Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and
Emergency Relief Coordinator
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
New York, NY
Dear Mr. Holmes,
In connection with your upcoming visit to Yemen, I am writing to share our concerns and recommendations regarding the humanitarian situation of civilians affected by the armed conflict between Huthi rebel and government forces in the north of the country.
We welcome your visit, particularly in light of the limited international attention the five-year-old conflict received for too long. We hope it will help address the conflict's humanitarian consequences and bring them to the world's attention.
Recognizing that your office has already begun to address some of these issues, below we set out what we believe to be the most pressing concerns for you to address during your visit. In particular, we urge you to:
- Obtain agreement from both sides that would allow civilians trapped in the combat zone to reach places of safety and permit aid agencies access to those civilians who remain in the conflict zone;
- Call on both sides to respect humanitarian corridors to be established by the UN that would allow agencies to reach civilians in need throughout the conflict zone, especially in remote areas;
- Call on the Yemeni authorities to grant and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief to all civilians in need inside the conflict zone;
- Call on Saudi Arabia to immediately cease its refoulement of Yemeni refugees by opening its border posts to all refugees fleeing the conflict zone seeking safety in Saudi Arabia and by ending its deportation of Yemenis fleeing the conflict who have already entered Saudi Arabia;
- Call on both sides to the conflict to protect the civilian population in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law. Specifically call on both sides to the conflict to end deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to the civilian population. Urge them to treat internally displaced persons (IDPs) in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement;
- Call on the government to allow independent international monitors to credibly verify compliance by both Huthi rebel and government forces in accordance with their international legal obligations; and
- Highlight the funding shortfall for the September 2, 2009 UN Appeal and call on concerned governments to generously respond to the Appeal.
The most recent round of fighting in the five-year-old conflict in northern Yemen between the Yemeni government and rebels known as Huthis flared up again on August 12, 2009. As in previous rounds of fighting, the Yemeni media has reported the government's use of fighter jets, helicopters, tanks and artillery to attack Huthi positions in both rural areas and in heavily populated towns. The Huthis are reported to have used heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns. In previous rounds of fighting, there were reports that both sides used landmines. Supposed ceasefires have lasted hours at most and there is no sign of an end to the current fighting.
Humanitarian situation and the UN Flash Appeal
Due to limited access, aid agencies have equally limited knowledge of the humanitarian needs of civilians caught up in the conflict. The UN estimates the fighting has displaced 150,000 people, about 60 percent of whom are displaced within Sa'da governorate, with the remainder having fled to the neighboring Amran, Hajjah and al-Jawf governorates. Unknown numbers have sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, only to be stopped at the border or deported back to Yemen in violation of the international legal prohibition against refoulement.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that in Sa'da governorate about 7,000 people have found shelter in three camps in the governorate's main town of Sa'da, where they have received very limited assistance because international aid agencies have been unable to access them. The remaining 50,000 displaced live with host families or in barns and public buildings such as schools and clinics, under bridges, and under open skies on the sides of roads. They too receive no assistance because aid agencies are unable to reach them.
In late August, UNHCR reported that Sa'da governorate was facing "an extreme shortage of food." Agencies working to assist 3000 IDPs in Al-Mazrak camp in Hajjah governorate reported in early September that one in five under-five-year-olds suffered from Global Acute Malnutrition and that almost 10 percent were severely malnourished. On September 16, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that food and fuel prices in Sa'da governorate had quadrupled and that in one of the world's driest areas, an influx of displaced people would place huge strains on already limited water supplies, leading to a "dangerous scarcity" of clean water.
On September 2, the UN issued a Flash Appeal for US$23.7 million to address the needs of civilians affected by the conflict. As of September 24, three donor governments had committed $2.9 million in response, leaving a shortfall of over $20 million.
Human Rights Watch's November 2008 report "Invisible Civilians: The Challenge of Humanitarian Access in Yemen's Forgotten War" documented the obstacles humanitarian agencies faced in the run-up to the fifth round of fighting in 2008-as well as during and after that time-in reaching displaced and other civilians in urgent need of assistance. During the current fighting, agencies have been unable to reach the vast majority of the displaced inside the conflict zone in Sa'da Governorate. Although agencies have had some access to a few thousand of the displaced in Amran, Hajjah and al-Jawf governorates, recent government restrictions have once again prevented agencies from carrying out their work in al-Jawf governorate. Echoing our findings during the fifth round of fighting in 2008, the ICRC reported in mid September 2009 that the phone lines in Sa'da governorate only functioned a few hours a day and aid workers and journalists are unable to travel there from the capital, effectively leading to a communication blackout that further hinders aid agencies' work.
On September 23, UNHCR estimated that 25 percent of the estimated 150,000 displaced were sporadically accessible and concluded that despite highly limited access to small numbers of the displaced in Sa'da town, the whole of Sa'da governorate was "cut off from the rest of the world" and faced rapidly depleting food supplies. An example of large numbers of people completely inaccessible to agencies during the last week of September were the 15,000 to 30,000 people, including children, pregnant women, and the elderly, UNHCR said were "stranded" in Sa'da town and in Baquim district bordering on Saudi Arabia with limited food and access to water.
Aid agencies have reached about 3,000 displaced persons in the al-Mazrak camp in Hajjah governorate, but for reasons relating to land ownership of proposed new camp sites they have been unable to establish a camp in Khaiwan and al-Mashri areas in Amran governorate. Agencies have also had limited access to other parts of Amran and Hajjah governorates, although small windows of opportunity mean they have been able to register and provide limited assistance to several thousand displaced civilians.
During the third week of September, the Yemeni authorities told three international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)-ADRA, Islamic Relief, and MSF-which had previously accessed pockets of the displaced in Sa'da governorate in August and early September, to withdraw their staff on security grounds, allowing only local Yemeni groups to remain on their behalf. On September 22, UNICEF reported it was unable to reach three out of the four camps in which it had previously worked.
Calls for humanitarian corridors
To date, the Yemeni government has not responded to calls by the UN Secretary-General and UN agencies for the establishment of humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to safely flee the conflict zone and to guarantee agencies safe passage to reach civilians, including the displaced, who remain. In mid September, UNHCR reported that many of the displaced who had escaped Sa'da governorate, including traumatized and exhausted women and children, said that roadblocks and generalized fighting near main roads had forced them to walk for up to five days through barren mountain terrain to escape and reach safety.
Saudi Arabia's refoulement of Yemeni refugees
A number of agencies report that since August 12, Saudi Arabia has committed refoulement (unlawful forced return to persecution or a situation threatening life or freedom) of Yemeni refugees by preventing them from crossing into Saudi Arabia at border crossings and by deporting those who manage to cross the long and porous border undetected. UNHCR has called on Saudi Arabia to "open its border to receive Yemeni refugees."
Alleged violations of the laws of war
In our report "Invisible Civilians" (also enclosed), we documented violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war) and called on both sides to cease deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians and ensure that their forces take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to the civilian population. In a fax sent June 22, 2009, prior to the most recent fighting, rebel leader Abd al-Malik al-Huthi informed Human Rights Watch that his forces would fully respect the laws of war.
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that both sides may be responsible for serious violations of the laws of war during the current sixth round of fighting. There are credible reports that Huthi forces may have deployed within densely populated areas, unlawfully putting civilians at unnecessary risk.
Government forces may have violated the laws of war in three separate incidents that resulted in civilian casualties. On August 12, Huthi rebels claimed that 15 civilians died when government aircraft bombed a market near the town of Haydan in Sa'da governorate. Aleshtiraki.net, the media organ of the opposition Socialist Party, put the death toll at 20 civilians, basing its account on a Sa'da-based cultural organization and releasing what it said were eyewitness accounts and photos of the alleged aftermath of the attack.
The Yemeni Centre for Human Rights reported that on September 14, Yemeni military airplanes bombed a crowded market in al-Talh in Sa'da governorate, causing "dozens" of civilian casualties. Aleshtiraki.net reported that 34 persons, mostly women and children, were killed in the attack, while Yemen's official news agency Saba.net reported that government forces had killed 12 Huthi militants in skirmishes. Saba.net said that the government called for an investigation into this incident.
According to independent sources on the ground, on September 16, at least 87 persons, the majority women, children, and the elderly, were killed in government aerial bombings in ‘Adi, east of the town of Harf Sufyan in Amran governorate. A witness to the attack said that Yemeni military planes conducted four raids and, without warning, bombed a group of displaced persons sheltering in an open area near a school. According to the witness, there were no armed clashes or rebels in the area at the time, although the area was close to a road sometimes used by Huthi rebels. On September 18, the Yemeni authorities said they had launched an investigation into the incident.
We urge you to address these issues during and after your visit and would be happy to meet with you on your return.
Middle East and North Africa Division
In a letter on Yemen's humanitarian situation and accompanying media release Human Rights Watch said that Yemen's government and the Huthis, a rebel group, had not responded to UN calls to establish humanitarian corridors. In fact, the Huthis announced in emails sent to international humanitarian organizations and news outlets their readiness to do so on September 4, and again on September 15, 2009. We apologize for the mistake.