Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Problem with Humanitarian Assistance in Yemen

Yemen - (c) World Food Program

*An international fundraising conference for Yemen took place at the United Nations (UN) offices Geneva in early April. Co-chaired by Sweden, Switzerland, and the UN, the conference succeeded in securing humanitarian funding worth over $2 billion, doubling the previous year’s pledges of $1.1 billion. Despite optimism that the donations represent a “success of international solidarity to the people of Yemen,” as stated by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his closing statement, the current humanitarian response presents more problems than solutions.

Guterres himself acknowledged the shortcomings of humanitarian assistance absent the “respect of international humanitarian law” and “a serious political process to lead to a political solution.”

The international community’s humanitarian policy also overlooks the inherent contradictions of donor countries militarily attacking Yemen’s infrastructure; effectively worsening the humanitarian crisis they attempt to address.

Two of the leading international parties in the conflict—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—are among Yemen’s top humanitarian donors; together pledging roughly $1 billion, this year alone. Major allies of the Saudi-led coalition—the UK and the US—also made large donations this year of $237 million and $87 million respectively.

The US armed forces, meanwhile, provides assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, including aerial targeting assistance, intelligence sharing, and mid-flight aerial refueling. Perhaps most devastating is the naval blockade, resulting in major food shortages in Yemen, supported in part by the US navy, which halted and searched vessels suspected of carrying Iranian arms to the Houthis. The State Department also recently announced a $1 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

A year prior to the deal, a study by the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights found that US arms sales to Saudi Arabia violate the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act, and legislative efforts to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition are ongoing.

In the UK, some estimates place arms sales to Saudi Arabia since 2015 at $6.4 billion—a 500 percent increase since the start of the conflict--and the Saudi and UK governments admitted to the use of British-supplied cluster munitions in the conflict.

Other UN member states donating to Yemen’s humanitarian assistance fund—including Switzerland and Sweden—are also top arms providers to the Saudi-led coalition, and together with the UK are in violation of the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty.

There is an innate conflict of interest in selling the weapons that perpetuate the suffering of Yemen’s civilian population while also sending humanitarian assistance and funding. And absent a political will to end the conflict, efforts by donor countries to support the people of Yemen, including humanitarian actions, are compromised.

Earlier this year, the Saudi-led coalition barred relief operations from reaching Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. In 2015, Saudi Arabia pledged to cover a UN donation request of $274 million to fund its humanitarian efforts. Despite this show of goodwill, Saudi Arabia delayed the donation through five months of negotiations, during which it reportedly tried to coordinate its relief efforts through a government-run charity as well as trying to bar the donation of goods to Houthi-controlled areas.

Even if humanitarian assistance is genuinely intended to mitigate the humanitarian crisis, donor countries have showed a lack of urgency in delivering on their pledges. Across the board, humanitarian pledges are symbolic and rarely fulfilled completely: one study found almost all countries facing a humanitarian crisis had appeals for longer than three years.

Yemen’s 2018 pledges are no exception, with only just under 10 percent of the required amount collected. Previous international conferences, held under the auspices of the Friends of Yemen—a group of 39 countries, co-chaired by the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen—pledged billions in 2013 and more since then, but have yet to meet any of its goals.

Yemen is among over twenty other countries in need of a humanitarian response, with the United Nations describing it in 2017 as the largest humanitarian crisis at the time. The amount of money required to address Yemen’s crisis is second only to Syria. The process for executing plans is a long and bureaucratic process involving dozens of humanitarian agencies in preparing a response plan—based on humanitarian needs and best practices and tools—and tend to take so long as to be ineffective in the rapidly changing conflict.

Humanitarian Access

The most crucial humanitarian policy is to lift all restrictions—imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Houthis—and provide access for the delivery of humanitarian aid across Yemen.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, restrictions on humanitarian supplies and commercial imports imposed by both Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis have deepened the humanitarian catastrophe.

The Saudi-led coalition destroyed a bridge connecting the Hodeidah city port to the capital of Sana’a, which is under Houthi control. That bridge was used to carry 90 percent of the food supplies gathered by the UN. Human Rights Watch (HRW) who also documented dozens of Saudi-led coalition attacks targeting Yemen’s economic infrastructure—including factories, warehouses, power plants, and other economic sites—contributing to the scarcity of goods.

Houthis forces have deployed sea mines in the Red Sea, which could impede access to humanitarian assistance through Red Sea ports--and could remain a threat for up to ten years.

Lifting restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance can only happen if the international community places political pressure; for instance, in the form of a resolution from the UN Security Council, calling on both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis to lift their respective blockades.

Yemen’s complex humanitarian crisis is taking place in “a state that has all but ceased to exist after three years of conflict,” a recent UN report warned. Developing a humanitarian policy in a state with little to no infrastructure left is difficult.

As crucial as it is to intervene and alleviate human suffering in the country, the question remains whether these international fundraising events for Yemen are putting the cart before the horse. Ending the conflict, starting with cutting off arms deliveries, must precede fundraising events. As long as the war drags on and food is used as a weapon of war, attempts to fundraise are futile.

*This article was orginally published on The Atlantic Council's website, on the 1st of May. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

"If France doesn't investigate, it could be complicit in war crimes in Yemen"

I was interviewed by Le Point International's Ariane Lavrillux, about Yemen and France's role in the war in Yemen.  Read more. (In French)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Yemen in "Women in the World Summit"

Two days ago, I was speaking at @WomenintheWorld Summit in New York City with humanitarian officer with Care Organization in Yemen, Bushra Aldukhainah and activist and writer @rulajebreal about the forgotten war in Yemen.

Read more here

Friday, March 9, 2018

In Yemen, women bear the brunt of a merciless war

Women in #Yemen are celebrating #IWD2018 spending days &
nights at the gas stations queues! via

*While women around the world are today celebrating International Women's Day (IWD), Yemen's women hope simply that it will throw a spotlight on the unspeakable human suffering all genders are enduring across the country.

In fact, to celebrate women's rights today, in an apocalyptic situation like the one in Yemen, seems an extravagant thought. On the ground, women queue for hours in Sanaa to buy gas amid a fuel shortage, and in Taiz, women activists are a target of Houthi bullets. In Aden, women agonise over their missing male relatives, and in Hodeidah they are barely able to feed their starving little children.

Looking back, seven years ago, I wrote from Sanaa's focal point of the protests, dubbed "Change Square", on how women contributed to the anti-Saleh protests, celebrating IWD along with women across the world.

On that day, the women's protest was, to a large extent a political expression, reaffirming their political role in the uprising, and was not a specifically feminist expression.

Different political and anti-Saleh parties used women that day as a decorative tool to serve the parties' political agendas. However, many of the non-partisan and politically independent women, as I was myself, believed that bringing about a drastic political change would benefit women's rights in one way or another.

However, little did we know how the tide would turn, and how the brutal civil war to come would lead women to become this vulnerable.

Yemen has been ravaged by a vicious cycle of violence since mid-2014, impacting everyone, regardless of social class or gender, but the problems women, in particular, are facing continue to accumulate.

When I began working as a reporter at the Yemen Observer in Sanaa in 2008, I was assigned the women's issues beat. I was reporting on the high maternal mortality rate in the country, the epidemic of child marriage and the battle to legally ban it and violence against women.

The more I reported, the more I realised that - contrary to the stereotypes - the tribal culture in Yemen sees women as the backbone of the family and community across the country. That culture ensures their fair treatment.

Nonetheless, following Yemen's 1990 failed unification between the north and south, and the interference of political religious powers in the nation-building process, these factors have put women's rights at a disadvantage.

Women's biggest problems used to be the institutionalised gender discrimination and socioeconomic hardships as a result of Yemen's longstanding poor governance.

Today, however, their biggest problem is war. As Yemen has been ravaged by famine, cholera and bombardment, yesterday's problems seem like the good old days.

Nevertheless, most concerning to me is the vanishing state of justice in Yemen.

One UN report details how Yemen as a state has dissolved.

In Yemen before the war, in that relatively peaceful and stable country, gender equality was at the heart of the women's rights struggle.

Back then, Yemen's personal status law contained provisions that discriminate against women in relation to marriage, divorce, custody of children, and inheritance.

Today, in war-torn Yemen, the conflict has led the entire judicial system to collapse. There is no one solid, functioning judicial system in Yemen today. The country is on the verge of partition between north and south, and there is no coherent functioning judicial system ruling over both parts.

The Houthis in the north have forcefully and illegally controlled the judicial system and are committing serious human rights violations. Asmaa al-Omeissy, for example, was sentenced to death on charges of "terrorism". Meanwhile, in the south, extrajudicial killings have tragically become the norm in a climate of armed militiamen, with no justice ever being served to its victims.

In this grim situation, the country's women are one of the most neglected political groups. While they bear the brunt of the war, many are still manging political activism that needs our solidarity.

The "Mothers of Abductees Association", is doing great work, raising their voice against oppression and injustice. And to enhance Yemeni women's political representation in any potential peace talks, a group of Yemeni women under the name "Yemeni Women Peace Pact" supported by UN Women has been working since 2015 to enforce women's inclusion in peace talks.

With the recent appointment of a new UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, there's hope that international peace efforts in Yemen will take on a gender perspective, a demand Yemeni women peace activists outline in a letter to be sent to Griffiths today.

*This article was writtern for and firstly published on The New Arab website, March 8th 2018. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

From the Front Lines of Yemen’s Lawless Taiz

*With one hand holding the hose for hookah and the other his beeping cell phone, a conversation with Mohammed al-Qadhi is constantly interrupted. He swiftly takes a glance at his cell phone and says, “Excuse me, it’s breaking news I must send this to my editors.” He grabs his phone and he begins tapping.

As one of Yemen’s veteran journalists and rare war correspondents, al-Qadhi has a lot on his plate. Despite spending a short vacation in Cairo, he is busy following the news, receiving calls and updates from his contacts in Yemen, and reporting to his editors at UAE-based Sky News Arabia.

MENASource met with al-Qadhi last month at a cafe in Cairo only days after he left war-torn Yemen. “It’s been a tough time. I needed a short break from the violence, even though, as you see, I’m still working from here,” he admits, chuckling.

“I have covered major events in Yemen’s modern history over the past twenty years and yet I believe that this war has been the most challenging conflict to cover. I’ve had some traumatic experiences while reporting over the past four years.”

Al-Qadhi has been covering the conflict, travelling to different parts of Yemen such as Sana’a and Aden, with more extensive coverage of the bloody fighting in Taiz since early 2015. In the course of the ongoing conflict, al-Qadhi has cheated death several times, survived a serious eye injury while reporting on the frontlines, faced death threats, and was kidnapped twice.

Al-Qadhi reporting from Taiz, November 2016. 

“Of all the war-torn places I’ve been to, I think Taiz has been the most challenging to cover because of the extreme difficulty of accessing it, the immense scale of destruction, unbearable humanitarian plight, and how one’s life there is constantly at risk,” says al-Qadhi.

Al-Qadhi standing near a tank with government forces in an air defence base camp
which was seized by the Houthis. The tank was broken after a landmine planted by Houthis went off.
Al-Qadhi escaped after shells fired by Houthis. November 22, 2016.

Al-Qadhi’s observations betray vast experience in conflict zones. He began working as a journalist in 1998 with Yemen’s only English-speaking newspaper back then, The Yemen Times, where he did some first-hand reporting on some of Yemen’s most turbulent times. He has also worked with several international media organizations such as the Washington Post, The Associated Press, France24, The National, and he contributed to BBC and Aljazeera English, until he officially joined Sky News Arabia in 2012. He extensively covered the war between the Yemeni government forces and Houthi rebel group from 2004 until 2010, and has been covering the Southern Secessionist Movement (al-Hirak al-Januby) in South Yemen since it began in 2007.

“Despite the constraints against freedom of press during all those years, a journalist used to be able to find his or her way and report with relative safety,” reflects al-Qadhi. “Today, however, journalists are systematically targeted by all warring sides. In Taiz in particular, Houthis think if a journalist gets his or her camera out to shoot its as if they’re shooting with a weapon.”

In Taiz, the conflict has devastated all aspects of life in the city, including the press. The city has been a scene of never-ending brutal battles since 2015 between two sides: the national army forces under the control of the government of President Hadi and Popular Resistance (a local group affiliated with the Yemeni government), and the Houthis.

Al-Qadhi sneaking through a hole made on the wall of al-Hakimi school in al-Moroor zone in Taiz. It was difficult to move into the frontline there without having to go through such holes and allies to avoid Houthi snipers. September 19, 2015.
In its 2017 report, Freedom House noted that Yemen had become one of the world’s deadliest places for journalists with at least six journalists killed during 2016, and at least nine forcibly disappeared. As accurate statistics are difficult to obtain in war-torn Yemen, there is no exact estimation of how many journalists have been killed in Taiz alone since the beginning of the conflict. However, al-Qadhi says that seven photojournalists have been killed in Taiz in the course of the conflict. One of them was Yemeni photojournalist, Ahmed al-Shibani, whose death in 2016 was captured in a video clip showing him being shot dead while reporting. Last year, another two photojournalists were killed in Taiz and another one this year.

While sneaking through holes in houses to avoid being seen by Houthi snipers in al-Hasib zone, in Taiz city. Al-Qadhi reported on the scale damage in the area. Two days after this, photojournalist Ahmed al-Shibani was shot dead in the same area he passed through. February 14, 2016.

Nonetheless, al-Qadhi explains that the Houthis are not the only threat to media workers in Yemen and that it is rather the overall lawlessness and chaos in the country which puts everyone at risk. “While I am not dismissing how dangerous it was for me to dodge Houthi snipers a number of times, I also believe it was very dangerous when I was kidnapped twice by armed tribesmen and another group of gunmen,” recalls al-Qadhi, “once in Amran province during the Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a and the other time in Taiz when gunmen were pointing their AK47 guns at my head. I thought I would be executed right there.”

Al-Qadhi believes that Taiz could be the most dangerous place for journalists in Yemen at the moment. He has lost many colleagues who were killed by Houthi snipers or shelling. Hostilities are increasing as the security deterioration continues in Taiz and law and order are very much absent due to the plethora of armed groups and their unclear allegiances.

In some of al-Qadhi’s live reporting from the frontlines, the sound of guns and shelling can be heard—on several occasions, sniper bullets or rockets have interrupted his live reports.

“Now, when I watch my video reports while I was under shelling and sniper bullets, I realize how dangerous it was,” al-Qadhi says, “when I was there, I didn’t fully understand the danger I was exposed to. Only until I see it later on the screen I understand the kind of danger I was in.”

Besides reporting from the frontlines, al-Qadhi has done numerous reports in Taiz on the dire humanitarian situation as a result of the Houthi siege. “It was crucial to cover the impact of the blockade on Taiz, since my crew and I went through what the people in the city went, and still go, through,” Al-Qadhi tells MENASource.

“I have witnessed how patients faint and die helplessly at the door of hospitals that lack the needed medicine and staff. A tragic situation!”

Al-Qadhi has had to climb high mountains in Talwooq area with the locals because it was the only safe place away from Houthi snipers while smuggling food and medicine to the city. Al-Qadhi recalls how he saw men, women, and children carry heavy commodities on their shoulders, and with camel and donkeys up on the mountain to reach the city. “That was one of the telling signs of the tragedy in Taiz,” al-Qadhi describes.

Al-Qadhi chatting with a villager from Talouk mountainous area in Sabir, southern Taiz as he climbs with his donkey carrying bags of flour being smuggled into the city of Taiz under the siege of the Houthis. December 27, 2015.
War reporting is critical, in al-Qadhi’s view, despite all the risks. “As journalists, it’s our job to convey the voice of people trapped in such conflicts,” al-Qadhi says, “I have seen how some of my reporting has led philanthropists to send help to try and alleviate the suffering of people in Taiz. “That makes all the risks worthwhile.”

*This story was orginally written for/published in The Atlantic Council's #MENASource, 23rd Feb 2018.