Saturday, October 30, 2021

Expo 2020 Dubai: How would an honest Yemen pavilion look?

*When I see the extravagance and spectacle of Expo 2020 in Dubai, I immediately think of Yemen, the poorest Arab nation sitting around 1,000 kilometres away, and the unspeakable suffering that the UAE shares responsibility for creating there. What would Yemen’s Expo pavilion look like if the country’s suffering civilians designed it?

The UAE’s role in Yemen may be opaque to some, but human rights groups and international monitors have painstakingly documented the UAE’s numerous abuses over the course of the war, even as it tries to hide behind a coalition of states.

Expo 2020, as with other expensive entertainment, cultural, sport and educational events hosted by the UAE, is designed to promote a public relations image of the country as open, progressive and tolerant, while its abusive authorities forcefully bar peaceful criticism and dissent. The event is part of the UAE’s “soft power” strategy, which aims to whitewash the country’s abuses, including those committed in Yemen.

Recently, as part of its whitewashing strategy around the Yemen war, the UAE has aimed to create a narrative that it ended its participation in Yemen in 2019, when it withdrew its troops from the southern city of Aden. In reality, the UAE remains a prominent member of the coalition of countries participating in military operations, many causing grave harm to civilians. It has continued its air operations and support for abusive local Yemeni ground forces.

Indeed, the UAE’s military activities inside Yemen never truly ceased. Just weeks after the UAE announced it was pulling its troops in 2019, Yemen’s permanent representative to the UN, Abdullah al-Saadi, publicly criticised its involvement in the conflict. That same month, Yemeni authorities blamed the UAE for air strikes that killed at least 30 Yemeni soldiers near Aden.

Support for armed groups

As the conflict drags on, the UAE continues to support an ever-increasing number of armed groups operating outside the Yemeni government’s control, including the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a political group assembled in 2017 to demand the establishment of “a sovereign independent federal state” in southern Yemen.

UN experts have also confirmed the UAE’s support for a laundry list of local armed groups that have committed abuses, including the STC’s military unit, the Security Belt Forces; the Shabwani Elite Forces; military units under Tariq Salih and Haytham Qasim Tahir on Yemen’s west coast; and the Giant Brigades, among others. Not only does UAE operate in Yemen through its proxy forces, but according to UN experts, a UAE military commander based in the country has given orders on specific military operations.

The local armed groups the UAE is supporting in Yemen have committed manifold abuses. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have documented arbitrary detentions and forcible disappearances in secret prisons controlled by UAE-backed Yemeni forces in southern Yemen.

In some cases involving UAE-backed Yemeni armed forces, detainees were tortured to death. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported on the agonising detention of a Yemeni journalist who was first threatened by an official from the UAE, and then detained and mistreated by UAE-backed forces.

Investigation squashed

The UAE’s culpability for abuses in Yemen has been largely documented and made visible by the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, an independent investigative body created by the UN Human Rights Council in 2017. As a result of their meticulous documentation and calls for justice, the UAE and its coalition partners reportedly lobbied members of the Human Rights Council, which ultimately shut down the investigation this month.

And despite all of its abuses domestically and abroad, the UAE was itself elected to serve a three-year term on the Human Rights Council just days after the experts’ mandate was killed.

If Yemeni victims of all these abuses had the opportunity to create their pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai, they would surely have cried out for justice over the abuses committed by the armed groups that the UAE backs in Yemen, and made presentations about the violations they face.

But this will never happen as long as the UAE is able to whitewash and cover up its abuses through events such as Expo 2020, and to mute criticism in international forums, putting justice out of reach for its victims.

*This article is by Afrah Nasser, published on the Middle East Eye website on 28 Oct here

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Yemen: Key Human Rights Concerns for UN Envoy

Press Parties to End Abuses

Via Human Rights Watch 

(Beirut, September 12, 2021) – The new United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, should make human rights concerns front and center as he begins his work, Human Rights Watch said today. The Swedish diplomat succeeds Martin Griffiths, who held the role from 2018 to 2021.

As Grundberg begins his role, the impact of the conflict on the humanitarian and human rights situation should be at the heart of his talks with the parties to the conflict. By mid-2021 the armed conflict in Yemen had killed almost a quarter of a million people, resulting in the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and contributed to serious human rights abuses with no end in sight.

More than six years into the conflict, the humanitarian situation has been exacerbated by the parties’ repeated laws-of-war violations. Grundberg should press all parties to end human rights abuses and laws-of-war violations and provide accountability for past abuses and atrocities by all sides.

“There can be no lasting solution in Yemen so long as parties to the conflict are free to trounce the human rights of Yemenis without constraint,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Grundberg should make ending abuses and creating meaningful accountability for all parties to the conflict a central focus of his work.”

The following are some key immediate humanitarian and human rights concerns documented by Human Rights Watch, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, and other local and international rights groups.


Investigations by Human Rights Watch, and other rights groups have identified widespread abuses such as arbitrary detention, forcible disappearance, and ill-treatment and torture in detention facilities controlled by parties to the conflict. Houthi forces detain and prosecute dissidents, including religious minorities, women, and journalists. The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) has been responsible for arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances, and has held detainees in extremely overcrowded conditions despite health risks stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch found.

In March 2020, Human Rights Watch documented abuses by Saudi military forces and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces against civilians in al-Mahra governorate, in eastern Yemen, including torture, forced disappearances, and arbitrary detention. The Yemeni government has also been responsible for detention-related abuses, including torture and rape of migrants from the Horn of Africa.

Unlawful Attacks

Houthi attacks against civilian sites have put civilians at great risk in the ongoing battle for Marib, including at least two million internally displaced people. Human Rights Watch found that Houthi rockets landed in internally displaced people’s camps around Marib in March 2021. Houthi forces have also repeatedly fired artillery indiscriminately into Yemeni cities such as Taizz and Hodeida, and launched indiscriminate ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, including civilian sites such as Riyadh’s international airport. Human Rights Watch has also documented scores of apparently unlawful coalition attacks since March 2015.

Potential Red Sea Environmental Disaster

A deserted supertanker moored off Yemen’s coast risks spilling over a million barrels of crude oil into the Red Sea. The UN says a spill would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences, including destroying livelihoods and shutting down the port of Hodeida, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis who depend on commercial imports and humanitarian aid. Despite this risk the Houthi authorities have not allowed UN experts to secure the tanker.


African migrants in Yemen are among those most affected by the conflict. In March, Human Rights Watch documented the death of scores of African migrants in a fire in a Houthi-controlled detention center. In 2020, Houthi and Saudi forces killed and injured dozens of African migrants in the mountainous border area between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed widespread destruction of over 300 tents and houses.

Collapsing Economy

Yemen’s economy has been ravaged by years of conflict. A recent unannounced decision by the Saudi Labor and Social Development Ministry to terminate or bar renewal of the contracts of Yemeni workers’ who live and work in the kingdom puts at risk the largest source of foreign exchange in Yemen and also puts at risk hundreds, possibly thousands, of Yemenis forced to return to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Saudi authorities need to suspend this decision and allow Yemenis to remain in Saudi Arabia with the ability to work.

Humanitarian Aid Obstruction

Human Rights Watch has documented severe restrictions by the Houthi authorities, the Yemeni government and affiliated forces, and the UAE-backed STC on the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid. While aid funds are also in short supply, Human Rights Watch found in 2020 that the obstruction of aid is exacerbating the country’s dire humanitarian situation and weakening its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Saudi/UAE-led coalition has forced the Sanaa International Airport to remain closed since August 2016, which has severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law. While the coalition eased some restrictions, it continues to prevent much aid and nearly all commercial imports from reaching Houthi-controlled ports, which has an unlawfully disproportionate impact on civilians’ access to essential goods.

Covid-19 Vaccines

Given Yemen’s limited testing capacity, it is impossible to know the actual number of Covid-19 cases in Yemen, but it is estimated that the true number of cases far exceeded the number reported. In March, Yemen received 360,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines out of the 14 million doses it is supposed to receive through the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access program (COVAX Facility). Only ​​0.5 percent of the population had been vaccinated as of September.

Human Rights Watch found that the Houthi authorities have suppressed information about the dangers and impact of Covid-19 and undermined international efforts to provide vaccines in areas under their control. Health workers in Houthi-controlled areas told Human Rights Watch that the Houthi authorities’ barriers to obtaining vaccines have created unnecessary risk for medical workers, which could further devastate the country’s healthcare system.

Given Yemenis’ urgent medical needs, the Houthi authorities should immediately lift all barriers to vaccination and allow health workers to safely perform their vital role.

Urgent Need for Accountability

Years of violations have shown that parties to Yemen’s conflict have little incentive to halt their abuses without the real possibility of accountability. In the UN’s attempts to create lasting and durable peace, justice and accountability are key. The UN Security Council should impose sanctions against all parties committing violations and serious crimes rather than only the Houthis.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Saudi Arabia: Yemeni Workers at Risk of Mass Forced Returns

Face Possible Return to Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis, Loss of Critical Remittances 

At a Saudi-hosted UN conference, Saudi Arabia pledges $500m of aid to Yemen. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, head of KSrelief and Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan during the donors coonference. (KSrelief) June, 2020.

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have since July 2021 began to terminate or not renew contracts of Yemeni professionals, which could force them to return to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi authorities should suspend this decision and allow Yemenis to remain in Saudi Arabia with the ability to work.

In July, Saudi media outlets reported that Qiwa, a platform run by the Saudi Human Resources Ministry, had issued a statement about new regulations requiring businesses to limit the percentage of their workers from certain nationalities, including 25 percent for Yemeni nationals. Reuters reported in mid-August that mass job terminations were targeting an unclear number of Yemenis in Saudi Arabia. Workers who cannot find another employer to act as a sponsor are forced to leave the country or face deportation, which for Yemenis can mean a risk to their lives.

“Saudi authorities are effectively laying off and threatening to forcibly return hundreds, possibly thousands, of Yemeni professionals to an ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia is always seeking praise for its ‘humanitarian contributions’ to Yemen, but this decision puts many Yemenis at serious risk.”

Saudi Arabia has contributed to Yemen’s human rights and humanitarian crises due to the Saudi-led coalition’s repeated violations of the laws of war in Yemen, which have exacerbated the ongoing catastrophe and devastated the country’s infrastructure.

On August 23, the International Union of Yemeni Diaspora Communities on Facebook said, “the union condemns the continuing campaign to target Yemeni workers in southern Saudi Arabia, despite the circulating news that there was an exemption of some Yemeni academics in some southern Saudi cities in an attempt to absorb the public’s outcry and anger toward these arbitrary decisions.”

Human Rights Watch in August interviewed 10 Yemeni health workers and five Yemeni academics based in areas across Saudi Arabia, as well as a Yemeni health workers rights group. All of those interviewed requested that their identities be withheld for fear of reprisal. Human Rights Watch also reviewed documents from Saudi employers to Yemenis communicating the termination of contracts or rejection to renew contracts.

All 15 Yemeni professionals individually told Human Rights Watch that the Saudi Labor and Social Development Ministry privately decided to terminate or bar renewal of Yemeni workers’ contracts. They said that Yemenis were the only ones targeted, and that other workers had not been affected. They said that an increasing number of Yemenis whom they knew had been informed that their contracts were being terminated or were denied renewal. They also said that they were aware of some terminations among Saudi-born Yemenis or Yemenis married to Saudi women.

In mid-August, the Yemeni Doctors Living Abroad Association, an international network of Yemeni medical workers that works to raise awareness about Yemeni health workers’ rights, told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of Yemeni health workers in Saudi Arabia had contacted the association to say they had been notified that their contracts would be terminated or would not be renewed, putting them at risk of deportation to Yemen.

About half of the Yemeni workers interviewed said that their Saudi employers had called and told them orally that their contracts would not be renewed. A Yemeni dentist who has been working in southern Saudi Arabia since 2015 said that his sponsor called him on August 10 to inform him that his contract would not be renewed and that he would receive two months' salary as an end-of-service payment.

A Yemeni academic who has been teaching at a Saudi university since 2015 said that the university human resources department called him to inform him that his contract was going to be terminated.

A Yemeni doctor who has been working in Medina since 2017 said that he received an email from his health institution informing him that it would not renew his contract, which is set to expire in mid-October. A doctor who has been working in Riyadh since 2015 said that he received a similar document from his hospital’s human resources department.

All the Yemeni workers interviewed said that the end of their contracts would severely affect their livelihoods and residency in Saudi Arabia. They said that losing their jobs would also prevent them from financially supporting their families back in Yemen who depend on them. The Yemenis said that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, considered the world’s worst, would make it impossible for them to rebuild their lives if they go back to Yemen.

On August 23, the newly appointed United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, said that “there was recently a story about the possibility of remittances from Saudi Arabia being at risk, and that is of course a very important source of income for many people in Yemen.” He said the remittances should be protected.

The Yemeni Doctors Living Abroad Association on August 14 issued a petition with an appeal to the Saudi authorities to reconsider the decision and ensure humanitarian exemptions. Saudi Arabia has no laws or systems for people to seek asylum or refuge in the country.

The Yemeni government said that as of 2020 more than two million Yemenis were living in Saudi Arabia. Remittances have been a vital pillar of Yemen’s devastated economy. The World Bank estimated in 2017 that remittances sent from Yemenis in Saudi Arabia amounted to US$2.3 billion annually. Remittances sent from Saudi Arabia constituted 61 percent of the total remittances sent from abroad, according to Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation in 2018. In June 2020, the then-United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, described the remittances as “the largest source of foreign exchange in the country for several years,” which have “provided a lifeline for millions of people.” Remittances have dropped since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Saudi government should sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, Human Rights Watch said. It should enact refugee law consistent with international standards, and establish fair asylum procedures for foreign nationals who may be at risk of persecution in their home countries. In the meantime, it should allow the UN refugee agency to exercise its mandate to determine the refugee status of asylum seekers and facilitate durable solutions for those recognized as refugees, including, where appropriate, integration in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s bad enough that many people are dying in Yemen as a result of the humanitarian crisis, without the Saudi authorities adopting policies that can result in forcibly returning more Yemenis to such dire conditions,” Nasser said. “Saudi authorities should reverse their policies on work visas that could lead to mass forced returns of Yemenis to where their lives would be at risk from the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Health Workers Abandoned in Yemen’s Covid-19 Fight

Houthi Authorities Still Hinder Vaccination of Medical Staff

A medical worker wearing full protective gear stands at the gate of the intensive care unit of a hospital, where coronavirus (Covid-19) patients are treated in Sanaa, Yamen, on June 15, 2020. © 2020 Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

*Health workers in Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen have recently reported that they face significant barriers to obtaining vaccines, and existing vaccines may expire before they are used. By failing to take all available measures to address the Covid-19 pandemic, Houthi authorities are subjecting the country’s medical workers to unnecessary risk, which could further devastate the country’s healthcare system.

Human Rights Watch and others have previously criticized Houthi authorities’ disinformation about the pandemic and their undermining international efforts to distribute vaccines. On June 1 the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that a vaccination campaign would finally begin in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, starting with 10,000 doses for healthcare workers. This was a welcome step for desperate health workers battling the deadly coronavirus with little to no assistance from the authorities. But in the past month, even this small distribution has proved elusive.

Most of the barriers to vaccination are directly tied to the Houthi authorities’ apparent unwillingness to take the pandemic seriously. They have not advertised vaccination center locations or encouraged health workers to take the vaccines. They have also prevented any information about the campaign to appear on the Houthi health ministry’s website, and mandated that health workers give blood before they can receive a vaccine.

At least 150 doctors in Yemen have died from Covid-19, according to the Yemeni Doctors Living Abroad Association. Last year, most of the 97 health workers who died from Covid-19 were in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled capital, Sanaa. The death of health workers has serious consequences in a country with a healthcare system decimated by years of war, a shortage of medical professionals, and what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It is estimated that only half of Yemen’s healthcare system is functioning and is heavily reliant on support from international donors, whose aid has decreased in recent years.

In May, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock indicated that Covid-19 was pushing Yemen’s healthcare system to collapse. Given the urgent medical needs of the Yemeni people, Houthi authorities should immediately lift all barriers to vaccination and allow health workers to safely perform their vital role.

*This dispatch was published on Human Rights Watch's website on July 7, 2021. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Houthis Risk Civilians’ Health in Covid-19

Medical workers attend to a Covid-19 patient in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Sanaa,
Yemen, on June 14, 2020. 
 © 2020 Hani Mohammed/AP Photo

Via Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Houthi authorities in Yemen have suppressed information about the dangers and impact of Covid-19 and undermined international efforts to provide vaccines in areas under their control, Human Rights Watch said today. Since the start of the pandemic in Yemen in April 2020, Houthi officials have actively spread disinformation about the virus and vaccines.

After the start of a second wave of Covid-19 in Yemen in March 2021, the number of confirmed cases doubled, according to a statement by the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, on April 15. Nevertheless, the Houthi authorities in Sanaa have maintained a policy of withholding data on cases and deaths. No vaccines have reached areas under Houthi control. Houthi authorities should take immediate steps to facilitate efforts to provide vaccines in northern Yemen and stop spreading disinformation about the virus.

“The deliberate decision of the Houthi authorities’ to keep the real number of cases of Covid-19 under wraps and their opposition to vaccines are putting Yemeni lives at risk,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Pretending Covid-19 does not exist is not a mitigation strategy and will only lead to mass suffering.”

Between mid-April and early May, Human Rights Watch interviewed four Yemeni health workers based in Sanaa, three based abroad who have close knowledge of the Covid-19 crisis in Yemen, Yemeni doctors living abroad, and one international health worker involved in Covid-19 response efforts. All asked not to have their identities revealed for fear of reprisal. Human Rights Watch also reviewed and verified videos in which Houthi officials appear to spread disinformation about the virus and vaccines.

Human Rights Watch reached out to Houthi Health Ministry and Foreign Ministry officials requesting a comment but have not received a response.

As of early 2021, the Houthi-controlled Health Ministry in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, has reported only one Covid-19-related death, four confirmed cases, and two recoveries since the pandemic began. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that informal indications are that cases are rising in the north. Doctors without Borders reported in March that their teams in Yemen were seeing a drastic rise in the number of people seriously ill with Covid-19.

Yemen’s healthcare system is in tatters after six years of war. Through the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access program (COVAX Facility), Yemen should receive 14 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, which could vaccinate 23 percent of the population across the country, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Yemen received 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 31 as the first batch, part of 1.9 million doses that Yemen is due to receive throughout 2021. According to the Yemen Covid-19 National Vaccination Plan, the priority groups during the first phase are healthcare workers, people age 55 and over, people with comorbidities, and social groups unable to practice physical distancing, such as internally displaced people and refugees.

The plan envisages that the Houthi authorities would receive vaccines to distribute in areas under its control; including Sanaa, Ibb governorate, and Hodeida governorate. However, one medical source interviewed who has direct knowledge of the circumstances said the group’s failure to cooperate with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Yemeni government has prevented any vaccines from reaching the north. As a result, as of writing, vaccinations are only occurring in the south.

On April 23, in a virtual conference, Yemen Covid-19 Response, organized by HPY-UK, a UK-based charity organization, the WHO’s representative to Yemen, Adham Rashad Abdel-Moneim, said that the Houthi authorities initially agreed under pressure to accept 10,000 doses of vaccine, but the vaccines could not be delivered after the Houthi authorities set a condition that the vaccines could only be distributed by the group without WHO’s supervision. The WHO refused, because WHO would need to ensure there was no risk of diverting the vaccines.

The following day, the WHO stated in a post on its Facebook page that the Houthi authorities asked to only accept 1,000 doses instead of 10,000 provided that the share of doses to the north will be increased in the next batch of the vaccines. In May 8, the internationally-recognized Yemeni government’s Health Ministry in Aden governorate reportedly delivered 10,000 doses to the WHO to vaccinate health personnel in Houthi-controlled areas.

Numerous Houthi officials have spread disinformation about Covid-19 stating that the virus is a “conspiracy.” Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, said in a televised speech in March 2020 on the Houthi-funded TV channel, Al-Masirah, that the virus was an American conspiracy. “America bears the primary responsibility for Covid-19 epidemic,” he said. “Some experts in biological warfare say that Americans have worked for years to benefit from the coronavirus and have worked to spread it in certain societies.”

Several Houthi officials reportedly have died with Covid-19-associated symptoms over the past few months.

International media reported in 2020 that the Houthis were hiding the truth about the scale of the pandemic in the areas under their control through suppression of information and intimidation. The Houthi armed group also reportedly created a black market for Covid-19 testing while refusing to take precautionary measures against the virus.

Health workers interviewed said they believed that the Houthis were refusing to acknowledge the pandemic to keep the economy fully open and to allow the political elite to syphon off exorbitant fees imposed on businesses. The Houthis have sharply increased revenues over the past two years by engaging in a number of predatory and corrupt practices, according to the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies.

Unlike the Houthi authorities, the Yemeni government-backed health authorities operating in the south and east of the country have regularly reported the number of confirmed cases and warned during 2020 about a possible second wave. OCHA said in April 2021 that the Yemeni government has reported 4,119 confirmed cases and 864 deaths, with more than half of total cases reported during the first quarter of 2021.

On April 20, the Yemeni government began a vaccination campaign funded by the WHO, UNICEF, and King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center in areas controlled by the Yemeni government (covering 13 governorates). Despite some public distrust of the vaccine, the Yemeni government said on May 26 that it had so far vaccinated more than 53,000 citizens. Yemen is a member of the Least Developed Countries group at the World Trade Organization, which has supported India and South Africa’s TRIPS Council proposal that would temporarily waive certain intellectual property rules on Covid-19-related vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical products to facilitate increased manufacturing to make them available and affordable globally. The United States and New Zealand have recently indicated their support for the TRIPS waiver. Other influential governments such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and the European Union should drop their opposition, Human Rights Watch said.

“Given the weakened healthcare system in Yemen, Houthi authorities should at least ensure transparency so that civilians living in their areas can understand the scale of the pandemic and facilitate an international vaccination plan that meets the needs on the ground,” Page said.

Houthi Disinformation and Failure to Adequately Address the Pandemic

During the early stage of the pandemic, the Houthi Health Ministry took the pandemic threat seriously. Human Rights Watch reported in April 2020 that Houthi Health Minister Taha al-Mutawakel warned about its potential deadly impact. But in May 2020 he said the ineffectiveness of test kits provided by WHO prevented the Houthi authorities from providing an accurate number of Covid-19 cases. The Houthis then put in place a “non-disclosure” policy. A senior member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council in Sanaa, Mohammed al-Houthi, said in June that it was part of their policy of “non-disclosure of infection numbers to preserve the morale of citizens and not spread panic.”

Health workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the Houthi authorities’ lack of transparency and disinformation have put civilians’ health at risk and prevented efforts to protect against the spread of the virus. Two health workers said that after the start of the first wave in Sanaa in May 2020, the Houthis placed a special intelligence unit under the command of the group’s political security apparatus in medical facilities, apparently to intimidate and threaten health care staff as well as to limit the information they can provide to the media or international organizations.

In early 2021, the WHO asked Houthi authorities to apply to the organization for vaccines, but the Houthis delayed and missed the deadline, one medical source with direct knowledge of the circumstances of the process said. “The Houthi authorities did not cooperate on time with the international community to secure the allocated vaccines to the north of Yemen,” he said. “The Yemeni government’s application included the allocation of vaccines to south and east of Yemen, and the government later agreed to share some of those vaccines with the north.”

The source said that it required intense negotiations to reach a deal under which the Houthi authorities would accept 10,000 vaccine doses. One of the conditions the Houthi authorities set was that there should be no media coverage or social mobilization for a vaccination campaign. As of writing, the vaccination campaign hasn’t happened in the north.

Seven health workers said that the Houthi authorities’ failure to provide a plan or program to combat Covid-19 made the pandemic worse. Even prior to the pandemic, some prominent Houthis said that they believe all vaccines are a conspiracy, the medical workers said. Local media reported in 2013 that Houthi forces prevented vaccination teams from carrying out their immunization work against measles and polio in some remote areas of Yemen’s Saadah governorate under the pretext that the vaccine was “American.”

Three health workers said that the Houthi authorities placed unqualified members of Houthi families belonging to the sayyed class of direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad in senior positions at medical facilities in Sanaa.

Some Houthi officials spread disinformation about the virus and the vaccine. The leader of the group, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, said in a televised speech carried by the Houthi-funded TV channel Al-Masirah in March 2020 that the virus was an “American conspiracy.” “America bears the primary responsibility for the Covid-19 epidemic,” he said. “Some experts in biological warfare say that Americans have worked for years to benefit from the coronavirus and have worked to spread it in certain societies.” He warned the public not to panic and said that the pandemic aimed at frustrating and terrifying people.

During a news conference in Sanaa in May 2020, al-Mutawakel, the Houthi health minister, justified his group’s policy of not providing data on the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic in Yemen, stating, “We deal with patients on the basis of their human right to health care and not as numbers on the stock exchange that the media are racing to address.” He said in the same conference that medicine for Covid-19 would come from Yemen. Al-Mutawakel said on May 1, 2020, that there was no coronavirus in Yemen, and that if variants appeared in Yemen the UAE would bear responsibility for its transmission.

Medical Sector Shortcomings

Five Yemeni health workers said that medical staff in Sanaa have not been paid their full salaries regularly and that their medical facilities do not have the medical capabilities to handle the pandemic.

Three Yemeni health workers said that over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic there remains a critical shortage in personal protective equipment for staff. One health worker said that the problems have been compounded by increasing health care costs, which have risen by more than 50 percent since the beginning of the conflict in Houthi-controlled areas for health facilities and patients because of the heavy restrictions and costly logistics on medical imports.

“Today in Sanaa, there is no difference between private and public hospitals,” he said. “In public hospitals, intensive care used to cost 500 Yemeni Rials (US$2) per day but now it costs 12,000 ($48).”

Three health workers said that the Houthi’s have three quarantine treatment centers for suspected Covid-19 cases in Sanaa. One is in Zaid hospital, one in Palestine hospital, and a third run by Doctors Without Borders in Kuwait hospital, but that the centers are not able to absorb all Covid-19 patients requiring hospitalization.

All of the health workers interviewed said that the ongoing second wave of Covid-19 in Sanaa is more aggressive in terms of the suspected cases rate and death toll than the first wave. They said that during the first wave there was a period when the Houthi authorities enforced precautionary measures, such as movement restrictions, and created sufficient quarantine centers to isolate and monitor possibly-infected people, contrary to the current situation.

Three health workers said that they see dozens of patients with symptoms consistent with Covid-19 every day, mainly people in their 30s and 40s. Lacking PCR testing capacity, the workers said that they can only use CT scans for clinical diagnosis.

Health workers have paid a heavy price both during the first wave and since the start of the second wave of the pandemic. According to the Yemeni Doctors Living Abroad Association, a network of Yemeni medical workers outside Yemen that works to raise awareness about the Covid-19 crisis in Yemen, at least 150 doctors in Yemen have died from Covid-19 in Yemen.

In April 2021, the association published an open letter appealing to authorities to prioritize the vaccination of medical staff, saying that vaccination is vital for combating the virus. The association told Human Rights Watch that there are at least two deaths of medical staff per day during the current second wave in Yemen, based on the association’s documentation, which the group publishes on its Facebook page.

Statements of Yemeni Medical Workers

Yemeni medical worker living abroad:

“The Houthi authorities continue to have no Covid-19 plan not because there are no competent doctors in Sanaa but rather because the Houthi armed group continues to deny the existence of the virus.

Testing is limited in Sanaa, so patients are registered with other diseases as a cause of death, like asthma or other lung diseases. Earlier this year, my uncle in Sanaa died [due] to Covid-19. I was medically following up his case remotely. My siblings did not follow my advice to not hold a funeral. One week later, all my siblings got sick. One of them had to be hospitalized and we nearly lost her. Two days ago, one of my cousins passed away and I am certain it was due to Covid-19 because my family sent me all her medical results and I, as a doctor, I understood that she had all Covid-19 symptoms.”

Yemeni medical worker in Sanaa:

“Over the past few years, I have witnessed meningitis disease’s first wave, the outbreak of bird flu, the Covid-19 first wave, and now the Covid-19 second wave. In the second wave, more and more people are becoming sick. We receive dozens of people every day, 70 percent of them come with Covid-19 symptoms but our medical facility is not equipped at all to receive Covid-19 cases.

We lack proper testing capacities, so instead we do clinical tests and CT scans to determine if the cases are linked Covid-19 or not.

Health workers used to receive salaries from the WHO of around $2,000 monthly during the peak of the first wave, but a Houthi official in the medical facility I work in took the money and gave us only $100 for every three months. My colleagues and I tried to strike. We reported the theft of our salaries to the Houthi Health Ministry, then the ministry decided to end the salaries to everyone.”

Yemeni medical worker in Sanaa:

“The health situation is terrible. We do not have medical capacities to handle the pandemic. Medicines reach us expired because it takes too long logistically to allow medical goods and other goods to reach Sanaa. We are overwhelmed by the surge in Covid-19 cases because there are not enough quarantine centers in Sanaa. In this second wave the authorities did not introduce any public health restrictions at all. We have to consider all suspected cases as Covid-19 considering how limited the testing capacity is. We ask patients to stay at home because our medical facility is overwhelmed with patients and our beds are always full.”