Regular Press Briefing by the Information Service, 7 November 2017 - Yemen

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Jens Laerke, for the United Nations Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that there had been dramatic developments in Yemen over recent days. Humanitarian operations were currently blocked as a result of the closure of air and sea ports in Yemen ordered by the Saudi-led coalition. The coalition had requested the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism to inform all commercial vessels at Hudaydah and Saleef ports to leave. Movement was also restricted and humanitarian flights to and from Yemen had been on hold since the previous day. Reports had been received that in some areas the blockade had already begun impacting the daily life of Yemenis. For example, the price of fuel had jumped by 60 per cent overnight and the price of cooking gas had doubled. Long lines of cars were reported at petrol stations.

OCHA was very concerned about the likely rapid negative impact of the closure of entry ports on the already dire humanitarian situation in the country, where 7 million people were fighting against famine-like conditions and were completely reliant on humanitarian aid to survive. If supplies came to a halt, food insecurity would deepen and the world would be confronted with an even greater humanitarian crisis. It was vital that food, fuel and medicine imports should continue to enter the country.

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was deeply concerned by a series of attacks in Yemen over the previous week that had killed dozens of civilians – including several children – and he appealed to all parties to respect international law governing armed conflict. Civilians never had to be put in harm’s way during any conflict. International humanitarian law prohibited attacks against civilians and civilian objects, indiscriminate attacks, and it obliged all parties to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects.

On 1 November, two airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition had hit the Al Layl market in the Olaaf area of Sahaar district in Saada governorate, killing 31 civilians, including six children, and wounding 24 others. The victims were Qat sellers and guests at the Al Layl hotel. The coalition was investigating the incident.

On 2 November, seven members of a farming family, including the farmer himself and three of his children, had been killed in a coalition airstrike on their home in Al Islan area in Baqim district of Saada governorate. There was no known military objective in the area.

Also on 2 November, in Taizz, five children had been killed and two wounded as a result of shelling carried out by the Popular Committee affiliated with the Houthis and the army units loyal to former President Abdullah Saleh. Based on the accounts of the victims' family, obtained by UN human rights monitors, the children had been playing in the street of the residential neighbourhood when a rocket from a Houthi-controlled area had fallen on them.

On 4 November, a missile had been fired from Yemen towards the Saudi capital Riyadh. The missile had been intercepted over the city and fragments reportedly landed in the airport area. Some media reports said the missile was targeting the airport. The international airport was prima facie a civilian facility, and as such, any attack against it was forbidden under international law.

Since that missile launch, there had been at least nine further airstrikes on the Houthi-held city of Sana’a, including one that hit Celebration Square injuring three civilians. While the targets of the strikes were not clear, there was concern that airstrikes in densely populated areas put civilians and civilian objects, including infrastructure, at great risk. Parties to the conflict had to take constant care to spare the civilian population.

OHCHR was also very concerned indeed that humanitarian aid destined for innocent civilians caught up in the three-year long conflict could be adversely affected by the coalition’s decision to close all land, air and sea ports into the country. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had said that he would soon be appointing the members of the Group of Eminent Experts, recently established by the Human Rights Council and mandated to carry out a comprehensive examination of all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights and international law committed by all parties to the conflict and, where possible, to identify those responsible.

A UN Human Rights team from OHCHR Headquarters in Geneva had recently visited Yemen to meet with the de-facto authorities in Sana’a and Government officials in Aden to reiterate the concerns raised by the High Commissioner in his recent report to the Human Rights Council and to prepare the ground for the Group of Eminent Experts.

The total number of civilian casualties since March 2015 stood at 14,168, including 5,295 people killed and 8,873 injured. The numbers were based on the casualties individually verified by the OHCHR Yemen Office. The actual numbers were likely to be far higher.

Responding to questions, Mr. Laerke said that OCHA would continue to push for the delivery of humanitarian supplies via any and all entry points. Even before the crisis, 80 to 90 per cent of food in Yemen had had to be imported, so the consequences of the blockade would be devastating. The situation in Yemen was catastrophic and currently represented the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Seven million people were on the brink of famine and were only being kept alive thanks to humanitarian operations. That lifeline had to be kept open and it was absolutely essential that the operation of the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) be allowed to continue unhindered in order to ensure that medicines, other supplies and humanitarian staff could continue to gain access to the country.

Asked a question about the impact of the blockade on the current cholera epidemic in Yemen, Mr. Laerke said that the blockade and the fact that the prices of basic goods was spiralling out of control would affect all aspects of the humanitarian situation, including that of health care. He hoped that the duration of the blockade would be extremely short.

Responding to questions, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had seen reports suggesting that the blockade was to be a short-term measure, and he hoped that it would be reversed immediately. For as long as the blockade lasted, he was concerned that it would aggravate what was already a dire humanitarian emergency with appalling consequences for the civilian population. However, more facts were required before it could be determined whether or not it amounted to a form of collective punishment or other serious violation of international humanitarian law or human rights law. He had heard no explanation from the Saudi-led coalition for the imposition of the blockade. Details were sketchy but he understood that it was linked to the 4 November missile attack against the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Mr. Colville also said that OHCHCR still had a functioning office in Yemen and the visit of the Group of Eminent Experts of the Human Rights Council was still expected to go ahead. When it did so would depend on how long the blockade lasted.

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that progress had been made in tackling the current cholera outbreak in Yemen, although problems in gaining access to all regions of the country necessarily had an impact on efforts to provide treatment and assistance. Cholera cases had been reported in 22 governorates or 96 per cent of the country. Fatality rates were low. To date, there had been 908,702 suspected cases of cholera, with the total number of reported deaths standing at 2,194 as of 6 November. WHO was also advocating for the reopening of access to Yemen to allow staff and supplies to enter the country.