International Community Must Take Action to Stop Catastrophic Famine in Yemen, Top Humanitarian Affairs Official Tells Security Council
Permanent Representative Says Houthi Must Return to Negotiating Table, Abide by Resolutions to End Suffering
To stem the growing threat of famine in Yemen, the international community must act urgently to unblock imports, ensure distribution of aid and counteract a lack of foreign exchange in the war-torn gulf nation, the United Nations top humanitarian affairs official told the Security Council this afternoon.
“There is now a clear and present danger of an imminent famine engulfing Yemen: much bigger than anything any professional in this field has encounter during their working lives,” Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator said in a briefing on the Yemen crisis that focused on food security.
Half the country — some 14 million people — are threatened by famine in a worst-case scenario, Mr. Lowcock said. Fighting around the key port of Hodeidah continues to choke off life-sustaining supplies, Government regulations have hampered commercial imports and the collapse of the economy means that there is no foreign exchange to pay for essential goods.
To avert catastrophe, he called on all stakeholders to urgently support a humanitarian ceasefire in and around all importation infrastructure and to do everything possible to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance as required under international law. The United Nations, as he already has indicated, is ready to play an enhanced role in ensuring the appropriate use of key facilities especially around Hodeidah.
Restrictions must be lifted and main transport routes kept open and safe so that essential aid and imports are allowed to reach their destinations, he stressed. A larger and faster injection of foreign exchange through the Central Bank is also urgently needed, along with expedited credit for trade and payment of pensioners and civil servants. Increased funding is needed to match the scale of the crisis, he added. Finally, and most importantly, he called upon belligerents to seize this moment to engage fully and openly with the Special Envoy to end the conflict.
Council members took the floor to affirm the urgency to avert famine in Yemen, with many also sounding the alarm on the other aspects of the humanitarian crisis. They also called on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law by allowing unhindered access for aid and other essential goods. While stressing that the Russian Federation will continue its unpoliticized aid to Yemen, that country’s representative also underscored that the solution lies in the political dimension.
Most speakers echoed that, asserting that only an inclusive United Nations‑led and Yemeni-owned political process can end the suffering. They called on all parties in the country to pursue that process through the United Nations Special Envoy, with Kuwait’s representative affirming the continued relevance of the Gulf Initiative in that context. Some called for greater Council pressure on the parties to bring the parties back to the negotiating table.
Yemen’s representative, emphasizing his Government’s commitment to international humanitarian and human rights law, called on the Security Council to act with strength to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table and to abide by Security Council resolutions so that his people’s suffering can end.
Describing Government strategies to decentralize humanitarian assistance so it can be distributed to those in need, he said that it has also taken measures to restore the economy through the banking system, including meeting the needs of small traders and the oil company. Actions, he added, have also been taken to neutralize the Houthi black market.
He announced that measures to control credit lines will be postponed awaiting dialogue with traders on the situation. Calling for assistance in building up foreign currency supplies, similar to what Saudi Arabia has done, he thanked that country, the United Arab Emirates and other donors, as well as the United Nations, for their assistance. He also called on all donors to meet the needs set out in the 2018 humanitarian appeal for his country.
Also speaking were representatives of the United Kingdom, China, France, Netherlands, Poland, Ethiopia, Peru, Sweden, Equatorial Guinea, Kazakhstan, Cote d’Ivoire, United States and Bolivia.
The meeting began at 3 p.m. and ended at 4:47 p.m.
MARK LOWCOCK, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, while noting assessments were ongoing, underscored that “there is now a clear and present danger of an imminent famine engulfing Yemen: much bigger than anything any professional in this field has encounter during their working lives”. Although he had warned of famine twice in the past, he stressed that the situation is now much graver than on either of those occasions because of the sheer number of people at risk — possibly reaching 14 million, half the total population of the country — and the fact that the immune systems of millions of people are collapsing from being on mere survival rations for years on end.
Recalling that last month he told the Council about the intensification of fighting around Hodeidah, choking the lifeline of aid operations and commercial imports, he reported that the situation around that city has worsened over the past several days. Due to ongoing hostilities, the eastern road from Hodeidah to Sana’a remains blocked and clashes continue to prevent access to a major milling facility, with several humanitarian warehouses occupied for over two months. The parties to the conflict continue to violate international humanitarian law through mass civilian casualties and damage to critical infrastructure. Delays in issuing visas, restrictions on importation of equipment and cargo, retraction of permits, interference in humanitarian assessment exercises and monitoring, all further limit the ability to provide life-saving assistance. The relief effort will ultimately simply be overwhelmed, he warned.
Yemen is still almost entirely reliant on imports for food, fuel and medicines, and available foreign exchange has been inadequate to finance the imports needed, given the collapse in the economy, he continued. That has been partially mitigated by aid generously funded by donors, with aid agencies implementing the world’s largest humanitarian operation. Some 200 organizations are working through the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan and have delivered assistance in all 33 districts this year. As many as 8 million people are receiving life-saving assistance every month, but the aid operation cannot conceivably meet the needs of all Yemenis.
For that purpose, he said that his call last month for an urgent and substantial injection of foreign exchange and the resumption of payments to pensioners and key public sector workers has resulted in a pledge from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for $70 million to cover allowances for 135,000 teachers. However, action in that area looks to be too small and too slow to reverse the trajectory towards famine. Those involved must address the matter with great urgency.
Meanwhile, the Government of Yemen appears to be planning further restriction on trade in essential commodities, with only a handful of necessary lines of credit being issued since June, mostly in just the last few days, he continued. The alarming effect of those regulations is that two vessels carrying substantial amounts of fuel have been refused entry at the Government’s request in the past few days increasing the possibility of famine.
To avert catastrophe, he called on all stakeholders to urgently support a humanitarian ceasefire in and around all importation infrastructure and to do everything possible to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance required under international law. The United Nations, as he has already indicated, is ready to play an enhanced role in ensuring the appropriate use of key facilities especially around Hodeidah.
To ensure essential aid and imports reached their destinations, restrictions must be lifted and main transport routes kept open and safe, he emphasized. A larger and faster injection of foreign exchange through the Central Bank is also urgently needed, along with expedited credit for trade and payment of pensioners and civil servants. Increased funding is needed to match the scale of the crisis. Finally, and most importantly, he called upon belligerents to seize this moment to engage fully and openly with the Special Envoy to end the conflict.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said the numbers cited by the Under‑Secretary‑General are horrifying. The fact that the crisis does not seem to be getting better is something the Council should take a deep interest in. Noting the number of children facing severe malnutrition, as well as the rising number of cholera cases, she welcomed the support extended by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and highlighted the $125 million assistance package announced by the United Kingdom on World Food Day. Voicing concerns about the falling value of the Yemeni rial, rising consumer prices and the Central Bank of Yemen’s struggle to pay salaries, she urged the Government to take action to stabilize the rial, and in the meantime, to pause implementation of its decree that would prevent staple goods from entering the country. Emphasizing that unhindered humanitarian access is essential to avert famine, she said the Houthis should stop interfering with the humanitarian response so that food, fuel and medicine can reach those in need in Yemen’s north. Military operations must be carried out in accordance with international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure. Stressing that only a political settlement will allow the humanitarian situation to be properly addressed, she called on all parties to engage with the Special Envoy in good faith.
BADER ABDULLAH N. M. ALMUNAYEKH (Kuwait) said the deterioration of the humanitarian situation is the unavoidable result of the armed conflict which affects, first and foremost, the economy. Given the non-payment of salaries and the rial’s depreciation, the international community has a responsibility to support the Yemeni Government’s economic response, as well as the Special Envoy’s efforts. He commended Saudi Arabia’s support to the Central Bank, including a recent cash injection of $200 million, bringing the total Saudi contribution to $3.2 billion, in addition to $70 million for teachers’ salaries. Pointing to the Houthis’ coup against the legitimate Government in Yemen and their seizing control of all State institutions by force, he said they are refusing to cooperate with political efforts to end the crisis, as seen most recently in Geneva. That group is also seizing and looting humanitarian assistance. His country stands ready to support international efforts to prioritize a political solution based on international resolutions, despite security challenges, including the targeting of Saudi territory with ballistic missiles and other weapons. Efforts to end the crisis must stem from a political solution based on the Gulf initiative, the outcome of the national dialogue and relevant Security Council resolutions.
MA SHAOXU (China) said the international community should take action to alleviate the grave humanitarian situation. Parties to the conflict should create conditions for easing the humanitarian situation by abiding by international law, ceasing hostilities and ensuring humanitarian access and the transport of relief supplies. The international community should sustain humanitarian efforts and continue to provide medicine, food and other supplies in a target manner to ease the suffering of the Yemeni people. Emphasizing that the political process is fundamental for ending the conflict, he said the international community should step up support for the Special Envoy’s efforts, including a sustainable negotiating process. He went on to recall the President of China’s recent announcement of a fresh assistance initiative for Yemen.
ANNE GUEGUEN (France), expressing deep concern at the humanitarian situation, said that, now, more than ever, it is essential to guarantee respect for international humanitarian law, protection of civilians and humanitarian access, as well as efforts to restore the Yemeni economy. That involves nothing more than implementation of the Security Council’s recent presidential statement. Protection of civilians from artillery fire, especially in densely populated cities like Hodeidah, must be guaranteed, and humanitarian workers, operating in a very dangerous environment, must be protected. Humanitarian and commercial access must also be guaranteed, with the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef staying open to receive at least food and fuel. Galloping inflation and the rial’s depreciation must be contained. She appealed to the parties to engage fully with the Special Envoy to relaunch dialogue and advance the political process. Only a political solution will bring a sustainable end to the Yemeni people’s suffering, she said.
KAREL JAN GUSTAAF VAN OOSTEROM (Netherlands) stated that, with 172,000 severely malnourished children and 11 million Yemenis on the brink of an entirely man-made famine, he stressed that Yemen is a clear example of the relationship between conflict and hunger. Noting that Security Council resolution 2417 (2018) commits the Council to address man-made crises with man‑made solutions, he said it was unconscionable that no discernible action has been taken. He called for Houthi-affiliated militia to immediately abandon all humanitarian warehouses they have occupied for two months in Hodeidah and for the Yemeni Government to address with utmost urgency the import delays. The road connecting Hodeidah and Sana’a must also be opened. Turning to international humanitarian law, he said hostilities continue to be a major factor in the current tipping point, with shelling and air strikes killing scores of civilians and hitting hospitals and water sanitation facilities, which increases the risk of cholera. All parties are called to take urgent steps, as humanitarian actors on the ground warn that anything short of a halt to hostilities may be insufficient to avert a famine.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said that the briefing clearly shows that there is a desperate urgency to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, with the tragic plight of children of particular concern. She urged all parties to the conflict and those with influence over them to help save those children from the horrors of war and starvation. The full functioning of the port in Hodeidah must be ensured, and the effects of severe inflation reversed. Recalling the urgent steps called for in the Council statements of the past year, she said that they were still very much relevant. It is time for concrete actions to put the conflict to an end through an inclusive United Nations-led political process.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), affirming the urgency of the humanitarian situation in Yemen, said that providing humanitarian assistance in Yemen on a non‑discriminatory basis must be ensured immediately, with all ports opened and made operational and all transport unimpeded. His country will continue its unpoliticized aid, but the solution lies in the political dimension. The Council must get the parties to come to the table for that purpose. He called on all parties to show restraint and refrain from using force. The building of trust and the winding down of offensives are ways to assist the Special Envoy work. Unfortunately, the region’s multiple crises have been dealt with on an ad‑hoc basis, he observed, noting that his country has long proposed a new security architecture in the Middle East that would allow replacement of force and threats with peaceful resolution of conflicts.
TAYE ATSKE SELASSIE AMDE (Ethiopia), affirmed that the humanitarian situation in Yemen remained of deep concern. The port of Hodeidah must remain open and functional and the continued economic decline mitigated. Welcoming announcements of donor contributions to pay teachers’ salaries, he stressed that safe and unhindered humanitarian access remains vital. He strongly appealed to all parties to exercise maximum restraint. Most urgently, a comprehensive political solution must be brought about through diplomacy that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. The Council must strengthen its strong support for the work of the Special Envoy in that regard.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) said the situation in Yemen, scene of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, reflects the Council’s failure to meet its responsibilities for international peace and security and for the protection of millions of vulnerable Yemenis. Abandoning the Yemeni people will lead to extremism, and in turn, terrorism. The Houthis should be held accountable for the crimes they have committed, he said, adding that Peru is waiting for a credible investigation into the bombing of a bus in August in which tens of children died. Impunity is unacceptable, he emphasized. Noting that only one container-bearing vessel has entered the port of Hodeidah since November 2017, he said military objectives must not be a condition for humanitarian assistance and access. He reiterated Peru’s support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to re-establish dialogue between the parties to the conflict. Further, Council members, including those with influence, must do more to alleviate the situation. “The time to act is now and we cannot remain passive witnesses to this tragedy,” he said.
OLOF SKOOG (Sweden) said it is “just staggering” that an additional 5.6 million people may face food insecurity in coming months, bringing the total number in pre-famine conditions to 14 million. To help reverse it, he called for urgent economic measures including expanding liquidity to stabilize the currency, expediting lines of credit for importers, and ensuring payment of civil servants. The food crisis is aggravated by military escalation, with conflict in Hodeidah causing casualties and also hampering aid and imports, and continued fighting on the road to Sana’a impacting the lifeline to northern Yemen. He called for a durable ceasefire, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and respect for international humanitarian law, stressing that only a negotiated political solution can end “this futile war”.
NARCISO SIPACO RIBALA (Equatorial Guinea) said three years of conflict and the resulting collapse of the economy have exhausted the Yemeni people’s ability to cope. The international community must urgently find a strategy to halt the fall of the rial, which has lost more than half its value since the conflict started. Parties to the conflict must refrain from actions that would block the delivery and distribution of humanitarian supplies. Noting the large number of cholera cases and fatalities, he hailed efforts led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), including the just-completed vaccination campaign that will hopefully halt the spread of the pandemic. He called on all parties to respect international humanitarian law, ensure the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and make sure that Yemenis find a way out of the crisis. He also called on all parties to participate in the Special Envoy’s efforts.
DIDAR TEMENOV (Kazakhstan) said that he strongly supports the United Nations call on all parties to safeguard civilian lives, prevent deaths and injuries, allow freedom of movement, and protect hospitals, clinics and schools, in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law. He welcomed the coordinated efforts of stakeholders to provide aid to the people of Hodeidah and endorsed the United Nations call on all parties to refrain from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. He underscored that all parties to the conflict should facilitate the continuation and expansion of commercial imports into all ports, including by addressing the delays linked to Government’s Decree 75 and other restrictions. Presently, commercial imports through the Hodeidah and Saleef ports continue to be below the needs of the population served. He acknowledged the importance of concerted action to address distortions in the Yemeni economy, including by supporting the currency and expanding lines of credit for importers. He also urged parties to engage in good faith and without preconditions in the political process, to demonstrate flexibility and to resolve complex issues.
GBOLIÉ DESIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) called on all parties to immediately cease hostilities and to resume negotiations within the framework of the Special Envoy’s peace plan. Restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance must also be lifted. Parties to the conflict must take ownership of the Special Envoy’s peace plan, he said, inviting the Special Envoy to pursue his efforts.
JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) said the suffering of the Yemeni people is not inevitable, but unless the fighting stops and efforts are made to stabilize the rial, that suffering will continue. The Special Envoy’s efforts must succeed, but in the meantime, all parties must protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and guarantee unfettered humanitarian access. Damage to ports and other infrastructure will further drive food insecurity, he said, sharing the Under-Secretary-General’s assessment that humanitarian assistance is critical for staving off the worst outcome. The United States is one of the biggest providers of humanitarian assistance to Yemen, but as the Under-Secretary-General said, “we can and must do more”. He said his country is expanding non-humanitarian assistance, including by enhancing the Yemeni central bank’s ability to function. He emphasized, however, that there is simply no alternative to a political solution. The suffering can only end at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield.
SACHA SERGIO LLORENTTY SOLÍZ (Bolivia), Council President for October, spoke in his national capacity, stressing that the Council cannot plead ignorance about the severity of the crisis in Yemen after repeated dire warnings, noted that it went beyond the food security crisis to encompass 16,000 civilian deaths in the fighting and many succumbing to cholera and other diseases. Military action in Yemen will not solve the problem, he said, calling on all parties to cease hostilities immediately, allow unhindered humanitarian aid and begin negotiations on a peaceful solution to the conflict under the leadership of the United Nations Special Envoy.
AHMED AWAD AHMED BINMUBARAK (Yemen) said that no reality should be imposed on the Yemeni people by the Security Council, which should implement its resolutions. His country had gone to great lengths to adhere to Council resolutions despite the Houthi assault and their subsequent refusal to participate in peace talks. The suffering of the Yemeni people is the result of a coup by an extremist militia, an agent of Iran and Hizbullah, following efforts of his Government to build a democratic State where the rights of all are protected. The militia’s attacks have not spared any segment of society from killing, torture and victimization by land mines. They continue to recruit children to fight in their ranks, to assault humanitarian and aid workers, target aid vessels, to use food aid to engage fighters and to hijack fuel supplies. In addition, kidnapping and torture is being used to make money from innocent civilians.
His Government has affirmed its commitment to international human rights and humanitarian law, he said, describing Government strategies to decentralize humanitarian assistance so it can be distributed to those in need. The President has also taken measures to restore the economy through the banking system, including meeting the needs of small traders and the oil company. Actions have also been taken to neutralize the Houthi black market. In addition, he announced that measures to control credit lines will be postponed awaiting dialogue with traders to alleviate the credit situation. Calling for assistance in building up foreign currency supplies, similar to what Saudi Arabia has done, he thanked that country, the United Arab Emirates and other donors, as well as the United Nations. He called on all donors to meet the needs set out in the 2018 humanitarian appeal. He also stressed that the suffering in Yemen cannot end until the crisis caused by the Houthi coup is ended through the framework adopted by the Security Council, which must send a clear message that it will not stay silence as outrages continue.