Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Yemen
New York, 16 September 2019 (As delivered).
Thank you, Mr. President.
Let me, like Martin, at the outset repeat the United Nations’ condemnation of Saturday’s attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, and reiterate the Secretary-General’s call of yesterday on all parties to exercise maximum restraint and prevent any escalation.
On 29 August, as Martin just reminded us, the Security Council issued a Presidential statement on Yemen – your fourth since 2015 and the first since you adopted resolution 2451 last December.
In that statement, you advocated for key humanitarian priorities, including: first, respect for international humanitarian law; second, unhindered humanitarian access; third, a fully funded aid operation; and fourth, support for Yemen’s struggling economy.
Many of those themes were also addressed in resolution 2451, and indeed in nearly all the Council’s products since hostilities escalated in Yemen more than four years ago. We have also covered those issues extensively in our monthly briefings to you.
And yet, with few exceptions, we seem no closer to the outcomes we all say we want. In some cases, we’ve moved further away. I would like to update you now on the current situation on each issue.
First – international humanitarian law, which requires all parties to respect civilians and civilian infrastructure and to take constant care to spare them throughout military operations. Since last month’s briefing, we have seen numerous incidents that have killed and injured civilians or damaged civilian infrastructure.
Two weeks ago, air strikes hit a prison in Dhamar governorate. In better times, this facility had been a university – itself a sobering illustration of where this war has taken Yemen. More than 100 people were killed in the attack, making it one of the deadliest of the conflict. What exactly happened in this incident remains disputed.
The scale of the carnage in Dhamar is shocking. But otherwise, this kind of attack is disturbingly common and familiar. On Friday, shelling by Ansar Allah-affiliated forces in Hudaydah killed 11 civilians, including 7 children. And the same day, two children were killed in a separate shelling incident in Taizz. There are many other similar examples. We see a persistent pattern of attacks in Yemen that kill and injure civilians, or damage critical civilian infrastructure.
A nationwide ceasefire, as I have long advocated, would reduce people’s exposure to harm right now. All parties must uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law at all times. Part of this commitment entails accountability for serious violations. In 2017, the Human Rights Council established the Independent Group of Eminent Experts to examine possible violations. They have just released a disturbing report, and I hope their mandate will again be extended.
Second, despite your recent and repeated calls for unimpeded humanitarian access, the operating environment for aid agencies has perhaps never been worse than it is right now.
In June and July, humanitarian agencies reported 300 incidents that hindered humanitarian assistance, affecting 4.9 million people. Almost 90 per cent of incidents were due to bureaucratic impediments and other kinds of interference.
Most of these incidents are due to restrictions imposed by Ansar Allah authorities. They include obstacles to beneficiary registration, attempts to divert aid, and efforts to control selection of implementing partners. Humanitarian workers have been detained at checkpoints and, in several cases, arbitrarily arrested. Staff also face intimidation and harassment at Sana’a airport.
Ansar Allah authorities are now seeking to introduce new regulations for international NGOs that would undermine humanitarian principles. A large number of NGO projects in the north have been unable to start this year, affecting some 4.3 million people.
I am also disappointed that the long-planned assessment of the SAFER oil tanker has not taken place. Based on prior agreement from Ansar Allah authorities, we deployed the UN assessment team and equipment to Djibouti last month. The assessment should have started on 27 August.
As the start date approached, Ansar Allah authorities raised several objections, despite their earlier agreement. We worked hard to overcome these objections. But when it became clear that progress was highly unlikely, we just had to send the team home.
We remain eager to assist with the SAFER, within the limits of technical feasibility and available funds. But whether this work can proceed is up to Ansar Allah. I have explained to you many times now the risks posed by the tanker, and I implore Member States to do all you can to allow us to address this issue as quickly as possible. Our team can still deploy within three weeks if they are allowed to do so.
In the south, recent violence in Aden and other areas illustrates how volatile the situation remains. Millions of people in the south also need humanitarian assistance, including help to prevent and treat cholera or stave off extreme hunger. The services we provide in the south are essential to save lives and reduce suffering there.
Recent clashes between the Government and forces affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council undermined this critical work, restricting some operations for several days. Despite this, we have done everything we can to keep operations on track. Humanitarian staff remain in place. They are not leaving.
But this volatility, if it is not addressed, will continue to present a serious potential threat to aid operations in the south. We are also concerned by ongoing Government delays in approving NGO projects, which are currently holding up relief programmes for an estimated 1.6 million people. And we continue to see bottlenecks at the Dhubab checkpoint, where Coalition requirements are slowing aid agencies’ access to Government-held areas along the west coast.
Mr. President, the third point is funding for the aid operation. Despite all the access problems, we can reach people and save lives if humanitarian agencies are adequately financed. Let me just repeat that. If funded, the aid operation will help save millions of lives.
I have just this morning received confirmation from the Saudi authorities that they plan on 25 September to transfer $500 million in a single payment to my office in discharge of the pledge they made for the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan in February. I greatly welcome this and look forward to the signing of the agreements on 25 September alongside the transfer of the funds that day.
The United Arab Emirates has also just allocated $200 million to the response plan. That includes $100 million for the World Food Programme and an additional $100 million channelled through my office for other urgent priorities.
Unless there is more money in the bank, we will not be in a position to re-open vaccination programmes, nutrition centres, cholera prevention work or other activities that we have had in recent weeks to close down. Other programmes targeting millions of people will also remain at grave risk. So, again, I welcome the developments I have just informed you of.
Mr. President, the fourth point you highlighted in your 29 August statement is Yemen’s struggling economy. This is an issue that requires more attention. Recent indicators are alarming.
The exchange rate is once more depreciating and is now hovering at just over 600 Yemeni rial to the dollar – compared, you will recall, to 215 rial to the dollar before the crisis. We have not seen the rate cross the 600-rial threshold since last year, when uncontrolled depreciation seized the country and prompted major hikes in food prices.
Because Yemen imports nearly everything, higher exchange rates mean millions more people are unable to afford food and other essential goods. Last year, the collapse of the currency was a primary driver in pushing Yemen to the brink of widespread famine.
In the past, injections of foreign exchange have helped to stabilize the exchange rate. Last year, such support quickly brought the rate from a peak of 800 rial to about 400 rial. We need a predictable, regular programme for these injections, which I hope Yemen’s partners will provide. I am encouraged by the news last week that Saudi Arabia has released another $90 million to the Central Bank from a $2 billion deposit announced in January 2018.
I also remain concerned at the potential impact of new Government of Yemen regulations on commercial fuel imports, including Decree 49.
We are concerned these measures could discourage critical import flows, despite the presence of an effective UN inspection and monitoring mechanism to facilitate them. Already, stricter enforcement of regulations is creating delays for commercial ships serving Hudaydah. As of today, the Government and the Coalition are blocking ten vessels with commercial fuel imports from entering Hudaydah. Together, these ships are carrying 163,000 metric tonnes of fuel – that’s more than an average month of fuel imports.
The impact on hundreds of thousands of families is already being felt. People barely surviving now will find it much harder to do so unless adequate levels of commercial imports – including fuel – are able to enter the country continuously through all ports.
In the wake of fuel shortages last April, the Government introduced more flexible arrangements, and shortages eased. According to Government statements at the time, this approach did not undermine the stated purpose of the regulations. So we hope the Government will again take this route. We also call on Ansar Allah to end interference in fuel markets, which exacerbates shortages.
Mr. President, beyond these humanitarian priorities, your Presidential statement mainly addressed the urgent need to get the peace process back on track.
We all agree that peace is what Yemen needs more than anything else, and Martin and his team have our full support as they work with the parties to achieve it.