The Houthi rebels, as well as other parties to the conflict in Yemen, are to blame for obstructing the delivery of desperately needed aid in the country, according to a new report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa and much of the north, have a “particularly egregious record of obstructing aid agencies from reaching civilians in need”, according to HRW, including by diverting relief items to their own organisation, blocking aid containers at ports they control, and even preventing aid assessments to identify people’s needs.
The human rights organisation also reported that obstruction in government-held areas of Yemen has also increased, and noted the Saudi-led coalition, which backs the Yemeni government, has imposed a naval and air blockade on Yemen since March 2015, restricting the import of food, fuel and medicine.
The difficulties facing the work of international aid organisations in Yemen have emerged into the open during the past few years, with allegations that corruption is widespread, and international aid is not being accounted for.
And it is not just international aid organisations facing obstructions. Muna Luqman, executive director of Food4Humanity, described the Yemeni NGO’s experiences with the Houthis.
“When our aid is delivered to the port in Hodeidah, we find that a portion of it will have been stolen before it leaves the port,” Luqman told Al Jazeera. “There’s also pressure to send aid to areas where [the Houthis] want it to go. We had a project in Hodeidah and they forced us to send it to Sanaa. We eventually found a compromise and split the aid, but the international organisations often simply agree with them.”
For their part, the Houthis responded to HRW’s criticisms by saying the group did not want to obstruct aid, and the allegations were coming from aid agencies that followed “political orders” from the United States.
Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), which was also accused of obstructing aid, did not respond.
The UN and the international community have pressured the Houthis into some concessions, with the rebel group agreeing this year to not interfere in the independence of aid organisations.
The UN has also publicly condemned Houthi restrictions, and refused to pay a 2-percent tax the Houthis attempted to force on aid organisations. The public censure risks blowback from the rebels, however, with the possibility they will clamp down on the work of international groups.
“We always want to do negotiations behind closed doors, to ensure that the best interests of the people that we serve are not at risk,” Abeer Etefa, the WFP’s Middle East senior spokeswoman told Al Jazeera.
“But when it’s against humanitarian principles we speak out, such as what happened when we discovered the diversion of food assistance in areas under the control of the Sanaa-based authorities. There are red lines and we cannot cross these red lines.”
An ill baby is seen on a stretcher with his mother as he waits to receive medical treatment in Sanaa [File: AP]
But UN aid organisations were also criticised by HRW for shortcomings, including conceding to demands related to the control of the distribution of aid, giving money to corrupt ministries, and failing to investigate the complicity of UN bodies in aid diversion.
From her experiences working on the ground in Yemen, it is a criticism that Luqman shares.
She criticised international aid organisations for partnering with bodies affiliated with the Houthis, and said the UN had been too soft on the rebel group.
“International organisations allowed the Houthis to get away with it,” Luqman said. “They finally kicked up a fuss when the Houthis demanded the 2-percent cut, and the Security Council issued a statement and the ambassadors all spoke up. When they want to put their foot down, they can, and they forced the Houthis to back down. They should have done this previously.”
The United Nations calls Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with 80 percent of the population of 30 million in need of aid.
Despite that, funding for aid projects in Yemen has dried up this year, with UN bodies only receiving 24 percent of the $3.4bn they requested for 2020. This has led to a decrease in the amount of relief the UN has been able to handout in Yemen, with the World Food Programme (WFP) forced to halve food distribution since April.
The shortfall is partly a result of donor countries, including many Western and regional nations that are directly or indirectly involved in the five-year conflict, withholding money because of misappropriation of funds.
“The international donor community should not compromise the protection of civilians just because they want to punish the Houthis, the STC, or the Yemeni government … for a network of obstacles imposed on humanitarian groups,” Afrah Nasser, HRW’s Yemen researcher, told Al Jazeera.
“There has to be a new way of thinking regarding how humanitarian aid goes to Yemen … and make sure that aid getting to people in need isn’t jeopardised,” Nasser added.
The diversion of aid also means assistance has not been reaching those most in need.
“If one grain of rice is lost then it means it has been lost from someone who really needs it,” said Etefa, EFP’s spokesperson.
“The WFP’s work, with the support of donors, has stood in between Yemen and a famine … so when food is lost it means that people are going hungry. It means that children are falling into the vicious cycle of malnutrition.”