on Yemeni women, who had become prime civilian targets for all warring parties, she stressed, adding that the loss of family breadwinners had caused even greater poverty than had been evident before the conflict. Observing mothers, wives and daughters running from one prison to the next in hopes of hearing about their detained or forcibly disappeared loved ones had been one of the hardest scenes to witness during the war, she recalled. The people of Yemen expected to see serious steps by the international community to restore their confidence in the capability of the United Nations to ensure the maintenance of peace and security, as well as the promotion of justice. She called for Council unity to revive the peace talks in order to end the senseless war, for the “comprehensive” inclusion of all Yemini parties in the talks, and for the legitimate participation of civil society, women and youth. She also called on Council members to “stand beside Yeminis”, end support for any party to the conflict and end arms transfers to all warring parties in the country.
The Yemeni people’s suffering could not end unless the war was brought to an end, she said, emphasizing the need for long-term commitments to promote peace. That would require the Security Council to display courage, commitment and resolve in taking urgent, concrete actions to mitigate the suffering immediately. In that context, the Council should establish an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations by all parties to the conflict, stop the sale of weapons to those involved in such violations, and demand an end to the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure through aerial and ground attacks. Further, the Council should ensure the release of all arbitrarily held civilian detainees, as well as those forcibly disappeared, and demand unhindered humanitarian access, among other critical steps. Irrespective of how tough the circumstances on the ground, it was still possible to turn the situation around and to chart a path towards peace, democracy and economic development, she stressed.
SACHA SERGIO LLORENTTY SOLÍZ (Bolivia) said there was need for an update on the peace negotiations because the situation in Yemen was critical. More than 8 million people required assistance, 10 million of them urgently, amid food shortages. Yemenis had also faced a cholera outbreak that had led to 361 people dying in 19 provinces, as of 18 May. Expressing concern that random restrictions imposed by parties to the conflict, as well as threats to attack civilian infrastructure, had affected assistance, he called for unrestricted access for humanitarian assistance, cautioning against identifying humanitarian convoys as military ones under any circumstance. An orderly transition must always respect Yemen’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, he emphasized, urging the Council to maintain a unanimous position on those seeking an armed solution to the conflict, especially when their actions contravened the United Nations Charter.
ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay), Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity. Condemning the 22 May attack on the Special Envoy in the firmest terms, he expressed support for a peaceful resolution of the conflict through a political process. While it was up to the international community to promote peace, it was the Yemenis themselves who must adopt their own decisions to realize it, he said, reiterating calls for resumed dialogue and a cessation of hostilities. He also called for a commitment by regional actors and for efforts by those with influence to work towards a peaceful settlement. The parties had not demonstrated their willingness to investigate “horrendous” actions, he noted, adding that it was up to the Council to establish a transparent mechanism to investigate violations of international humanitarian law.
KHALED HUSSEIN MOHAMED ALYEMANY (Yemen) said the Government had strongly condemned the assassination attempt against the Special Envoy during his visit to the occupied capital and had issued a statement to that effect on 22 May. Recalling that the Special Envoy had brought proposals for ending the conflict, he said they included arrangements for handing hand over the city and the departure of the Houthis, with a view to resuming peace negotiations in Kuwait. The Government had accepted those initial proposals and agreed on the need to stop the bloodletting, he said, but, regrettably, its efforts had been met with intransigence. “It was a lost opportunity,” he said, noting that Yemenis were suffering under “militias of death”.
After two years of a Houthi-led coup d’état amid incitement by Iran, he said, Yemen was experiencing a most horrific humanitarian scene of displacement, famine and disease, including a resurgence of cholera, which had previously been eradicated. Indeed, it was a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, with Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, leader of the criminal coup, sitting in a cave while claiming his right to rule, while the terrorism of the Houthi movement and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) — controlled by “hidden hands” and Iranian intelligence — were “leading our lives to a nightmare”. They had ended the Yemeni dream of a democratic federal State, he said, emphasizing that war had never been the choice of President Hadi’s Government. “It was imposed on us,” he emphasized. Yet, the Government had extended a peaceful hand on the basis of the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative and Security Council resolutions, including resolution 2216 (2015).
The catastrophic humanitarian situation required international attention in light of increased suffering since the Houthi militias had taken power, he said, raising the photo of a child that he said had been killed by Houthis in Taizz on 23 May. People in that area who had rejected the coup were experiencing collective punishment, he said, adding that the blockade was killing people daily, as were the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and residential areas, and the lack of water, food and medicine. The Council must criminalize massacres carried out by the Houthis, he stressed, asking how many victims the United Nations needed in order to take action, while pointing out that his pleas had received no response. “How many messages have I sent to the Secretary-General on the detainees?”
He said the Government required assistance to realize economic recovery for areas under its control, which constituted 80 per cent of the country. Saudi Arabia had pledged $10 million, $8 million of which was for reconstruction. Yemen was working to provide salaries for all Government employees who had not been paid for eight months because militias had stolen funds from the Central Bank, including 581 billion rial in stolen tax revenue. He also cited the refusal by some militias to pay their fighters. Stressing that a sustainable solution required restoring the legitimacy of State institutions, he called on the Council to undertake a unified effort to end the suffering in his country by taking a firm stance against the “kill masters”.