Yemen is again teetering on the brink of famine, senior United Nations officials told the Security Council during a 11 November videoconference meeting, reiterating their calls for donors to scale up relief funding and for the warring parties to sign the Joint Declaration for a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian measures and the resumption of peace talks.
“There is no better option than a ceasefire, combined with a return to the political process, for the parties to create stability on the front lines,” said United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, calling on the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, to ink the Joint Declaration.
Mr. Griffiths, one of the four briefers in today’s meeting, said he has been mediating the Joint Declaration text for many months, adding that the same challenges have been coming up repeatedly, particularly with the economic and humanitarian measures. “I am the mediator and not the negotiator,” he said, stressing that “the parties negotiate with each other, and not with me”.
The fighting on the front lines has not been as intense as previous months, he reported, expressing concerns, however, over periodic spikes in violence between the parties in Ma’rib and Taiz Governorates, and the recent escalation in attacks on Saudi territory. The situation in and around the key port city of Hudaydah has become calmer, but the tensions between the parties persist. The United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA) has continued its efforts to reactivate the Redeployment and Coordination Committee and other joint mechanisms to further cooperation between the parties.
Turning to the issue of the Safer oil tanker, moored off Hudaydah, he said that the United Nations has been trying to negotiate access for months for the expert mission to conduct an assessment of the condition of the vessel, apply initial repairs and formulate recommendations on what is required to avoid a spill. Although discussions have been constructive, it is yet to receive the approvals needed for the mission from the Houthis, he said.
Recalling that in 2019, the Government and the Southern Transitional Council signed the Riyadh Agreement under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, he noted that “this gave us all hope of greater stability in the southern governorates, improved functioning of State institutions and the prospect of genuine political cooperation between the signatories.”
To mark the twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), his Office and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women) convened a meeting of 30 Yemeni women leaders, along with international partners, he reported. The women emphasized the importance of resuming negotiations, ending the war, enhancing women’s political participation and representation, as well as protection from political and gender‑based violence. To ensure these ideas become central to the negotiations, more women must be included in the parties’ delegations.
Mark Lowcock, Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the most urgent task in Yemen today is to prevent widespread famine. With no food, the body’s metabolism slows down to preserve energy for vital organs. Hungry and weak, people often become fatigued, irritable and confused. The immune system loses strength. So as they starve, people — especially children — are likelier to fall sick or die from diseases that they may have otherwise resisted. There is no shortage of diseases in Yemen that will prey on these weakened immune systems, including cholera, COVID‑19, other respiratory infections and illnesses like malaria, dengue and diphtheria.
For those who manage to escape disease — but still find nothing to eat — their vital organs will start to wither and then fail, he continued. Eventually, the body starts to devour its own muscles, including the heart. Many will experience hallucinations and convulsions before, finally, the heart stops. It is a terrible, agonizing and humiliating death — and it is particularly cruel in a world where there is in fact more than enough food for everyone. It is the fate the world has left hanging over millions of Yemeni men, women and especially children. Yemenis are not “going hungry”. They are being starved, he emphasized, imploring the parties to the conflict, Security Council members, donors, humanitarian organizations and others to do everything they can to stop this.
Mr. Lowcock said fighting continues along 48 front lines across the country, with the fiercest clashes occurring recently in Ma’rib, Al Jawf, Taiz and Al Dhale’e. The prospects of further escalation in Ma’rib, where 1 million displaced people are living, or renewed clashes in Hudaydah, whose port is a lifeline for millions in the north, remain deeply concerning. A nationwide ceasefire would go a long way to protecting civilians and help stop the slide towards famine.
Turing to the issue of safe, rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access, he reported on two disturbing attacks against humanitarian staff. On 19 October, a Turkish Red Crescent worker was shot and seriously injured in Aden, and on 2 November, a grenade was thrown at an aid agency compound, also in Aden, he said, strongly condemning these attacks.
With seven weeks left in 2020, the United Nations response plan has received $1.5 billion, or about 45 per cent of requirements. This means that 9 million Yemenis could lose access to basic health services, and treatment of more than half a million malnourished children could stop. More money for the aid operation is the quickest and most efficient way to support famine prevention efforts right now, he said, imploring donors to fulfil outstanding pledges and to increase their support. A nationwide ceasefire, resuming salary payments and reopening Sana’a airport could be game‑changers, especially if they come along with more money for the relief effort.
David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), declared: “We are on a countdown to catastrophe in Yemen.” Already ravaged by years of conflict‑fuelled hunger and malnutrition, the Yemeni people now face a toxic mix of surging violence, deepening economic and currency collapse and COVID‑19. “If we choose to look away, Yemen will be plunged into a devastating famine within a few short months,” he warned. Recalling the sharp drop in the value of the Yemeni riyal in recent years, he said today the currency is worth only 844 riyals to $1, with predictions that it could soon plunge even further.
Also recalling his warning to the Council in 2018 that 12 million people were on the verge of famine, he said donors responded to his call and stepped up to pull Yemen back from the brink. “But, in the two years since, so much of our good work has been wiped out and, once again, famine is knocking at the door,” he said. Much time was wasted negotiating with the Houthi authorities for humanitarian access and for permission to set up the monitoring systems donors rightly expected in return for their taxpayer dollars. Those were coupled with a range of other unnecessary obstructions and endless delays, which continued even amid the onset of the coronavirus.
As a result, he said, WFP was forced in April to cut its rations to 9 million people living in areas controlled by Ansar Allah authorities. Each family now receives a full ration every two months, instead of every month. However, he cited a glimmer of good news, noting that on 8 November WFP had a breakthrough when it was finally able to begin a pilot biometric registration programme for beneficiaries in Sana’a City. “It is an important milestone — but one we should have reached two years ago,” he said, noting that the project will be crucial to giving donors the confidence needed to provide fresh funds and repairing the severe liquidity crisis facing Yemen.
Indeed, he continued, WFP could distribute up to $500 million in cash/liquidity and vouchers into the marketplace through beneficiaries in 2021. Such an influx would stabilize Yemen’s currency and get the economy moving again, allowing essential commodities to enter and meet consumer demand. “But Ansar Allah need to show they are willing to help us,” he stressed, including by meeting the five outstanding preconditions of the seven laid out by donors in February. Emphasizing that time is running out, he said the war is currently raging across more than 40 frontlines and the cost of basic food products has skyrocketed.
Describing the impact on food security as devastating, he said estimates in July predicted that acute food insecurity would rise sharply — from 25 per cent of the population to 40 per cent — by the end of 2020. The Council must not wait for a formal declaration of famine to act. He called on members to stop waiting for the crisis to reach a boiling point “and then doing just enough to pull back it from the brink”. A comprehensive, funded plan is needed to avert famine, stabilize the shattered economy, support longer‑term development and compel the parties to make peace. Outlining what is immediately needed from donors, he said $2.6 billion will be required in 2021 to restore rations to all beneficiaries and resume other activities, such as specialized nutrition support to children and nursing mothers. At a bare minimum, $1.9 billion is needed to avert famine.
Omer Badokhon, Founder and Executive Director, Solutions for Sustainable Society, said the right to development and a dignified life have regrettably become a luxury for the majority of Yemen’s people. In addition to the many conflict‑related challenges long faced by the population — and now the impacts of the pandemic — he said the country also faces severe environmental devastation. For example, coastal areas have seen many major weather events in recent years, including five cyclones, which resulted in death and destruction.
Citing recent reports by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other agencies, he said experts believe that, should the war in Yemen finally end in 2022, development gains would be set back by 26 years — “an entire generation”. That number will rise to 40 years should the war continue until 2030. Against that backdrop, he emphasized that the Sustainable Development Goals can only be achieved in Yemen amid peace and an elevated standard of living. More sustainable agricultural development, more sustainable consumption and production patterns and a circular green economy — led by Yemen’s young people — are urgently needed.
“The environment has always been one of the victims of war,” he said, noting that Yemen is not alone in that regard. Appealing to all the country’s warring parties to stop exploiting the environment in the service of conflict, he noted that war is fertile ground for animal poachers. Many species in Yemen, including its indigenous gazelle, are now threatened with extinction. Other species of animals and plants find themselves at risk due to the harvesting of timber for cooking materials, which has accelerated amid rising commodity and fuel prices.
Among other innovations, he said his organization has introduced a new project which converts bovine waste into biogas for cooking. Turning to the environmental challenges posed by the Safer oil tanker moored in the Red Sea, he described the ship’s degrading condition and emphasized that the situation constitutes a “ticking time bomb” threatening livelihoods across neighbouring coastal areas. Calling on the Council to put its weight behind efforts to reach a political solution, he demanded that the warring parties stop exploiting the environment for political purposes, as in the case of the oil tanker. Urgent steps must also be taken to empty the ship in order to avert an environmental disaster, and to expand humanitarian interventions to include green technologies, he said.
In the ensuing discussion, delegates echoed a sense of urgency expressed by briefers in calling for the signing of the Joint Declaration and for measures to avoid a famine. They also called for expeditious access for the repair team to the Safer oil tanker to avoid an environmental and economic catastrophe.
The United Kingdom’s representative said that the briefings left him in no doubt as to the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. On the briefing given by Mr. Griffiths, he said that his country supports efforts to progress a political solution. He also highlighted the recent success in securing the release of over 1,000 prisoners, noting that it shows that face‑to‑face dialogue can result in positive outcomes. Only an end to the violence can help bring enduring humanitarian relief to the people of Yemen. There have also been spikes in violence, as the Houthis continue to launch drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, casting doubt on their commitment to peace. The Riyadh Agreement should be implemented, its parties should form an inclusive cabinet and implement necessary military reforms. Noting Mr. Beasley’s words on WFP, he said that they painted a dire picture of food security that makes swift action even more important, particularly on the economy, humanitarian funding and humanitarian access.
Estonia’s representative called on the Houthi authorities to unconditionally release the four remaining journalists who have been arbitrarily detained and face the death penalty. The prisoner exchange will hopefully help build confidence between the parties to reach an agreement on the Joint Declaration. With the one‑year anniversary of the Riyadh Agreement’s signing, he repeated a call on the Government and Southern Transitional Council to carry out the Agreement’s remaining elements. The hostilities have worsened the economic and humanitarian situation and it is worrying to hear United Nations agencies’ reports that Yemen is on the brink of a food security crisis and the acute malnutrition rates of children less than 5 years old are the highest ever. Estonia has contributed to WFP. It is urgent to give formal approval to UNMHA to access the Safer vessel.
Viet Nam’s representative expressed concern about the threats of a famine facing Yemen’s people and today’s briefings show a very gloomy picture. The cost of basic foods is higher than ever before as Yemen’s currency has lost 25 per cent of its value and 20 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition. It is extremely urgent that all concerned parties cease hostilities and resume negotiations so the Joint Declaration towards a nationwide ceasefire can be reached. Viet Nam repeats its call to international donors to fulfil their financial commitments so humanitarian works in Yemen can be implemented. The United Nations has issued an emergency appeal for more than $50 million to scale up nutrition programmes. All concerned parties should provide favourable conditions for humanitarian workers to complete their work in parts of Yemen. The spread of the second wave of the COVID‑19 pandemic must be contained.
China’s representative echoed expressions of urgency, stressing that “force cannot solve any problem” in Yemen. Welcoming new signs of stability in the south, he nevertheless voiced concern about recent drone attacks against Saudi Arabia and rising tensions in the country’s north. The parties must respond to the people’s ambitions for peace by accelerating negotiations, fulfilling their commitments under the Stockholm Agreement, Riyadh Agreement and relevant Council resolutions. Expressing hope that a new Government will soon be formed and the political process accelerated, he called for respect for Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and advocated for the creation of a regional dialogue platform issue aimed at resolving hot spot issues and tackling the root causes of conflict. On COVID‑19, he said China continues to provide Yemen with test kits and personal protective equipment.
Indonesia’s representative said the deteriorating economy and COVID‑19 has created a deadly combination with more than 17 million people expected to face acute food insecurity in 2020, up from 15 million in 2019. A political process is necessary that includes a nationwide ceasefire, measures to restore the economy and an inclusive political process that includes women and youth. Indonesia reiterates the importance for all parties to agree on the Joint Declaration. Full implementation of the Riyadh Agreement is also crucial for a more comprehensive political process. The Houthi attacks in civilian areas in Ma’rib, Taiz and Hudaydah violate international humanitarian law and he again urged the Houthis to stop targeting civilians and infrastructure. Restrictions for the access of humanitarian workers is unacceptable.
Germany’s representative said that the violence and bombings in Yemen are continuing. Progress is practically non‑existent, he said, expressing his frustration. He encouraged Mr. Lowcock to continue his work and build on the “airlift of hope” of the prisoner exchange. Mr. Lowcock and Mr. Beasley both noted that the population is close to being starved and he does not have the words to react. It is unacceptable that there are bureaucratic hurdles, he said, underscoring that the blackmailing of donors and humanitarian organizations is totally unacceptable. On funding, Germany has fulfilled its commitments and is the third largest donor regarding Yemen. Others have not complied with their commitments, he said, noting that it is unacceptable that a country like the United Arab Emirates has not committed to humanitarian aid in 2020.
South Africa’s representative said that the tragic humanitarian situation in Yemen is linked to the political impasse. On the humanitarian situation, his country is concerned on the devastating effect on the people of Yemen, particularly women, children, and those with disabilities. Rising violence is escalating the human‑made food crisis in Yemen. Hard won gains are being lost with economic decline and, coupled with the pandemic, have pushed an already exhausted population to the brink. He called on all parties to the conflict to improve the delivery of humanitarian aid. The conflict not only impacts the people of Yemen but also impacts negatively on neighbouring States and the region. He called on all parties to compromise in order to negotiate a political settlement.
Belgium’s representative expressed regret that little progress has been seen over the last month in Yemen. In October, the briefers expressed a certain level of confidence that the parties might reach agreement. “Dialogue alone will end the war and settle the major differences … in Yemen,” she stressed, welcoming the implementation of the recent agreement on prisoner exchanges as an important trust‑building tool. She said economic decline and COVID‑19 are now adding to the factors making Yemen one of the worst places to live on the planet — especially for children. In the Hudaydah lowlands, an estimated 27 per cent of children are in acute need of food. “We risk losing an entire generation of young children,” she stressed, noting that European Union member States have shouldered their financial responsibility and will continue to do so. For its part, Belgium has contributed more than $30 million in core funding to WFP in 2020 alone, she said.
The representative of the United States, calling upon the Council to take the briefers’ passionate pleas to heart, voiced regret that the international community’s goodwill in the case of Yemen has not been matched by the Houthis. Condemning the group’s drone attacks against Saudi Arabia, she said they and their main supporter, Iran, must be held accountable. Wherever there is violence and instability in the region, Iran’s regime can be found “fanning the flame”. While the United States proudly provides more than 40 per cent of WFP’s funding, more money is needed as the response plan for Yemen remains woefully underfunded. All parties to the conflict must support aid delivery. The Houthis must immediately permit WFP to advance its biometric monitoring programme and permit the travel and movement of its staff. She also called for the Houthis to immediately release the Yemeni‑Jewish prisoner, Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, and stop exploiting the threat of environmental disaster by granting international experts access to the Safer tanker.
The Dominican Republic’s representative hailed some progress on the ground, including the prisoner exchanges and the roll‑out of biometric registration of food aid beneficiaries, but expressed concerns that the food insecurity is critical, as highlighted by briefers. The international community has the joint responsibility to act, he said, urging donors to disperse their pledges so that United Nations assistance can continue. On the economy and COVID‑19, he underscored the need for such measures as rescue packages, reduction of monetary transfer charges and monetary and fiscal management by a central bank. Yemen cannot afford to repeat the cycle of taking steps forward and then backward.
The Russian Federation’s representative voiced concerns that civilian infrastructure, including the health system, has been crippled, with the situation compounded by COVID‑19. She expressed regret that the United Nations had to scale down its programmes due to insufficient funding, urging donors to increase contributions. Improving the humanitarian situation goes hand in hand with the political process. But it is regrettable that the parties have not signed the Joint Declaration. The Riyadh and Hudaydah Agreements have not been implemented. The agreement on prisoner and detainee exchanges show that they can compromise and come up with solutions. The international community is united, she said, stressing there is no military solution while also drawing attention to Moscow’s initiative to build the collective security architecture in the Persian Gulf region.
Tunisia’s representative said that Yemen’s people can no longer stand any more suffering, urging the international community to focus greater efforts on this situation to put an end to the conflict. Military escalation is making the situation more complex. The parties should work towards a political solution and put an end to the conflict through peaceful negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. He called upon all parties to commit to, and benefit from, the positive atmosphere that has prevailed since negotiations began under the auspices of Saudi Arabia. To achieve lasting peace, talks must be cooperative and involve all strata of the population, including women, youth and others. Yemen is facing the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world, he said, noting that armed conflict has led to the spread of COVID‑19 and worsened the risk of famine.
Niger’s representative said that the international community witnessed on 15 and 16 October an exchange of more than 1,000 detainees from the parties of the conflict in Yemen. This will certainly be a memorable moment for many Yemeni families and is an important milestone in the process of the political settlement of the conflict. The next stage should be the signing of the Joint Declaration for a nationwide ceasefire. All parties should keep the trust they have built and honour the commitment they have undertaken. It will not be a military settlement but must be political in nature. He asked Council members to work towards a rapprochement between the parties and bring them to the negotiation table. The origin of the humanitarian crisis is human in nature because of the continued military campaigns in the country that destroyed its infrastructure.
France’s representative declared: “We must arrive at a political solution in Yemen.” Stressing that de‑escalation is urgently needed, he expressed concern about rising tensions in the north and around Hudaydah, while condemning Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia. A new Government should be formed without delay and the parties must implement the Riyadh Agreement, he said, also calling on them to commit to the drafting of a joint declaration as proposed by the Special Envoy. Turning to the humanitarian situation, he called on the parties to guarantee access to aid delivery, prioritize civilian protections, cooperate in combating a possible second wave of COVID‑19 and grant access to the Safer oil tanker as soon possible.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Council President for November, spoke in her national capacity, stressing that the people of Yemen desperately need relief from the conflict and its consequences. Humanitarian assistance is critical, but it is not a permanent fix. Calling upon donors to urgently disburse all funds pledged to the country, she called for the unhindered passage of humanitarian aid. “The threat of famine is real, but it need not be inevitable,” she said. Echoing the briefers’ remarks, she said funding and support for the economy are among critical actions that must be taken to avert a catastrophe. Meanwhile, the parties must continue to work with each other and with the Special Envoy to open pathways to peace, and the parties must grant access to those seeking to take concrete steps to avert an environmental disaster resulting from the condition of the Safer oil tanker.
Yemen’s representative said that his country’s Government is working hard to end the war imposed by the Houthis. The war has destroyed the country’s social fabric, dashing hopes for the people. The Houthis have sown racism and tortured and abducted Yemenis in violation of international humanitarian and human rights laws. The Government made concessions and engaged positively in the United Nations‑led political processes, including by Mr. Griffiths. The Government has welcomed the Joint Declaration since its first draft, but the Houthis continue to add new conditions. He described Iran as the rogue regime that supports the Houthis by providing weapons and other resources that are used to kill Yemenis. Iran also dispatched an ambassador to the Houthis militias. The Houthis have diverted oil revenues, which were supposed to be used to pay salaries of public servants. On the issue of the Safer oil tanker, the Security Council should take a decisive action and put greater pressure on the Houthis to avoid an environmental disaster. The Government is committed to provide all forms of support to United Nations agencies.