Yemen’s Houthi rebels, according to multiple reports, have essentially weaponised humanitarian aid and prevented its delivery to intended beneficiaries in areas under their control.
However, the public discourse has largely overlooked the ways in which the international community has facilitated – directly or indirectly – such abuses.
From the UN's operational viewpoint, appeasement of the Houthis has occurred primarily for practical reasons. The Houthi rebels control large swathes of populated areas in which UN agencies run significant relief projects that would be put at risk of suspension should the organisation conflict with the rebels' wishes. Nearly 70 per cent of Yemen's 30 million people live in Houthi-controlled territory, with the number of people in dire need of some form of aid reaching 24 million in 2020.
In 2015, the United Nations Security Council, reaffirming support for the Yemeni government in Resolution 2216, demanded that the Houthis withdraw immediately from captured territories and relinquish military capabilities. But instead of withdrawing offices from Sanaa and relocating elsewhere – as almost all foreign embassies did – the UN maintained its main Yemeni presence in the Houthi-controlled city, in effect helping to normalise the group's coup.
Operating from areas under Houthi authority weakens the agencies’ leverage because control over aid delivery is effectively left in the rebels’ hands. The impact of Houthi authority on humanitarian functions is a result of its control over issuing visas, security clearances and monitoring of operations, as well as the group’s insistence on regular liaison.
The Houthis can use this control to choke the aid pipeline as they see fit.
As The National has reported previously, the Houthis have used their leverage over humanitarian aid to enrich themselves. "They are giving the aid to Houthi fighters instead of giving it to those in desperate need and the rebels are using it as a weapon of war," Hamza Al Kamaly, Yemen's deputy youth minister, was quoted as saying.
The group also targets and detains aid workers to use as bargaining chips. For instance, the Houthis refused to renew a visa for the head of the UN Human Rights Office in Yemen in June 2018. It also confiscated a World Health Organisation staffer’s laptops and external drives, which were thought to contain evidence on aid corruption.
Although UN agencies such as the WFP, WHO and Unicef claimed strict monitoring of funds, they transferred an unaudited total of $133m of direct transfers worth $370m, according to the Associated Press.
In November, the Houthis established a Supreme Council for Management and Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Co-operation, and later demanded that international organisations pay a two per cent tax on total incoming aid.
The international aid community has also appeased the rebels by acknowledging their control over the city of Hodeida and its three strategic ports – Hodeida, Salif and Ras Issa – on allegedly humanitarian grounds, to safeguard supply lifelines. This maintained revenues coming through the port of Hodeida, but it weakened the government’s ability in paying salaries, contrary to Resolution 2216.
A global outcry over the situation ultimately led to the conclusion of the collapsing Stockholm Agreement, and a November 2019 briefing by the UN Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, showed that the Houthis generated “more than 15 billion Yemeni riyals in just two weeks” through customs at Hodeida.
In May 2020, the Yemeni Foreign Ministry decried the Houthi looting of “fees of oil imports” worth 35bn Yemeni riyals deposited into the so-called UN-monitored special account in the Central Bank branch in Hodeida. The amount was meant to be salaries for civil servants, and may have been diverted before Mr Griffiths informed the UNSC that the Houthis would withdraw funds from the account.
The Houthis also used the port to receive Iranian-smuggled oil worth nearly $293m in 2018, and reportedly made a monthly income of $30m-$40m from mainly taxes and customs. Furthermore, about 70 per cent of humanitarian aid and imported goods entered through Hodeida that year, with several Yemeni traders acting as contractors, some of whom are reportedly linked to the Houthis.
A recent video showing negotiations between Lise Grande, the UN's resident co-ordinator in Yemen, and Mohammed Ali Al Houthi, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, revealed the level of flexibility that UN agencies adopt with the rebels, inadvertently leading to the large-scale diversion of aid.
“We admire, we respect, we celebrate the commitment from your leadership, government and movement,” Ms Grande told Mr Al Houthi in the aftermath of appalling reports on the weaponisation of aid.
UN agencies and NGOs have refrained from pointing fingers at Houthi violations, often using broad terms to characterise incidents or acknowledging allegations only once they become uncontrollable in the media cycle.
For example, a coalition of NGOs rightly condemned the targeting of Al Thawra Hospital in August 2018, but failed to mention that the Houthi deployment of snipers on the hospital's rooftop had effectively rendered it a military post.
Furthermore, Mr Griffith’s Security Council briefing in March expressed concern over ongoing military escalations in Nihm, Jawf, Dale and Marib without holding the perpetrators – the Houthis – responsible.
Between 2015 and 2019, the international community dedicated a combined $15bn to respond to what the UN called “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world". Of this amount, UN agencies managed projects worth only $9.6bn, and no one knows “how those funds are actually used", according to Medecins Sans Frontieres, a medical charity. Furthermore, no one knows to what extent registered beneficiaries actually received the humanitarian assistance.
In December 2017, a coalition of aid groups firmly rejected these and other accusations of misusing or squandering aid. But just two weeks after the Yemeni government and the Houthis concluded the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, WFP director David Beasley acknowledged aid misuse. Mr Beasley lambasted the Houthis for "stealing" relief aid "from the mouths of hungry people". In seven Sanaa-based centres, for example, 60 per cent of beneficiaries "had not received any assistance".
In February 2020, the Houthis publicly hijacked a WFP warehouse in Aslam, in Hajjah province, and stole 115 tonnes of food while intensifying their military activities in the governorate of Jawf.
No reliable and in-depth data on the extent of aid abuse exist.
Over the course of the conflict, which is now in its sixth year, UN agencies and NGOs have, directly and inadvertently, contributed to the Houthi war effort, thus considerably undermining humanitarian principles of operational independence, neutrality and humanity, and becoming integral to war economy. The Houthis for their part have adopted restrictive measures to test how shallow the water of the international community is – and it has been very shallow indeed.
With the 2020 high-level pledging conference raising $1.35bn in June (48 per cent less than what was raised last year), the game-changing question is not how much more money to pledge. Rather, it is how to reduce the Houthis' political hijacking of NGOs, adopt stricter monitoring and verification measures and deliver aid effectively to Yemen’s neediest.
Ibrahim Jalal is a non-resident scholar of the Gulf and Yemen Programme at the Middle East Institute