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Yemen: Coalition Blocking Desperately Needed Fuel

Tankers Wait Offshore as Civilians Go Without Water, Electricity

(Beirut) – The Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen is keeping out fuel needed for the Yemeni population’s survival in violation of the laws of war. Yemen is in urgent need of fuel to power generators for hospitals overwhelmed with wounded from the fighting and to pump water to civilian residences.

The 10-country coalition, which has United States logistics and intelligence support, should urgently implement measures for the rapid processing of oil tankers to allow the safe, secure, and speedy distribution of fuel supplies to the civilian population. The Houthis and other armed groups controlling port areas should permit the safe transfer of fuel to hospitals and other civilian entities. Fuel should be allowed to go through whether or not a proposed ceasefire takes effect.

“The rising civilian casualties from the fighting could become dwarfed by the harm caused to civilians by the coalition blockade on fuel, if it continues,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “It is unclear how much longer Yemen’s remaining hospitals have before the lights go out.”

The coalition began an aerial-bombing campaign against Houthi forces on March 26, 2015, and instituted a naval and aerial blockade. Under the laws of war, fuel and other goods with military uses can be prevented from entering the country unless it would threaten the population’s survival or otherwise cause disproportionate harm to the civilian population compared with the expected military gain.

But the overall situation in Yemen is dire, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Johannes van der Klaauw, stated on April 23 that Yemen’s “airports and seaports constitute a lifeline given that Yemen relies on imports for 90 percent of its food and most of its fuel. However, these lifelines have been hampered as most of Yemen’s airports are not open to civilian traffic, and transports by sea are subject to the coalition’s inspection regime related to the arms embargo mandated by the UN Security Council.”

Van der Klaauw told the media on May 2: “[Those] services still available in the country in terms of health, water, food are quickly disappearing because fuel is no longer being brought into the country. If something is not done in the next few days, Yemen is going to come to a complete standstill.” Aid organizations on the ground have been warning of an imminent humanitarian crisis. On May 8, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund stated that “More children in Yemen are at risk of dying from hunger and lack of health services than from bombs and bullets.”

According to shipping logs, since April 16, coalition forces granted permission to 19 ships carrying rice, grain, palm oil, steel, and timber permission to berth at Hodaida and Saleef ports, and they were able to unload their cargo. The data shows that permission was denied to three container vessels on April 20. In contrast, no fuel tankers have been able to berth at Yemeni ports since March 28, though at least seven have tried, according to shipping records.

Four shipping industry professionals told Human Rights Watch that according to shipping records, since March 28 no fuel supplies have entered the country, though as of May 8, one ship has been given permission to berth. Illustrating its impact, one relief worker reported that conflict areas in Aden had been without electricity for 10 days.

Protection Vessels International stated that as of May 1 seven ships with over 349,000 metric tons (mT) of fuel supplies were anchored outside Yemeni territorial waters awaiting permission to berth at one of the country’s ports. Sources in the shipping industry told Human Rights Watch that one of these ships, the RISA, has been waiting to berth at western Yemen’s Hodaida port since April 21. The RISA is carrying around 33,000 metric tons of gasoline, which would provide Yemen with enough fuel to cover two days of its peacetime consumption needs. According to shipping logs shared with Human Rights Watch, on April 23, at 4:06 p.m., six coalition marine officers boarded the vessel and for one hour inspected its cargo, then disembarked. But the coalition has not granted the vessel permission to berth, despite its repeated requests.

The vessel’s call log shows that the crew has tried to contact coalition forces over 250 times since the inspection. The log shows 37 responses by coalition forces, telling the vessel’s crew that there was no information on whether permission had been granted. On April 28, at 5:30 p.m., the vessel was ordered to advance toward a position 14 nautical miles from Hodaida’s port. At 9:30 p.m. it was ordered to leave Yemeni territorial waters again. Coalition forces contend that the vessel had received permission to berth at the port of Aden, but not Hodaida. The log shows the vessel’s agent stating that the cargo is intended for delivery to Hodaida.

A shipping security source told Human Rights Watch that vessels are not berthing at Aden’s port because of high security risks to vessels and their crews, as well as restrictions imposed by their insurance companies. According to the log, the RISA has been waiting offshore, outside Yemeni waters, since April 29.

Shipping sources told Human Rights Watch that for the ports of Hodaida and Saleef, which is also on Yemen’s west coast, applications must be filed with the Yemeni Transport Ministry, currently based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and are subject to approval by coalition forces. For Aden, applications need to be filed with an office of the “Popular Resistance Committee” in Aden, which reports to the coalition forces. They said that they have been told that vessels must additionally prove that their cargo “will not benefit the Houthis,” but that they do not understand what is required for them to do this, and the coalition has not issued any clarifying instructions.

On May 7, coalition forces threatened to open fire on any vessel not complying with instructions to stay well clear of Yemen Territorial Waters, shipping sources told Human Rights Watch. On May 8, coalition forces granted permission to the MT Folk Beauty carrying 14,000 metric tons of motor gasoline, according to shipping data. However, the vessel was not able to berth because of payment issues. On May 10, the UN World Food Programme issued a statement that a boat it had chartered, the MV Amsterdam, carrying 300,000 liters of fuel, had been allowed to berth at Hodaida port.

Human Rights Watch does not know to what extent other fuel tankers are declining to head to Yemeni ports due to security and insurance considerations. Major marine insurers have advised merchant vessels to avoid Yemeni territorial waters if possible while some shipping companies have publicly declared that they will no longer accept bookings to transport cargo to or from Yemen.

“The coalition blockade is keeping all fuel out of Yemen, while civilians are desperately in need of water and electricity,” Stork said. “The coalition, with the cooperation of opposing Houthi forces, should take urgent steps to end this threat to Yemen’s civilian population, and ensure that fuel quickly reaches hospitals and other civilians in need.”

Humanitarian Situation in Yemen
The coalition’s naval and aerial blockade of Yemen was put in place soon after the bombing campaign began on March 26. A coalition spokesman said on March 30 that “all the navy vessels needed for the blockade are in place,” and that they would “monitor all ships entering and leaving Yemeni ports.” The United Nations Security Council on April 14 imposed an arms embargo and travel restrictions against the Houthis. Beyond this, the goods embargoed and the procedures for enforcing the blockade have not publicly been made clear.

Even before the beginning of this armed conflict, according to MercyCorps, 40 percent of the country was reported as food insecure. UNICEF reported that one million children under 5 years old were acutely malnourished. At least 61 percent of the population, half of whom are children, was in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance. The WFP estimates that 12 million people are now food insecure, a 13 percent increase.

The fuel shortages have exacerbated the limited access to water, given Yemenis’ heavy reliance on water trucks and pumps. OCHA reported that 13.4 million people lacked access to safe drinking water even before the beginning of the crisis. UNICEF’s representative to Yemen, Julien Harneis, said: “The vast majority of water is pumped up using diesel generators … which will mean that people will end up using very bad quality water. You will get water-borne diseases, diarrhoea and eventually cholera and people will die of that.” On May 3, the WHO noted a doubling in cases of bloody diarrhoea in children under 5 as well as measles and malaria infections since March 26.

The fuel shortage has also impacted many of the country’s hospitals, which do not have enough fuel for their generators to run. Heavy fighting, including aerial bombing by coalition forces, has wounded several thousand people in urban areas, taxing the country’s already substandard healthcare system. The World Health Organization (WHO), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other humanitarian agencies have pointed to the imminent shutdown of hospitals and medical services for lack of fuel and basic supplies. A statement issued by the ICRC quoted Issa Alzub, head of al-Kuwait Hospital in Sanaa, the capital, saying, “We are facing tremendous logistical difficulties in trying to keep this hospital working. We are running out of diesel. Our ambulances can no longer transport patients. Only half of our staff can come to work as the hospital buses have stopped running.”

Staff at hospitals in Sanaa, Taizz, Aden, and Lahj told Human Rights Watch that their hospitals were in similarly dire situations. OCHA warned on April 30 that 1,200 patients were at risk as the renal dialysis center in Hodaida was facing closure because of fuel shortages.

The WHO said on April 21 that ambulance services and the delivery of medical supplies had been critically disrupted. It said that because of electricity cuts, refrigerated vaccine-storage sites are in danger, which may leave millions of children below age 5 unvaccinated. The head of Yareem Public Hospital in Ibb, Hamoud al-Jehafi, told the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, “I‘ve been looking for diesel for [the refrigerators] everywhere.”

According to information obtained by the World Food Programme (WFP) on May 3, prices for fuel have increased by about 450 percent in some regions. Official prices increased to as much as 900 Yemeni riyals per liter from 150 before the beginning of the attacks on March 26. In contrast, during the political crisis of 2011, fuel prices spiked at an average of only 250 riyals.

The increase in fuel prices has also contributed to skyrocketing prices for basic food stuffs. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) stated on April 17, “The cost of fuel is expected to put upward pressure on staple food prices in most markets.” Yemen imports 95 percent of its wheat products and 90 percent of its basic food needs, making its population extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in import prices. According to the WFP, retail prices for wheat have risen by up to 90 percent in the hardest hit locations since February. Most essential food and non-food commodities disappeared in areas such as Saada, Aden, al-Dhale`a, Lahj, Taiz, and Shabwa due to disruptions of the supply chain, market dysfunctionalities, and transport restrictions on account of fuel shortages. The FEWS now expects most affected regions to reach “emergency” status if the conflict continues.

According to a UN inter-agency assessment coordinated by OCHA in Saada from April 21 to 23, 100 percent of participants faced serious difficulties in accessing food and water. Fifty five percent of the respondents stated that they could not get enough food because of fuel shortages. Also, the assessment found that water pumps in areas of al-Safra, Majz, and Sahar districts have become inoperable because of fuel shortages, forcing residents to use untreated water. As a result, diarrhea was the most common disease they and their families were suffering from, according to 91 percent of respondents.

All of Yemen’s energy production is oil and gas based, according to the US Energy Information Administration (USEIA). On April 14, Yemen’s only gas producing plant in the city of Balhaf in Shabwa governorate shut down its operations citing security concerns. On April 16, Aden’s refinery discontinued its production because of the fighting. Only the refinery in Marib seems to be fully operating, but its maximum capacity of 1,200 metric tons per day (mT/d) does not suffice to supply the country’s needs of 17,000 mT/d, and over the last 15 years Yemen has increasingly relied on petroleum imports. With its two operating refineries in Aden and Marib not producing at full capacity, Yemen imported 9,200 mT/d by 2013, according to the USEIA. Given the lack of a pipeline to its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Oman, all fuel shipments reach Yemen via one of its six ports, making it particularly vulnerable to naval disruptions.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) confirmed that some of its critical, life-saving interventions have been affected by the lack of fuel. “It has become impossible for us to function in Sadaa and Hodaida. The intense bombing, combined with the lack of fuel has ground our operations in the north to a halt,” said Hanibal Abiy Worku, NRC country director. “Even around Sanaa and in the south where we have our biggest operation we are affected by the lack of fuel.”

Blockades and the Laws of War
International law on naval blockades is set out in the 1908 London Declaration concerning the Laws of Naval War and in the 1994 San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea (“San Remo Manual”), which are widely recognized as reflecting customary laws of war at sea. Similar rules relating to aerial blockades are found in the 2009 HPCR Manual on International Law Applicable to Air and Missile Warfare.

Parties to an armed conflict may enforce and maintain a blockade using methods and means of warfare that do not violate the laws of war. Blockades need to be publicly declared and be effectively enforced.

A blockade is unlawful if it has the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denies the population goods indispensable for its survival. A blockade also violates the laws of war if it has a disproportionate impact on the civilian population, when the harm to civilians is, or may be expected to be, greater than the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade.

A blockading party may capture merchant vessels “believed on reasonable grounds to be breaching a blockade.” A party may attack a merchant vessel that, after prior warning, “clearly resist[s] capture.” However, blockades cannot be used to stop needed humanitarian assistance. If inadequate food and other goods essential for the survival of the civilian population are not being adequately provided, the blockading party must provide for free passage of food and other essential supplies. To allow passage, the blockading party may set technical arrangements, including permission to “visit and search” vessels; and require distributing the supplies under the local supervision of a government or an impartial humanitarian organization. Medical supplies for both civilians and combatants shall also be permitted, subject to meeting technical arrangements, including visit and search.

Merchant vessels are subject to capture outside neutral waters if they are engaged in military activities or if it is determined as a result of visit and search or other means that they are carrying contraband, are operating directly under enemy control or direction, present improper or fraudulent documents, or are breaching or attempting to breach the blockade.

A blockading party can only confiscate goods on board a neutral merchant vessel (or aircraft) if they are “contraband.” Contraband is defined as goods that “are ultimately destined for territory under the control of the enemy and which may be susceptible for use in armed conflict.” A blockading party must have published contraband lists, which may vary according to the particular circumstances of the armed conflict. Contraband lists shall be reasonably specific. “Free goods” are those not subject to capture, and that include religious objects; articles intended exclusively for the treatment of the wounded and sick; and clothing, bedding, essential foodstuffs, and means of shelter for the civilian population in general, and women and children in particular, unless there is a serious reason to believe that such goods will be diverted to a military purpose; and other goods not susceptible for use in armed conflict.


  • All parties to the conflict should abide by their obligations under the laws of war, including by minimizing harm to civilians and facilitating humanitarian access;
  • The coalition should urgently implement measures that would allow the rapid entry of fuel tankers to deliver fuel for speedy, safe, and secure distribution to the civilian population, particularly hospitals and water pumps. This would include publication of a transparent set of guidelines governing the process for receiving permission to berth at Yemeni ports;
  • The Houthis and other armed groups controlling port areas should permit the unimpeded transfer of fuel to the civilian population, particularly hospitals and water pumps;
  • The coalition and other parties to the conflict should facilitate the delivery of fuel to UN agencies and humanitarian organizations;
  • The UN should monitor and report daily on the delivery of humanitarian and commercial supplies; and
  • The United States and other coalition supporters should press the coalition to facilitate delivery by vessels and aircraft of fuel and other goods necessary for the survival and well-being of the civilian population, as well as humanitarian aid by impartial humanitarian organizations.

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