HomeUnited NationsAs Conflict, Humanitarian Crisis Grows, Yemen ‘Speeding towards Massive Famine’, Under-Secretary-General Warns,...

As Conflict, Humanitarian Crisis Grows, Yemen ‘Speeding towards Massive Famine’, Under-Secretary-General Warns, in Briefing to Security Council

The conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen is taking a dramatic turn for the worse, with Houthi rebels pursuing a military offensive in Marib governorate alongside a surge in cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, but a renewed diplomatic commitment by the United States to end the six-year conflict offers a glimmer of hope that peace is still possible, senior United Nations officials told a videoconference meeting of the Security Council today.

Martin Griffiths, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen, said that 1 million internally displaced persons are among the civilians at risk as Houthi rebels and Government forces clash in Marib, with combatants on both sides suffering heavy losses.  He also expressed concern at intensified missile and drone strikes, including those aimed at Saudi Arabia, and airstrikes within Sana’a city.  Frontlines are opening in other parts of Yemen, including Hajjah and Taiz, while deadly violence continues in the key port city of Hudaydah.

He called for the removal of obstacles to the importation and domestic distribution of fuel for civil use, urging the Government in particular to permit ships to offload fuel at Hudaydah and to use fees and taxes collected to pay civil service salaries.  He added that the situation in Aden and surrounding governorates remains difficult, amid reports today of protesters storming the Maasheeq Presidential Palace.  It is encouraging that the new Cabinet is operating from within Yemen, but more resources are needed to improve basic services.

“It is not only Yemenis who are suffering in Yemen,” he said, calling for an independent investigation into a fire that swept though a detention facility in Sana’a holding mainly Ethiopian migrants.  Dozens were killed and more than 170 seriously injured, he said, adding that all people in Yemen, regardless of nationality, must be afforded protection and kept safe.

Turning to the proposed way forward, he said that the parties must now, more than ever, agree to silence the guns and implement a nationwide ceasefire, along with the reopening of Sana’a airport and the unhindered flow of fuel and other commodities through Hudaydah.  Resuming an inclusive political process is also a humanitarian priority, he added.  The warring parties must engage constantly and seriously at all stages with the United Nations to make that happen and give Yemen’s people hope that an end to the conflict is in sight.  He welcomed the engagement of key Member States and thanked the United States for its recent support, including the efforts of its Special Envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that for a long time he has been warning the Council that Yemen is speeding towards a massive famine, most recently at last week’s open meeting on conflict and food insecurity.  He expressed frustration that a donor conference in Geneva on 1 March raised only $1.7 billion, less than half of what aid agencies need to fulfil the 2021 Yemen humanitarian response plan, as many big donors cut their pledges compared to previous years.  “That means we don’t have enough money to stop famine,” he warned, adding that other factors — the protection of civilians, economic support and peace — must also come into play.

Elaborating, he said that Ansar Allah’s offensive in Marib — previously a rare safe haven in Yemen — is threatening thousands of civilians.  Since 7 February, at least 19 civilians have been killed or injured, more than 50 farms and homes damaged and four camps for internally displaced persons impacted.  About 15,000 people have fled the fighting so far and tens of thousands more will follow if the violence escalates.  Highlighting the plight of refugees and migrants, he said that in addition to the 7 March fire in Sana’a, at least 20 people died when human traffickers forced dozens of passengers off a crowded vessel bound for Yemen — the third such incident in six months.

On humanitarian access, he said the Government is working with the United Nations on project approvals and other administrative issues, as well as preparations for a COVID-19 vaccination campaign.  In northern Yemen, however, aid agencies still face bureaucratic impediments.  On the case of the Safer, a floating oil storage vessel in danger of spilling 1.1 million barrels of Marib crude oil into the Red Sea, he said that the United Nations is still discussing with Ansar Allah several logistical issues that are delaying the deployment of a technical team to inspect and repair the ageing erstwhile supertanker.  The Organization is being as flexible as possible, but so far Ansar Allah — which agreed in principle to the mission in November 2020 — has not been flexible in return, he said.

Turning to Yemen’s shattered economy, a major driver of the risk of famine, he emphasized the need to strengthen the country’s rial.  Its unprecedented depreciation in recent months has left millions unable to afford food and other essentials, but hopefully Yemen’s partners can work with the Government to stabilize the currency through injections of foreign exchange, as they have in the past.  Another quick win would be the resumption of commercial fuel imports through Hudaydah, which the Government blocked in January.  Thirteen ships, carrying two months’ worth of fuel imports, are now anchored off the port city, but the Government is refusing them entry due to a months-long dispute with Ansar Allah over revenue.

Despite the escalation of fighting in Marib and elsewhere, the renewed United States commitment to a diplomatic solution has opened a window for anyone who is serious about ending the war, he said.  However, that opportunity will be wasted if Yemen tips into famine.  Going forward, everyone must do all they can, including more funding for the humanitarian operation, a halt to the Marib offensive and Hudaydah fuel blockade, the launch of a nationwide ceasefire and a return to a political process, he said.

Nirvana Shawky, CARE Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said her organization is assisting 16 million Yemenis suffering from hunger.  Four in five live below the poverty line.  Recalling that CARE has been in Yemen since 1992, she said it delivered assistance to almost 3 million people in 14 governates in 2020.  Sharing the perspective of the 400 CARE staff working on the ground, she said the countless declarations about “opportunities for peace” evoke hope that the conflict will end, only to then see the fighting resume.

“The war enters a new year, new frontlines are opened and the brutal reality swiftly replaces any fleeting hope,” she said.  “It is hard to imagine the toll this takes on people’s psychological well-being.”  As the conflict enters its seventh year, millions of Yemeni children and teens struggle to remember life without insecurity and food shortages.  Funding cuts to the humanitarian response are taking an enormous toll on Yemenis, who often support more than 20 people in their extended families.

In recent weeks, as fighting has intensified in Marib, she said the focus has rightly turned to the risks facing the 4 million people internally displaced since the start of the conflict in 2015.  Just under a third of displaced households are headed by women or girls.  Colleagues in Marib and Hajjah — which host the highest numbers of displaced people — report that displaced women and girls suffer most from a lack of privacy without substantial shelters or proper latrines, threats to their safety and limited access to basic services, she said.

She emphasized that families have become desperate, as the impact of funding cuts, the blockade and lack of remittances take their toll.  The latest data show that more than 2 million children and over 1 million pregnant women and new mothers are severely malnourished.  On the economic front, oil and gas exports, which generated enough revenue before the conflict, have reduced to a trickle.  Communities face health risks aggravated by a lack of money to buy medicine or travel to clinics, as well as the simple but deadly threat of poor water and sanitation.

She urged the Council to “please remember that the needs of the Yemeni people are simple.”  They want to go to the market with enough money to buy food and to educate their children rather than send them to work, fight, beg, or having to marry them off.  She pressed the Council to address economic recovery as an urgent priority, help fill the $2 billion funding gap in the humanitarian response, enable humanitarian access as an “absolute necessity” and exercise its responsibility “to end this dreadful conflict once and for all”.  Yemenis “are depending on you all”, she assured.

In the ensuing debate, Council members — noting their unanimous adoption of resolution 2564 (2021) on 25 February that renewed sanctions on persons deemed to be threatening Yemen’s peace, security and stability — echoed concerns about the risk of a devastating famine and called for an immediate ceasefire.  Several speakers stressed that women must be a key part of any political process.  Many also called for the Houthis to finally pave the way for a United Nations team to access the Safer tanker to avert an oil spill or explosion that could impact the lives of millions in and around the Red Sea.

The representative of the United Kingdom stressed the need for a nationwide ceasefire and an inclusive political process that ends the conflict.  Despite renewed diplomatic efforts, the Houthis have escalated militarily, intensifying their attacks on Saudi Arabia and Marib, she said, strongly condemning these escalations.  She urged the Houthis to urgently implement the multiple Security Council calls for them to facilitate the United Nations assessment and repair the mission’s access to the Safer oil tanker, also calling on the group to ensure a transparent and independent investigation into the Houthi-run migrant centre fire in Sana’a.  Humanitarian aid must not be used as a political tool.  Humanitarian workers should be able to conduct their work safely and without harm.  Her country continues to support Yemen as a leading donor, having pledged at least $120 million to the 2021 United Nations appeal.  This will feed an additional 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month and provide clean water for 1.6 million people.

The representative of the Russian Federation expressed his regret that the logic of the armed confrontation continues to prevail.  Of particular concern is the situation in Marib.  Voicing Moscow’s support for the Special Envoy’s effort, he emphasized the need for all parties to comply with the provisions of international humanitarian law.  An important step towards the implementation of the Riyadh agreement of 2019 on the normalization of the situation in southern Yemen was the establishment in 2020 of a new coalition Government, with a significant portion of ministerial portfolios received by representatives of southern regions for the first time.  He welcomed the United States’ reversal of its decision to place the Houthis on their list of terrorist organizations, as well as the declared intention of Washington, D.C., to actively engage in efforts to end the conflict.  Launching the process of developing security and confidence measures in the Persian Gulf, and throughout the Middle East, would contribute to resolving crises, including the conflict in Yemen, he said, drawing attention to the Russian concept of collective security.

The representative of Mexico expressed its great concern about the continuing violence in various localities, particularly attacks in Marib, which put the lives of thousands of civilians at risk and is also causing an additional wave of displacement.  Marib already shelters nearly a million displaced people.  Calling on the Houthi militias to stop their offensive on Marib, he also condemned their attacks against Saudi territory and targets.  He urged regional partners with influence to persuade both the leaders of Ansar Allah and the Government of Yemen to launch a constructive dialogue to reach a national ceasefire.  He commended the efforts of the Special Envoy to increase the number of women in the delegations participating in the political process, as well as his constant interaction with the Technical Advisory Group of Women.

The representative of Ireland said that Yemen has reached a moment of great fragility, but this is also a moment of real opportunity which all actors must seize.  Echoing the Council’s appeal for a de-escalation and ceasefire, she called on the Houthis to halt their offensive in Marib immediately and without preconditions.  She also condemned intensified cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia.  “Now is the time to Safer return to the negotiating table.”  A further threat looms in the form of the oil tanker, she said, calling on the Houthis to permit an assessment team to board that vessel.  She went on to say that the Council must do more to ensure the meaningful participation of Yemeni women in political and public life, including at the negotiating table.

The representative of Tunisia said that despite recent diplomatic efforts, the situation in Yemen remains worrying given the escalation in military fighting.  Condemning attacks in Marib, he stressed that military means only resulted in deaths, injuries, destruction and displacement, undermining the groundwork for political negotiations.  He called on the parties to return to dialogue based on the logic of peace.  Underscoring the neutrality of civilians and civilian structures, he called for compliance with international humanitarian law and human rights law.  It is vital to reopen ports and airports so that relief programmes can continue.  He said his country supports the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said Yemen’s weak economy, ongoing hostilities, fuel shortages and COVID-19 spread have combined to create unbearable suffering, with millions of people “knocking on the door of famine”.  The proposed Joint Declaration is the starting point from which Yemen can navigate these challenges.  She called for an immediate ceasefire nationwide, unhindered humanitarian access with responders sufficiently equipped with the necessary resources, and increased international support for life-saving programmes.  While the most recent round of prisoner exchange talks was not fruitful, she encouraged parties to continue their efforts to meet their commitments, and more broadly to ensure that women have the platform — and safe space — they need to participate equally throughout the peace process.

The representative of Viet Nam expressed grave concern over military escalations in Marib and Taiz, re-emphasizing the urgent need for parties to stop the fighting and return to the negotiating table for a nationwide ceasefire.  While fuel shortages have led to prices doubling and tripling in some areas, funding remains among the biggest obstacles to humanitarian operations.  He welcomed pledges made at the recent donor conference, yet they are far from meeting Yemen’s needs and he thus called for continued support.  Relevant parties also must uphold international humanitarian law in the protection of civilians and civilian objects, while health workers must be given access to support people in need.  He also called for full implementation of the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements, stressing that women and youth must be involved in Yemen’s political process, and urging Ansar Allah to grant unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker for the United Nations technical team.

The representative of India warned that the escalation of conflict, particularly in Marib, will give terrorist groups such as Al-Qaida and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) an opportunity to increase their presence in Yemen.  He condemned Ansar Allah’s drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and called on the parties to eschew violence and take meaningful steps towards dialogue and negotiations.  A focused diplomatic push, similar to the one that led to the Stockholm agreement two years ago, is needed now to stop the fighting in Marib and elsewhere.  Humanitarian pledges from Yemen’s regional partners give reason for hope, but it is disappointing to see that recent talks on the exchange of prisoners and detainees ended without agreement.  He noted the United Nations engagement with Ansar Allah on the Safer issue and hoped that all pending issues related to logistical and security arrangements will be resolved soon.

The representative of Kenya urged the Council to note verified information on any party deliberately undermining or frustrating the United Nations humanitarian relief effort, encouraging humanitarian agencies to deploy new and innovative solutions that invest in strengthening local food production.  Terrorist groups in Yemen and elsewhere are a present and future threat to any established peace.  The Special Envoy should practice the utmost caution in ensuring that the peace process does not offer these groups a way to insert and escalate their ideological reach and operations.  He also recommended that the peace resolution and recovery process incorporate disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, plus disengagement — a process that uses psychosocial and counter-narrative tools, family trust building, and robust vetting to minimize risk to disengage combatants.  Yemeni women and youth should be enabled to meaningfully contribute to a Yemeni-led and -owned peace process.

The representative of Norway, expressing alarm at the ongoing Houthi offensive in Marib and the growing number of drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, called on all parties to de-escalate and to seize the opportunity for a nationwide ceasefire linked to political talks.  An easing of the ongoing embargo would also help by allowing the importation of fuel and other basic goods.  She emphasized the importance of women’s participation in peace efforts and the need for regional and international actors involved in the conflict to do their part to get political talks going.  With millions of Yemenis at risk of death by starvation, increased donor support, humanitarian access and an end to violence are vital to avert a large-scale famine.  She also called on the Houthis to provide immediate and unconditional access to the Safer vessel, adding:  “This is no time for further delays.”  Turning to the recent fire at a migrant holding facility in Sana’a and the military use of schools, she said that all violations of international humanitarian law must be investigated and those responsible held accountable.

The representative of Estonia called on the Houthis to immediately cease their assault on Marib as well as the cross-border attacks on the territory of Saudi Arabia.  Only an inclusive political solution can end the conflict, he said, welcoming the diplomatic engagement by the United States while urging all parties to seize the shift in dynamics.  Calling for the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in the political process, he expressed regret that they are absent from the recently formed Government of Yemen.  A holistic long-term solution is needed to truly help the country.  This includes unhindered humanitarian access, stepping up humanitarian assistance, strengthening Yemen’s economy and finding a long-term solution to the import of fuel and commercial items.

The representative of China stressed the importance of unity by the international community, calling for an end to military clashes and hostilities, which cause untold suffering of civilians.  Military means can lead to disasters, and there should be no deviation from the pursuit of a political settlement, he said, urging the parties to return to the negotiation table and implement past agreements, which would lead to greater trust.  To mitigate the humanitarian crisis, the international community must step up assistance to fully fund the United Nations response plan.  His delegation takes note of the planned creation of a high-level taskforce to prevent famine.  Given the country’s dependence on imports, the parties should ensure the operation of ports.  On regional security, China has proposed a multilateral platform in the Gulf region.

The representative of Niger warned that famine is imminent and may affect more than half of Yemen’s population if nothing is done in the days and months ahead, urging donor countries to honour their commitments announced at the 1 March pledging conference.  Yemen saw the glimmers of hope at the end of 2020, with the release of thousands of detainees, the formation of a new Government and the favourable intentions expressed by the parties regarding the proposals by the Special Envoy.  It is disconcerting to see this hope extinguished due to the resumption of hostilities.  If the political process in Yemen is stagnant, it is entirely due to the inability of the parties to agree on a common denominator.  The situation also requires a change of approach on the part of the United Nations and Yemen’s international partners.  A new approach must combine greater diplomatic pressure on the parties and sustained regular contact with all stakeholders affected by this crisis.

The representative of France said that a window of opportunity has been opened to finally end the war on Yemen, urging the Houthis seize it.  They must immediately renounce their attacks on Marib and the Saudi territory, with the latter threatening the stability of the region.  There is no military solution in Yemen, she declared, urging the parties to agree on an immediate nationwide ceasefire, in accordance with the proposal of the Special Envoy, the Secretary-General’s appeal and resolution 2532 (2020).  On the humanitarian front, she said that the risk of large-scale famine increases day by day and the international community has a collective responsibility and a moral obligation to avoid such tragedy, adding that this requires the full funding of the humanitarian response plan.  France announced at least €11 million during the donor conference, she said.

The representative of the United States said that her country is stepping up its diplomacy to end the war, with its Special Envoy recently meeting key leaders in Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan.  He also met several times with the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Yemen and other key stakeholders, including European counterparts.  “The United States is working tirelessly, in full coordination with Special Envoy Griffiths, to create the conditions for the parties to reach a ceasefire and a negotiated end to the conflict — one that incorporates the perspectives and the experiences of the Yemeni people.”  Peace is the only path forward and all parties must execute the steps they know they must take for a ceasefire.  However, there can be no ceasefire and no peace if the Houthis keep up their daily attacks against the Yemeni people, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.  “The death and violence must stop,” she said, calling on the Houthis to accept an immediate, comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire and to cease all attacks.  In the meantime, the Houthi leadership will be held to account.  It is also well past time for the Houthis to quit stalling on United Nations efforts to assess and repair the Safer oil tanker.  Further delays could devastate not only the environment, but the lives and livelihoods of an estimated 4 million people, she said, urging other nations to press the Houthis to allow the assessment to move forward immediately.

She commended the Council’s decision to designate Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin, director of the Criminal Investigation Department in Sana’a, under the United Nations sanctions regime for overseeing and carrying out detentions, torture and sexual violence against politically active women who opposed the Houthis.  Going forward, the United States will work with the Yemen sanctions committee to identify those who meet the designation criteria.  Turning to Yemen’s worsening humanitarian disaster, with 14 million people on the brink of starvation, including 2.3 million children under the age of five, she appealed for massive and worthy response.  During the 1 March pledging event, the United States announced $190 million in additional humanitarian assistance, bringing its total for Yemen this fiscal year to $350 million.  She appealed to regional donors in particular to contribute additional funding and encouraged those who made generous pledges to fulfil their commitments promptly.

The representative of Yemen said that the Government is continuing to reach out for peace through a political process underpinned by, among other things, the Gulf Cooperation Council and resolution 2216 (2015), through which the Security Council demanded that all parties in Yemen, in particular the Houthis, immediately and unconditionally end violence and refrain from further unilateral actions that threatened the political transition.  The Government welcomes both United Nations efforts to end the conflict peacefully and the diplomatic pathway announced by the new Administration in the United States.  However, the Houthis remain intransigent and reject all peace initiatives, with its spokesman rejecting United States and international efforts.  He drew attention to the brutal bombardment of residential areas of Marib, which left hundreds of people dead or injured, including scores of women and children, as well as the arson attack in Sana’a that was aimed at Ethiopian migrants who refused to be recruited or to pay funds to the Houthi militia.

Such acts of barbarism are aimed at undermining the political process amid calls for peace and dialogue, he said, calling on the Council to adopt deterrent measures against the Houthi militia and the rogue Iranian regime.  Swift action is needed to address the drivers of the humanitarian crisis, he added, pointing to acute food insecurity and hunger, especially in Houthi-controlled areas.  Yemenis are suffering due to the Houthis’ use of starvation as a tactic of war.  He added that the Houthi militia is attempting to delude the international community with fabricated claims of a fuel crisis.  Claims of a fuel import ban in Hudaydah and elsewhere have been refuted by the competent authorities.  He said the Government is making strenuous efforts to support the economy at a time when inflation is running at 50 per cent and the value of the Yemeni rial has fallen 40 per cent.  He echoed the Prime Minister’s appeal to donors to deposit their pledges into Yemen’s central bank, as Saudi Arabia did in 2018 when its $2 billion contribution helped to avert famine.  Going forward, economic recovery efforts must focus less on relief work and more on development projects.  Condemning Houthi attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, he said that they bear the hallmarks of a malicious project to export anarchy in the region.  The Security Council must address that issue and ensure that Yemen does not become a launchpad for Iranian adventures.  He went on to say that the Houthis are manipulating the Safer dossier as a bargaining chip and that the Council should take deterrent measures to enable United Nations technicians to board the vessel as a prelude to offloading its cargo of crude oil.


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