Yemen: the largest humanitarian crisis in the world

Two years into a conflict that shows little sign of waning, anxieties about famine in Yemen have grown markedly over the last few months. The UN’s humanitarian chief has described Yemen as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Stephen O’Brien warned the country faces the spectre of famine with 7 million facing starvation. He is calling on all parties involved to facilitate humanitarian access. MPs discussed the conflict in the Commons on 28 March and the UN Security Council (UNSC) will receive a situation update today.

A country in need

A humanitarian snapshot compiled by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) provides some stark figures for a country of 27 million people:

  • 18.8 million people are in need of assistance
  • Half of those are children
  • Over 10 million people are in acute need
  • 17 million people are unable to adequately feed themselves
  • 462,000 children under the age of five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition
  • Half of the 3 million people internally displaced are children
  • Estimates of deaths caused by the two years of fighting range from 7,600 to 10,000: the humanitarian snapshot referenced above provides a figure of 7,684 people killed; OCHA said in mid-January the civilian death toll had reached 10,000, based on information gathered by health facilities.
So what is the international community doing?

In February the UN launched an international appeal for $2.1bn to support 12 million people in Yemen in 2017. The UN says this is the largest consolidated humanitarian appeal for Yemen ever launched. It is a part of a wider appeal for assistance in dealing with humanitarian crises in Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan.

However only 8% of the $2.1bn have been received. A ministerial-level pledging meeting is scheduled to be held in Geneva on 25 April but UN’s humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien has called on donors to act now to donate funds. Ismail Ahmad, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, visited London, France and Germany in mid-March to discuss the humanitarian situation and ways to end the fighting.

Humanitarian agencies have continued to express concern about access to some parts of the country. There are ongoing concerns about the port of Hodeida’s ability to continue to act as the route through which most emergency aid is delivered. The port, Yemen’s main entry point for imports, was severely damaged by airstrikes in 2015 and only a few ships arrive each week – compared to dozens from before the war. Rory Stewart MP, Minister of State for International Development, recently warned the onset of famine would be accelerated if the port ceased to function.

Yemenis are partly relying on traders in small wooden dhows plying the ancient trade route across the Arabian Sea from the United Arab Emirates, but even their numbers are diminishing. The UN World Food Programme has called for unrestricted access to all areas, including for commercial trade, to prevent a further deterioration in levels of food insecurity. The Government pledged to support the appeal and says it is planning a significant contribution to Yemen in 2017/18. The Government also says it is lobbying all parties to the conflict to facilitate commercial and humanitarian access. OCHA has released a two minute video timeline of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen to mark the second anniversary of the conflict.

A ‘man-made crisis’

A ‘man-made conflict’ has brought Yemen to the brink of famine. Stephen O’Brien told the UNSC that the “humanitarian suffering that we see in Yemen today is caused by the parties and proxies.”

The current conflict may have begun two years ago but its roots go far deeper. Today, it pits the internationally-recognised government of President Hadi, whose forces are supported by a Saudi-led international military coalition, against the Houthi rebels allied with forces under the banner of former President Saleh.

The government of President Hadi is based in the southern port town of Aden while the Houthi-Saleh alliance control Sana’a and the north-western parts of the country.

Taken from the BBC website

The Houthis are believed to receive some support from Iran, leading some to suggest that the conflict is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However a UN Panel of Experts said it had not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms from Iran.

The Saud-led coalition consists predominantly of Sunni Arab states and receives support from the UK, US and France.

Complicating the picture is the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State/Daesh which seek to take advantage of the chaos. While shifting allegiances among pro-government and rebel groups further muddy the waters. The BBC’s Yemen crisis: who is fighting whom? and our Yemen at war briefing provides more detail about those involved.

Prospects for peace?

The UN Panel of Experts concluded earlier this year that “an outright military victory by any one side is no longer a realistic possibility in the near term”. It also assessed Yemen to be in danger of fracturing beyond the point of no return.

There is currently little sign of a ceasefire let alone a political settlement. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen is promoting a roadmap but it has so far failed to gain traction with the parties. The Panel of Experts observed that the parties “have not demonstrated sustained interest in or commitment to a political settlement or peace talks.”

Prospects for a ceasefire?

Previous cessations of hostilities agreed between the Yemeni parties during peace talks last year were regularly breached. Attempts by the UK Government to introduce a new resolution calling for a ceasefire at the UNSC last autumn were opposed by Saudi Arabia, which reportedly persuaded the UK to postpone their efforts. A UK proposed resolution to extend sanctions measures for a year was adopted by the Security Council on 23 February 2017 but did not explicitly call for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

The UK hosted a meeting of the ‘Quint’ in London on 13 March with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen. The Quint comprises five countries: the UK, the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Keith Vaz MP led a debate in Parliament on 28 March. He called on the UK Government to take a lead in passing a UNSC resolution for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen. Tobias Ellwood MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, explained that for a ceasefire to work in practice, parameters needed to be in place. These include withdrawal lines, policing mechanisms to manage any violations, buffer zones and decommissioning of heavy weapons.

Next steps

The UNSC is due to discuss Yemen again today. It will hear from the UN’s Special Envoy for Yemen. The UK holds the Presidency of the Security Council for March.

Security Council Report (not a UN website) provides a chronology of Yemen-related activity in the UNSC.

A Library Debate Pack prepared for the 28 March debate in the Commons provides links to recent press material, Government and Parliamentary material, including debates and committee reports, further reading and related library briefing papers.

Photo credit: © Wolfgang Gressmann/Oxfam, March 2012