Invisible civilians: The challenge of humanitarian access in Yemen's forgotten war

Originally published


I. Summary

Since June 2004 an armed conflict in northern Yemen all but ignored outside the country has displaced up to 130,000 people, a great many of whom remained out of the reach of humanitarian agencies as of October 2008. Caught between the government and an armed group known as the Huthis, these displaced civilians are among the invisible victims of war.

Particularly since 2007, when international aid agencies sought to reach all parts of the northern Sa'da governorate, Yemeni authorities have severely restricted humanitarian access to tens of thousands of civilians in need. After a fifth round of fighting erupted in May 2008, the government blocked the movement of all commercial goods, including staple foods and fuel, an act that appears to constitute an illegal collective punishment.

By mid-July 2008, when the Yemeni President Ai Abdullah Saleh declared an end to the fighting, 60,000 displaced persons had found refuge in Sa'da town, where they received limited assistance in seven camps serviced by national and international aid agencies. However, tens of thousands of others-possibly as many as 70,000 persons-had been displaced in remote areas or urban areas other than Sa'da town, where government restrictions meant they remained largely inaccessible to aid agencies.

Furthermore, between February 2007 and July 2008 the government imposed a total information blackout on Sa'da governorate. It has clamped down on media coverage, banning local and international journalists from traveling anywhere in the governorate, threatening journalists covering the conflict, and arbitrarily arresting internet webmasters and others with information on civilian casualties. The government cut off most mobile phone subscribers, allowing only a few governmentvetted individuals access to the network.

The result of the government's systematic, sustained, and non-transparent policy of limiting access and information is that tens of thousands of civilians directly affected by the war have been left to suffer, their plight hidden from the rest of Yemen and the outside world. The denial of humanitarian access is in contravention of international humanitarian law that provides that a civilian population is entitled to receive humanitarian relief essential to its survival.

Since the declared end of fighting in July 2008, the government has told international humanitarian agencies that they have full and unrestricted access to the whole of Sa'da governorate. However, the reality is different. Many agencies must ask separate Interior Ministry permission for each and every trip, an almost impossible operational requirement. By the end of September 2008, the government allowed aid agencies access to a limited number of towns in Sa'da governorate, but well into October this expanded access was insufficient to reach many of those who have long gone without assistance and who remain at risk.

The government's tight restrictions on access for humanitarian agencies and journalists, even after the conflict was declared over, has meant that only limited information is available on the extent of civilian displacement, the degree of insecurity faced by the population, and the conduct of the fighting. The government asserts that insecurity requires it to broadly restrict humanitarian access-but the restrictions themselves have made it difficult to either confirm or challenge this position. However, international humanitarian law is clear-only "imperative military necessity" can justify restrictions on humanitarian access, and then only strictly temporarily.

The Huthi rebels have also failed to facilitate humanitarian access to areas under their control. For fear of losing the limited access they do have, non-governmental humanitarian organizations have understandably been reluctant to put significant behind-thescenes-let alone public-pressure on the government or the rebels to reverse their limitations on humanitarian access.

United Nations agencies in Yemen made some discrete approaches to the government to increase access, with very limited success. The UN apparently did little, even discreetly, to press either the government or the Huthi rebels to respect their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law to protect the war-affected population, including the tens of thousands of displaced.

Similarly, international donors, including the European Union (EU) and its member states, have kept a very low profile over the conflict since it erupted in 2004. Almost certainly due to their concerns about political stability in a country with a large Al-Qaeda presence as well as significant development challenges, donors have been reluctant to press the government on its conduct of the fighting and on the issue of humanitarian access. In July 2008 EU states attempted to formulate a unified approach to government on the issue of access but were unable to reach an agreement.

Although on July 17, 2008, President Saleh declared the fifth round of fighting-and effectively the entire armed conflict-to be over, many who witnessed the end of previous rounds of fighting fear that without a written and monitored peace agreement, modeled on an agreement mediated by Qatar in 2007, further fighting will engulf Sa'da governorate in the near future.

Even if the armed conflict does not resume, international humanitarian law requires access for humanitarian assistance linked to the conflict, and international human rights law ensures the right to freedom of movement, including that of aid workers.

Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Yemen and the Huthis to take immediate steps to ensure that impartial aid agencies have safe, reliable, and sustained access to all parts of Sa'da governorate in order to assist the many civilians desperate for assistance.

Human Rights Watch also calls on the UN Resident Coordinator to urge the government and the Huthis to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, and on international donors to play a concerted and meaningful role in pressing the government and the Huthis to grant unhindered access to all war-affected civilians.

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