Yemen: Briefing on the Humanitarian Crisis
Tomorrow afternoon (23 October), the Security Council will hold a briefing on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, focusing on the link between the war, food insecurity and the risk of famine. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock is expected to brief. The UK, which is the penholder on Yemen, requested the session last week (17 October).
Lowcock’s briefing will focus on Yemen’s food security crisis and the risk of famine, which is directly related to the country’s three and a half year-long war. Since December 2017, the UN has estimated 8.4 million people to be severely food insecure in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Concerns over the situation have been heightened due to the depreciation of the Yemeni rial, which has fallen steadily since the war’s start but has declined more sharply since mid-August from 547 Yemeni rials/US dollar, to an approximate national average of 727 Yemeni rials/US dollar, with variations in value depending on the location. The UN has warned that this depreciation risks increasing those in pre-famine conditions by 3.5 to 4 million people, as Yemenis become unable to afford their food needs. A worst-case scenario could raise this number by 5.6 million, making 14 million Yemenis, or half the population, severely food insecure. When Lowcock briefed the Council on 21 September, he said that the world was “losing the fight against famine” in Yemen and that “pockets of famine-like conditions” already existed. In London last week, he repeated the warnings, stating that “there is now a clear and present danger of the biggest famine any of us have seen in our working lives playing out across Yemen”.
Tomorrow’s briefing is being organised in line with resolution 2417, adopted in May, that “recalls the link between armed conflict and violence and conflict-induced food insecurity and the threat of famine”. It requested the Secretary-General “to report swiftly to the Council when the risk of conflict-induced famine and widespread food insecurity in armed conflict context occurs, and expresses [the Council’s] intention to give its full attention to such information”.
On Friday (20 October), OCHA sent Council members a white paper further elaborating on the risk facing Yemen. The note apparently outlines the causes of the food insecurity crisis: loss of household income, including the irregular or non-payment of civil servants’ salaries over the last two years and the suspension of public safety net programmes; the depreciation of the rial; insufficient imports that have not still recovered to their levels before the coalition blockade imposed on Yemen in November 2017; delays by the Yemeni government approving lines of credit for several core commodities as part of a policy adopted in September; increased displacement; and damage to public infrastructure. According to OCHA’s latest figures, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition offensive to take the port city of Hodeidah held by the Houthi rebel group has displaced 575,000 people since June. Though Hodeidah and nearby Saleef ports remain operational, the main highway out of Hodeidah city used to distribute food and other imports has been closed since last month due to fighting. The fighting has also prevented access to the Red Sea mills where sufficient grain is stored to feed 3.7 million people for a month.
Lowcock may appeal for member states to help prevent a further deterioration, including that they comply with their obligations to uphold international humanitarian law and improve access for imports and their distribution. He may call on countries to support the Yemeni economy by taking measures to stabilise the currency, expedite the approval of lines of credit for traders, and pay pensioners and civil servants. Lowcock may note that it will take several months to scale up what is already the UN’s largest relief operation in order to meet projected needs, while asking countries to provide the financial support that this will require.
Council members recognise the urgency of the humanitarian situation and the risk of a major famine. Members may recall the warring parties’ obligations, as highlighted in resolution 2417, to protect civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law, including civilian objects necessary for food production and distribution such as markets, water systems, mills, food processing and storage sites, and means of transportation. Members are likely to reiterate positions expressed in previous meetings, namely that Hodeidah port must remain operational, and that all main roads be kept open and accessible. Members that have called for a cessation of hostilities amidst intensified fighting around Hodeidah, following last month’s Geneva consultations, could repeat this call. Members could also recall that both resolution 2216, adopted at the outset of the coalition intervention, and resolution 2417, affirm that sanctions may be applied to individuals or entities obstructing the delivery, access to or distribution of humanitarian assistance.
With much of the latest food security crisis being driven by a loss in purchasing power and incomes, members are likely to urge states to take actions to support the economy. They could highlight the need to inject foreign exchange into the Central Bank to support the rial, and to provide Yemenis with cash by paying public sector workers. Members may further express concerns over a worsening of the cholera outbreak, with weekly case numbers doubling recently compared to the first eight months of 2018, as the price of fuel has risen forty-five percent during the rial’s recent depreciation, causing the suspension of sanitation services and the use of unsafe water sources.
The briefing is also likely to be used as an opportunity by members to call for the warring parties to cooperate with the Special Envoy to resume political talks. Griffiths has been seeking to organise a new round of consultations between the Yemeni government and the Houthis following the Houthis’ absence at the Geneva consultations after disagreements arose over their travel arrangements.