Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and former UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, on the grave situation in Yemen and the current humanitarian-aid-delivery status in Syria
A forgotten war tucked away in the southern-most part of west Asia has begot one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world has seen. An international aid agencies’ report says that Yemen saw more bombings in the first half of 2017 than it has seen in all of last year. Of the 27 million Yemenis, three quarters have come to depend on some form of humanitarian assistance. Seven million Yemenis are considered severely food insecure. More than 2,000 people are believed to have already died as a result of a cholera outbreak – the largest in the world – and 5,40,000 others have been infected. Oxfam estimates that cholera is killing about one person every hour in Yemen. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called this outbreak “unprecedented” in scale.
The numbers of people in urgent need of food assistance as well as the number of severely acutely malnourished children in Yemen currently exceed those in South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia. No public sector worker, from teachers to hospital staff, has been paid for more than a year, and they have been reduced to begging to feed themselves.
Two-and-a-half years of this disastrous war has unleashed what the UN now calls the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Yet, there is scant attention by the media, including in India, and the international community on the crisis.
The fight is primarily between the Saudi-led coalition, comprising Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE, who back Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who back Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, the war has been significantly lopsided. The Saudi-led coalition, backed by the US, France and Britain’s military tools and the coalition’s superior air power, has been bombing the Houthis as well as civilian infrastructure like schools, hospitals, residential quarters and hotels with equal enthusiasm – even though the intentional bombing of civilian objects and indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks are prohibited under international law. The Houthis are believed to have no air power. The Americans and the British reportedly offered to train the Saudi military on better targeting to avoid civilian hubs. The offer is based on the rich assumption that the Saudi-led coalition of about nine countries, with its sophisticated weaponry, has killed tens of thousands of civilians unintentionally.
According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), since March 2015, there have been 13,829 civilian casualties, including 5,110 killed and 8,719 injured. “The overall number is probably much higher,” said Liz Throsell, spokesperson for the OHCHR, on August 25.
An attempt to pursue an international investigation at the UN Human Rights Council has been quashed by the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia.
“So even as the US leads the charge for international justice against the [Bashar al-] Assad government in Syria, it turns a blind eye to or actually stymies international inquiries into abuses by Saudi Arabia,” the Human Rights Watch [HRW] said in a press release last year.
A week before the Brussels terrorist attack of last year, the Saudi-led coalition bombed a market in Mastaba in Yemen that killed more people than in Brussels – 106 versus 34 – but the media and the international community in general “ignored that earlier atrocity”, says HRW “as they’ve ignored most of the 150 indiscriminate aerial attacks reported by the UN and HRW” in 2015. Last October, the coalition confirmed that one of its jets “accidentally bombed” a marriage party in Sana’a, a Houthi-held Yemeni capital, killing at least 100 people. On August 23, at least 71 people were dead or wounded when the coalition aircrafts bombed a hotel in Sana’a. A terror attack in Spain killed 15 people, the event hogging international headlines. However, unlike the case of Spain’s victims where important news websites aptly ran eulogies with the victims’ photographs, the dead Yemenis will remain faceless.
According to figures from the Global Terrorism Database maintained by the University of Maryland, Western Europe accounted for less than one percent of the people killed in terror attacks and faced only two percent of the attacks in 2016. The brunt of extremist violence was taken by the people in the Middle East and North Africa. The international community has come to believe that civilians are collateral damage in war zones, never mind the fact that the war in Yemen can easily come to a grinding halt if the UN Security Council (UNSC) members manage to gather enough political will.
Apart from the egregious situation of some of the richest Gulf countries bombarding some of the most impoverished people in the world, the Saudi-led coalition has also imposed a blockade since 2015 on the only port in Yemen at Hodeidah that can carry humanitarian aid for the civilians chocking off food, fuel and medical supplies. Hodeida, once Yemen’s busiest port, has been bombed almost beyond use now.
Meanwhile, in Syria, there seems to be some movement in delivering aid to besieged and hard-to-reach (HTR) areas. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said that he received a letter from the Russian defence minister on August 2 that the Russian military will have observation points making the movement of aid quicker. De Mistura called it “a turning point” in reaching famished Syrians.
About 7,000 Syrians have been displaced every single day on average in the first half of 2017. As many as 5,40,000 people still live in the besieged areas though the figure used to be about a million at the end of last year. The main Syrian opposition, called the High Negotiations Committee, is still having an internal squabble on coming up with a united stand to start negotiating with the Syrian government and its allies through the UN. They are scheduled to meet in Riyadh in October. De Mistura calls October and November “very significant months” for the peace talks. Full-blown wars continue in Daraa in the south, in Idlib, in eastern Ghouta, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor after the fierce war beginning this year in Aleppo.
Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and former UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, wrote a letter to the UN secretary-general António Guterres, the members of the UNSC and the EU on August 21 expressing grave concern over the humanitarian situation in Yemen and asking for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire. The letter also asks the US, the UK and other donors to restore public services to tackle the cholera crisis, to stop attacking civilians and restart the peace talks, to facilitate the rapid movement of humanitarian aid and to have a high-level visit to the war-battered county led by Guterres.
Egeland, who is also a special advisor to de Mistura and head of the UN’s humanitarian efforts in Syria, spoke to Governance Now on the disastrous humanitarian situation in Yemen and the current humanitarian-aid-delivery status in Syria.
After your visit to Yemen in May, you told Reuters that the impoverished country faces a “famine of Biblical proportions”. What did you see that made you say this?
What I saw was communities that had no reserves at all and the storage rooms of the UN and other aid organisations, and by the de facto government of the north, had no reserves either. The lifeline is through a port called Hodeida and that was only functioning at half speed. And, the Saudi-led coalition was making it hard for the supply line to function at all because of the sanctions. When I came to the hospital to look at the centre — this is a big hospital at the capital Sana’a specializing in [cases of] malnourished children — the whole ward was closed down not because for lack of patients, because there are a lot of malnourished children in growing numbers, it was closed down because the nurses and the doctors had received no salary since August of last year. For a place that was extremely poor to start with!
Can you give us a sense of how much humanitarian aid has been able to get in to Yemen?
There have been limited amounts. The World Food Programme and partners, including NRC, feed millions of people every single month but it’s too few compared to the massive rates – I mean, some 17 million or more need assistance of some sort. We are able to feed around six million, maximum, a month but only with a limited ration, not full ration. Because the pipeline is too weak and too vulnerable, in part because of the lack of resources from the global donor community, and also because of the totally insane sanctions against Yemen. I am fine with an arms embargo but these are sanctions against civilians, civilian goods, civilian travel, commercial goods, commercial travel, even for patients leaving the country to seek treatment. Those sanctions are strangling one of the weakest economies in the world.
The sanctions you are speaking of are by the Saudi-led international coalition, right?
Who’s responsible for the sanctions? It’s the so-called Saudi-led coalition with other Gulf countries and so on, the UAE among them. But it’s backed by the US and the UK. They have given intelligence, military supplies. The US and the UK give them the military tools to do that embargo; those sanctions are against the free flow of something that this poor country that doesn’t produce much food itself at all… It is totally reliant on a free flow of food and supplies.
Why does the war in Yemen not get as much attention as Syria from the international media as well as from diplomats even though the humanitarian consequences are equally disastrous?
That’s a good question. It puzzles me. Compared to Syria, yes, fewer people are killed in Yemen by bullets and bombing but many more people go hungry in Yemen or are now hit by these disastrous epidemics, the worst of them cholera. When I was [there] in May I was shocked to see in the hospital, that I mentioned before, that one of the remaining nurses had her mother come because she was sick and the mother dramatically collapsed in the corridor of the hospital and then it turned out she had cholera. She was one of the 2,000 cases at the time. Now there are more than 5,20,000 cases – more than half a million – in three months. So, it’s even more people suffering in Yemen than in Syria. We have a much bigger humanitarian operation in Syria and Syria has much more resources to deal with deprivations. It’s [The Yemen war is] basically isolated to Yemen itself. Western countries are supporting those who are having the sanctions against Yemen; the media are not allowed to visit Yemen. It’s basically not seen as a dangerous conflict for the rest of the world, which Syria is and therefore Yemenis have to suffer a lot.
Has the international conference for pledging funds for Yemen held earlier in the year helped bridge some of the funding gap?
There was a pledging conference just before the summer which was, thankfully, hosted by Sweden and Switzerland, but it got much less attention and much less funding than the donor conferences for Syria that has been hosted by the UK, Germany, Kuwait and Norway. So a place that has even more people in need than in Syria gets a smaller appeal, as we call it. The wish list of we, the organisations, is shorter for a people with greater needs and we are getting even smaller portions of the little we asked [for] than Syria gets.
I think one additional argument is for course the Yemenis cannot flee to Europe, the Syrians can. So, again, it also becomes less visible. Where can the Yemenis flee when they flee by boats? Across the ocean to Somalia. So, it’s not the same as feeing from Syria over the Mediterranean to Europe.
You have written a letter to the UNSC to intervene urgently in the Yemen war. What makes you optimistic that the UNSC would do so, especially when the US and Britain are allies of Saudi Arabia, and given the fact that the Trump administration has recently green-lighted a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia (even though arms experts say that the figure may be inflated)?
We are hopeful that a letter with our key asks will be taken seriously by both the Security Council members and by the UN secretary-general and the EU high representative [Frederica Mogherini] precisely because of the urgency of getting a cholera epidemic under control. So we are saying that the half-a-million cholera-hit must be an eye opener even for western capitals that the present strategy against the Yemeni rebels has failed. So, basically we are saying that until the cholera epidemic is under control, there needs to be a countrywide ceasefire declared, payment through some kind of a trust fund for salaries to all of the doctors and nurses and teachers who are left because now there is no money in the national bank of Yemen to pay them, that all of the sanctions against civilians to supply and travel is lifted and a political process of peace talks are initiated again and we believe it is the UN, the UK and the US that has to do it.
Coming to Syria, you have called the negotiations around the Syrian conflict the most difficult in your four decades of experience in diplomacy. What is the current state of the delivery of humanitarian aid to the country? Has the Russian proposal of installing checkpoints along the humanitarian convoy routes translated to better processes on the ground?
Yes, we now have again some progress in reaching the besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria. We have a symbolically important place called Douma, which is just east of Damascus. We haven’t been there. The last time we were there with such a convoy was in the beginning of May and that was largely because of the help from Russians who helped us even in checkpoints to get us through. But today [August 21], we were supposed to go those three places called Foua and Kefraya which are Shia villages, now besieged by armed opposition groups, and Yarmouck, the Palestinian refugee camp further to the south where the rebels are inside.
Again, it is kind of a deep deal, which we do not like, namely, that things happen simultaneously in two different places – tit for tat. And it didn’t happen today. Because they have this agreement that among those who besiege on either side of the number of beneficiaries that we are allowed to help on either side. Which, again, shows that it’s not just enough that Russia says something or agrees with us, or Iran for that matter, or even the western countries supporting the armed opposition groups. There are infinite problems on the ground within the armed groups themselves. Indeed, we have been helped in some specific instances now and specific places by the Russians in Syria and that has given us some improved access over the several bad months.
(The article appears in the September 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)