Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, ad interim Mr. Ramesh Rajasingham: Briefing to the Security Council on Yemen, New York, 18 August 2020


As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Mr. President.

In last month’s briefing, Under-Secretary-General Lowcock warned that the crisis in Yemen has never been worse. The country is again sliding towards famine. COVID-19 is spreading out of control. The economy has imploded. Conflict is escalating, particularly in Marib and Al Jawf.

Since that briefing, unusually heavy rains have also battered the country, causing widespread floods that have displaced tens of thousands and killed more than 100 people.

I will brief you today on five priority issues: protection of civilians, humanitarian access, funding, the economy and progress towards peace.

Yemenis urgently need your help on all five.

First, protection of civilians – a requirement under international humanitarian law.

There has been no end to the appalling human cost of the fighting that you hear about every month. On 7 August, air strikes in Al Jawf killed nine children and wounded at least nine other civilians. This was the third such incident in less than a month.

On 10 August, shelling into populated areas of Marib killed three civilians. The day before, one civilian was killed and 11 injured – including six children – by shelling in southern Hudaydah.

And we continue to see a steady stream of civilian casualties due to sniper fire, landmines and other incidents across the country that too often go unnoticed by the world.

All parties must take constant care to spare civilians and civilian objects throughout military operations. We need greater accountability for serious violations. Renewing the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts at the Human Rights Council is a good place to start.

International humanitarian law also requires the parties to facilitate rapid, unimpeded access for humanitarian relief, which is my second point.

In the south, we are concerned by periodic access challenges, including insecurity and bureaucratic impediments. In recent weeks, aid supplies have been detained at checkpoints at least twice for more than 24 hours. So far, we can still largely resolve these challenges locally.

In the north, aid agencies continue to engage with the de-facto Houthi authorities to improve the operating environment on the basis of clear benchmarks. Donors are engaging with the de-facto authorities on the same basis, insisting that humanitarian principles be respected in practice. The improvements we have seen over the last few months are welcome, and more needs to be done.

Further improvements remain urgent priorities – including the start of a long-delayed pilot for biometric registration of food aid beneficiaries, as well as other accountability measures.

On a separate note, we continue to work with the de-facto authorities to expedite the UN mission to the SAFER oil tanker. The tragic explosions in Beirut earlier this month underline the urgency of resolving the SAFER threat. The recent oil spill in Mauritius – which leaked only a tiny fraction of what is onboard the SAFER – makes this even clearer.

On 16 August, the de-facto authorities issued permits for mission personnel to travel to Yemen, following our official request of 14 July. This is an important step forward. It came after several exchanges with the authorities to re-confirm the technical scope and expertise of the mission.

When issuing the travel permits, the authorities also sent a detailed list of equipment and supplies that they want the team to bring, as well specific repairs they expect the team to complete.

We all share the objective of preventing a major catastrophe from the SAFER, and the UN remains eager to assist. Our experts are reviewing the de-facto authorities’ latest requests now to confirm feasibility, as well as any implications for mission timelines.

Our immediate priority is to deploy to the site as quickly as possible to conduct the technical assessment, which will provide unbiased evidence for the way forward. Of course, we also want to fix whatever we can safely fix during that mission. We are hopeful that this work – the assessment and any feasible initial repairs – can start as quickly as possible.

A spill from the SAFER would primarily affect people in areas controlled by the de-facto authorities, who bear the responsibility to meet these people’s essential needs. A spill would devastate coastal communities and could close Hudaydah port for months. This would effectively cut off millions of Yemenis from reliable access to food and other essential items – nearly all of which must be imported. So we hope that the final clearances – beyond the entry permits for the team – are likewise forthcoming. We will keep you updated as this progresses.

Mr. President, my third point is funding for the aid operation.

Last month, USG Lowcock reported that the Humanitarian Response Plan had received just 18 per cent of its requirements. Nearly a month later, coverage has barely moved, inching up to just 21 per cent.

That is by far the lowest figure we have ever seen in Yemen so late in the year. We cannot over-emphasize the severe impact the resulting cuts are having.

It is very difficult to explain the rationale for these cuts to families who, as you heard last month, are staring down a possible famine or losing loved ones to COVID-19.

I would like to put to you some of the questions they are asking us.

Why in the middle of a deadly pandemic are you unable to pay allowances for front-line health workers? Why can’t you cover basic operational costs for health facilities?

Why have you closed primary health facilities that were caring for 1.8 million people?

Why have you reduced food aid for 8 million people when famine is again stalking the country?

Why do so many countries make speeches about wanting to help us, but then do not help?

So far, we do not have good answers for any of these questions.

In the next few weeks, the cuts will go even deeper. At the end of the month, we will reduce water and sanitation programmes by half in 15 cities. In September, we’ll stop supporting nearly 400 additional health facilities, cutting off 9 million people from medical care. We’ll also stop treating more than a quarter million severely malnourished children.

Those children – and many other people – will die without your help. They feel like they’re being punished unfairly by a world that promised to help, but is now turning its back.

In June, donors promised $1.35 billion in humanitarian funding for Yemen this year. It is extremely disappointing that only about half of that promise – which was itself only about half of what we had received last year – has actually been paid. I call on all donors – and especially Yemen’s neighbours in the Gulf – to pay all pledges now. And I call on those who did not pledge, or who pledged less than last year, to increase their support.

Mr. President, my fourth point is Yemen’s economy, which continues to unravel.

The exchange rate remains at crisis levels – 750 rial to the dollar in the south and 610 rial in the north. Food prices are soaring, and fewer people can afford to eat.

Fuel prices have also rocketed, despite the fall in global oil prices. Higher fuel prices are making other essential goods and services, like water or transport to health centres, even more expensive.

An ongoing political dispute between the parties on import revenue is keeping 430,000 metric tons of fuel from entering Hudaydah – equivalent to nearly three months of average imports. This has contributed to major fuel shortages, especially in the north, and driven prices up.

I call on the parties to work urgently with the Special Envoy to find a solution to this dispute. Fuel is essential to provide clean water, power sanitation networks and keep hospitals running.

Yemen also needs regular foreign exchange injections to help stabilize the currency, finance essential imports and pay salaries. When Saudi Arabia did this in the past, it was very effective.

The only good news on the economic front is the arrival on 12 August of the first commercial container shipment to Hudaydah port since November 2017. Containerized shipments are more efficient and translate into lower costs for consumers – something desperately needed right now.

This first shipment was carrying commercial food and medical supplies. A second one is expected in the coming weeks. As you know, Yemen imports nearly everything, and we must keep commercial imports flowing robustly through all ports. I want to acknowledge the Government of Yemen and all those who helped make this happen. Now we must keep it going.

Mr. President, the last point is progress towards peace. We strongly support the Special Envoy’s efforts to achieve a nationwide ceasefire and resume the political process. The country cannot take much more.

An effective humanitarian response – one that addresses all the points I’ve just described – can help create space to start that process and, once begun, to keep it on track.

Thank you.


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