Yemen's Houthi rebels are to blame for the partial suspension of the UN food agency's operations in areas under their control, the government's human rights minister told The National on Sunday, calling the rebels' actions a "war crime".
The World Food Programme (WFP) said last week that it was halting aid distribution in the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, because of a failure to reach an agreement with the Houthis on controls to prevent food being diverted from people most in need.
“The policy of systematic starvation conducted by the Houthis is a full on war crime,” Human Rights Minister Mohamed Askar said.
Food is being “stolen from the mouths of women and children”, the minister said.
Yemen’s war has devastated its economy and created what the UN says is the world's biggest humanitarian crisis, with nearly 24 million people in urgent need of assistance. Parts of the country are on the brink of being declared famine zones.
The UN food agency is attempting to feed about 12 million of Yemen’s most vulnerable at a cost to the international community of about $175 million (Dh643m) a month.
“We have pressured the international community to stop the systematic looting of humanitarian aid in Yemen but what we need now is the halting of civilian suffering,” Mr Askar said.
“The international community must take a strong stance against the rebels by pressuring the militias to finally accept peace.”
The WFP has not been able to implement agreements with the Houthis on the registration of people in need and the introduction of a biometric system – using iris scanning or facial recognition – to support aid delivery.
“We call on the international community to condemn in the strongest terms the continuation of the Houthi militias disruption of the UN’ World Food Programme’s operations in Yemen,” said a government official who asked not to be identified.
The UN is tasked with making an enormous impact in Yemen but has a very light footprint due to security concerns, meaning the international body has little visibility in distribution, said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula at the International Crisis Group.
"Civilians have been on the losing end. Many of the neediest beneficiaries had failed to receive aid in Houthi-controlled areas, while the group diverted assistance for its own benefit," she told The National.
“The curtailing of UN assistance means there will be even less to go around.”
Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni human rights activist, said the UN failed in Yemen because it ignored the warnings from the country’s civil society, especially when dealing with and funding projects through Houthi authorities.
"This resulted in a monopoly over aid by the Houthis and the vulnerable families on the ground became subjects of Houthi blackmail and harassment," Mr Shiban told The National.
Some families stopped receiving aid because they refused to let the Houthis request their children to fight in the rebel army, he said.
The WFP said its decision to suspend aid would affect 850,000 people in Sanaa.
Previous negotiations with Houthi leaders on independent access to the hungry were yet to yield results, it said.
“The decision was taken as a last resort after lengthy negotiations stalled on an agreement to introduce controls to prevent the diversion of food away from some of the most vulnerable people in Yemen,” WFP senior spokesman Herve Verhoosel said on Friday.
The agency will "maintain nutrition programmes for malnourished children, pregnant and nursing mothers throughout the period of suspension", he said.
In December, the WFP discovered that food sent for civilians in rebel-held areas was being systematically diverted through a local partner connected to Houthi authorities.
David Beasley, WFP’s executive director, told the UN Security Council last week that the aid was “being manipulated and assistance is going to the wrong people”.
“Let me be crystal clear: children are dying right now because of this,” Mr Beasley said.
The Houthis said they were “surprised” by the WFP’s accusations and accused the UN agency of taking sides in the war.
Rebel leader Mohammed Ali Al Houthi accused the agency last week of sending expired food to Yemen. He demanded the distribution of cash rather than “corrupted food”, according to the Houthi-run Al Masirah TV.
The war in Yemen broke out after Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized Sanaa in 2014, driving the internationally recognised government from the capital.
Shortly afterwards, a Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened to support the government against the rebels, who say their revolution is against corruption.