Three years into a full-blown armed conflict that has left more than 6,000 civilians killed, 10,000 injured and more than 2 million displaced, Yemen is enduring one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, with an estimated 75% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance.
Amnesty International has examined the role of two major parties to the conflict in exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation, documenting how the Saudi Arabia-led coalition have imposed restrictions on the entry of essential goods and aid such as food, fuel and medical supplies into Yemen, while the Huthi de facto authorities have obstructed the movement of humanitarian aid within the country.
Amnesty International carried out research into these issues between December 2017 and June 2018. It conducted interviews via voice calls and communicated via email with 12 aid workers, eight medics and five local community activists located in Sana’a, Hodeidah and Ta’iz. It also reviewed statements by the coalition, the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Huthi de facto authorities, information published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and other UN bodies, as well as reports published by international NGOs and local monitoring groups and media articles.
On 6 November 2017, following a missile attack by Huthi forces on the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, the coalition temporarily closed all ground, air, and sea ports in Yemen. On 22 November, it announced that it would allow the reopening of Sana’a airport for humanitarian flights only and of the port of Hodeidah to receive “urgent humanitarian and relief materials”. However, humanitarian aid alone is not sufficient to meet the needs of the Yemeni population, who also rely on commercial imports of essential goods such as fuel, food and medical supplies. Between July 2016 and October 2017, according to OCHA, average monthly fuel imports met only 29% of Yemen’s requirements. Since November 2017, the figure has dropped to 21%.
Fuel shortages have reduced access to food, clean water and sanitation and have contributed to the spread of preventable diseases. Between July 2016 and October 2017, according to OCHA, 96% of Yemen’s monthly food import requirements were being met. Since November 2017, the figure has dropped to 68%.
After UN Security Council Resolution 2216 was adopted in 2015, Saudi Arabia started to inspect vessels and delay or restrict access to Yemen’s Red Sea ports, claiming to be enforcing the arms embargo set by the resolution. In response to the coalition’s restrictions, in 2016, the UN Secretary-General established the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) to facilitate the flow of goods on board commercial vessels destined for Yemen’s Red Sea ports. The coalition has nonetheless insisted on maintaining its inspections of ships even after UNVIM has cleared them to proceed to port. Vessels travelling to Yemen’s Red Sea ports had to wait for coalition clearance for an average of 120 hours in March 2018 and 74 hours in April 2018. In some cases, the coalition has redirected ships to Saudi Arabia and held them for further inspection for weeks. Despite regularly carrying out inspections of vessels that have already passed through UNVIM clearance since 2016, the coalition has repeatedly failed to submit incident reports, ignoring UN Security Council requirements.
These restrictions have adversely impacted Yemeni civilians’ access to basic and necessary services, including food and clean water. They have, for instance, also severely impacted the provision of health care, partly as a result of the lack of availability of fuel to run hospitals. The substantial harm to civilians as a direct result of these restrictions is disproportionate to any concrete and direct anticipated military advantage and as such they violated international humanitarian law. Furthermore, the timing and manner of the coalition’s imposition of tightened restrictions suggest that it could amount to collective punishment of Yemen’s civilian population, which would constitute a war crime.
Amnesty International’s research findings also indicate that the Huthi de facto authorities have put obstacles in the way of the delivery of humanitarian assistance within Yemen. Aid workers have described to Amnesty International how the authorities’ permit system for the movement of vehicles, goods and personnel has resulted in restrictions on the freedom of movement of humanitarian organizations and their staff in the country. They complained that overly bureaucratic procedures have caused excessive delays. In one incident, an aid official described how, once the supplies reached the country, it took the organization two months to move the supplies out of Sana’a: “The most difficult part was getting the aid out of the warehouse once it was in Yemen.” Aid workers have also told Amnesty International that the Huthi de facto authorities work in a fragmented manner and are using their influence to control the delivery of aid. These practices run contrary to their obligation under international humanitarian law to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief to civilians in need.
Most worryingly, several aid workers described incidents in which government workers from a ministry under Huthi control had conditioned approving projects or movements on monetary payments and incidents in which Huthi fighters have extorted bribes at checkpoints. These examples constitute violations of their obligations under international humanitarian law.
The UN Security Council should ensure that all parties to the conflict in Yemen allow prompt and unhindered humanitarian access to UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to deliver food, fuel, medicines and medical supplies to civilians in need across Yemen and impose targeted sanctions against those responsible for obstructing humanitarian assistance and for committing other violations of international humanitarian law. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition must end delays on commercial imports of essential goods destined for Yemen’s Red Sea ports and allow the reopening of Sana’a airport to commercial flights. States providing it support, in particular the USA, United Kingdom and France, should pressure them to do so. The Huthi de facto authorities must end interferences impacting the delivery of aid and implementation of humanitarian projects and take effective measures to stamp out extortion.