The conflict in Yemen is entering its sixth year, resulting in what is considered the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world. On 10 April, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the country. The warring parties, donor states, the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) must take immediate and urgent steps to mitigate COVID-19’s potential outbreak and catastrophic impact in Yemen.
In the face of COVID-19, civilians in Yemen are particularly and acutely vulnerable. Due to the war, the health system has been severely damaged. The warring parties have obstructed and impeded humanitarian aid. Other contagious diseases have spread, including in detention facilities. Thousands of civilians have been killed and injured; more than 3.6 million people have been internally displaced; and over 80 per cent of Yemen’s population is now dependent on humanitarian aid, including for food, shelter and other basic services. According to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, “ten million people are a step away from famine and seven million are malnourished.”
Addressing the Health, Humanitarian and Economic Crises
The health sector in Yemen has been decimated, the economy has crumbled, and the humanitarian response has been repeatedly and blatantly obstructed and interfered with by the warring parties.
The routine destruction and repeated occupation of health care facilities, as well as the killing and wounding of medical workers, has weakened Yemen’s health system, inflicted widespread suffering on civilians, and contributed to making the country increasingly vulnerable to health shocks like that posed by COVID-19. Only half the country’s health facilities are functional. Many specialists, essential equipment and supplies, including medicine, personal protective equipment and ventilators, are scarcely available. In addition, Yemen has a recent history of outbreaks of communicable diseases, with the highest recorded number of suspected cholera cases in recent history.
The warring parties have blatantly obstructed and impeded the humanitarian response throughout the conflict, as well as weaponized the economy and food.Yemeni civil servants, including some doctors and health workers, in different parts of the country have not been paid their salaries for nearly two years. In 2019, the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (GEE) concluded that “starvation may have been used as a method of warfare by all parties to the conflict.”
Some international organizations announced the suspension of certain aid to Yemen in late March as a response to Houthi interference in aid deliveries and misuse of funds . The United States, the largest donor to Yemen, decided to cut humanitarian assistance on 27 March 2020, including funding that would help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The day before Yemen’s first COVID-19 case was announced, the World Food Programme said it was set to halve aid to parts of Yemen. An end to the interference in humanitarian aid by parties to the conflict is crucial, but the withdrawal of humanitarian aid, including life-saving supplies, at a time of urgent need risks creating an escalating catastrophe in Yemen.
Unsurprisingly, those already vulnerable—the displaced, those deprived of their liberty, refugees, migrants, the sick, hungry, and poor—have been and will be hit the hardest. In calling for the immediate lifting of international sanctions to prevent hunger crises in countries hit by COVID-19, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food urged the international community “to pay particular attention to the situation of civilians trapped in conflict settings, and notably those already experiencing acute violations of their right to food, such as in Yemen.”
Releasing Arbitrarily Held and Vulnerable Detainees and Improving Detention Conditions
Hundreds of civilians, including journalists and human rights defenders, have been arbitrarily detained and disappeared by the warring parties. Conditions of detention in Yemen are abysmal. Detention facilities are overcrowded, unsanitary, and have already witnessed the spread of contagious diseases. Health care is routinely not available and in some cases all together denied to detainees, while prison systems do not have the capacity, medical supplies or resources to respond to COVID-19.
These conditions put detainees and prisoners at heightened risk in times of a pandemic. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that “in an overcrowded prison, once one person has COVID-19 it’s likely that hundreds of people will have it […] That means you’ll see a higher mortality rate in this prison population.”
In this context, the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen called on parties to take effective measures to mitigate the spread of the disease, including by releasing prisoners and detainees who are “particularly vulnerable and exposed to substantial risk” in “appalling detention conditions.” In addition, a coalition of NGOsexpressed grave concern over the situation of detainees and prisoners across the Middle East and North Africa,particularly in states where prisons and detention facilities are often overcrowded, unsanitary, and suffer from a lack of resources.
A Complete and Credible Ceasefire; an End to All Attacks against Civilians
Since September 2014 and the escalations of March 2015, the Yemeni government, Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition and its affiliated proxy forces have persistently committed serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights abuses. Abuses have included unlawful airstrikes, indiscriminate shelling, the use of landmines, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, and the recruitment of children. Various efforts to achieve peace have failed. Accountability has been absent.
On 25 March 2020, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, echoing his appeal for a global ceasefire, called “on those fighting in Yemen to immediately cease hostilities, focus on reaching a negotiated political settlement and do everything possible to counter a potential outbreak of COVID-19”. Despite the calls for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen, fighting has continued with the Houthi shelling of a prison in Taiz killing five women, two young girls and a policewoman, and wounding nine, including six other women, two girls and a civilian man in Taiz. On 9 April 2020, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition declared a unilateral two-week ceasefire in Yemen. Civil society from around the world joined the appeal for a global ceasefire, including in Yemen. Yet to date, fighting has continued in Yemen. To ensure a response to COVID-19 is in fact possible, all parties to the conflict must commit to a ceasefire.
Adopting a Human Rights-Based Response to COVID-19
While the authorities in various parts of Yemen have a responsibility to take preventive measures and other steps to protect people in areas under their control from the spread of COVID-19, any response must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Any emergency measures should be necessary and proportionate. Yemenis must be informed of such measures, which should be time bound. The enforcement of emergency measures must be carried out in line with international law and without discrimination. In times of pandemic, access to information, including transparent coverage of the humanitarian situation and the spread of the virus in Yemen, is particularly crucial .
Times of crises have been repeatedly misused by those in power in Yemen to impose unlawful restrictions. Since September 2014 when Ansar Allah seized control over Sanaa, the warring parties have closed public spaces in the country, restricted the right to expression, and attacked, harassed, and detained journalists, media workers, activists and humanitarian workers.
Considering the dire need for immediate effective measures to be taken by all parties to the conflict and third parties in the face of this pandemic, we urge:
The warring parties in Yemen, namely the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, internationally recognized government of Yemen, and Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group to:
The United Nations
Security Council and Human Rights Council
Human Rights Council
The states, particularly those with influence over the warring parties, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union and its Member States:
 The Saudi/UAE-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen’s air and seaports has delayed and blocked the entry of life-saving goods into Yemen. The Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group has obstructed the entry of critical goods into places like Taiz and imposed labyrinthian restrictions and impediments on aid responses. Armed groups affiliated with the government and coalition have stolen, looted, and impeded aid. Civil servants across the country, including health workers, have gone without or reduced salaries for years due to warring party intransigence. See, e.g. Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts
 Mwatana for Human Rights has documented incidents of the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group, as well as other warring parties, obstructing humanitarian access. See: https://mwatana.org/en/withering-life/part-two/section11/
 In response to COVID-19, the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged authorities across the globe “to greatly increase access to accurate information and statistics”, noting that: “transparency is paramount and can be life-saving in a health crisis” and called for an end to any restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression, as well as any internet and telecommunication shutdowns. See:https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22533%26LangID=E
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