Special Report:

Yemen: An Unseen Humanitarian Plight (1): Food and Health

By Madinahan Batyrova


The conflict in Yemen is a direct product of the wave of revolutions in the Middle East, the Arab Spring 2011. What began as a revolution to overthrow the authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh, turned into a civil and proxy war. The civil war is an ongoing conflict that began as two factions clashed over the establishment of a central government in Yemen. As a result, the Houthi factions took control of Sana’a and the others loyal to Abdrabbun Mansur Hadi, took a hold of Aden, thus separating the country into two sections in a constant battle with one another. Houthis, centered in Sana’a, have also gained control over neighboring cities such as Taiz creating a battleground to attack Saudi Arabian borders with mortars and missiles.

Peace talks began in Kuwait, following a cessation of aggressions, however, on ground fighting and airstrikes persisted. Efforts to reach an agreement between the parties failed in negotiation processes in August 2016. Additionally, no investigations were carried out on the alleged violations on the civilians by any of the parties. The UN as well has failed at three instances to conclude a peace deal between the conflicting parties. Third party interventions also occurred as jihadist militants such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) seized territories in the south carrying out lethal attacks on Aden and other cities. In 2015, al-Qaeda seized Mukalla, one of the largest cities in Yemen, and launched attacks on Houthi. In 2016, Emirati troops aligned with Yemenis counterattacked al-Qaeda forces removing them from Mukalla. In December 2014, the Islamic State formed a Wilaya (federal state) in Yemen, the following year it too carried out attacks on civilians by suicide bombings in two mosques in Sana’a, where Zaydi Shia Muslims prayed, killing more than 140 people.

In November 2017, the Anti-Houthi coalition tightened the blockade on Yemen when a ballistic missile was launched against Riyadh. The coalition also claimed it will stop the smuggling of weapons imported by Iran by tightening the blockade, however, according to UN this would potentially result in a severe famine in Yemen.

In March 26, 2018, in more than 40,000 casualties, it is estimated that at least 10,000 Yemenis have been killed. Numbers are hard to obtain, as the conflict is ongoing and little information is transferred, however according to Save The Children, at least 50,000 children died in 2017 alone, 130 children dying a day.

Many Yemenis have been displaced as a result of the war; according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) an estimated number of more than 3 million Yemenis have been displaced within the country itself and 280,000 fled to seek refuge in other countries.

The conditions in Yemen are very harsh as the lack of food, water, and other necessities have proved to be fatal to the fate of Yemenis, however, Yemeni refugees in other countries are also facing such challenges, lack of food, inadequate shelter, and health issues.

As reported by UN:

  • About 75% of the population – 22.2 million people – are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 11.3 million people in acute need who urgently require immediate assistance to survive – an increase of 1 million since June 2017.
  • Some 17.8 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from and 8.4 million are considered at risk of starvation. Severe acute malnutrition is threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children under the age of five.
  • With only half of the country’s 3,500 health facilities fully functioning, at least 16.4 million people are lacking basic healthcare.
  • Medics have struggled to cope with the world’s largest cholera outbreak, which has resulted in more than 1 million suspected cases and 2,248 associated deaths since April 2017.

Attacks on Health and Restrictions on Humanitarian Access:

The conflict has left more than 80 percent of the population in need of humanitarian aid. The blockade implemented by the conflicting parties have cut off humanitarian assistance from reaching the civilians in need causing a famine and a grave medical crisis.

Several forces are creating obstacles for aid organizations to provide and transfer aid to the civilians in need. Houthi forces in Taiz are blocking the delivery of medical aid in the south. According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia has also warned aid groups to leave the seized areas claiming they are at risk. In 2015, Human Rights Watch accused the Saudi-led coalition of attacking a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders injuring at least six people. In 2016, four people were killed when a rocket hit a hospital under the operation of Doctors without Borders. Following these attacks, the organization removed their staff out of six hospitals in Yemen.

According to OHCHR, as of 2016, over 600 health facilities have closed due to damage caused by the conflict, shortage of critical supplies and lack of health workers.

Not only are the armed groups blocking the transfer of medical aid but also confiscating the supplies from the civilians, further deteriorating the health crisis.

The coalition has imposed a naval blockade on Yemen, limiting the importation of vital goods like fuel, which is urgently needed to power generators to hospitals and pump water to civilian residences. In August 2016, the coalition suspended all commercial flights to Sanaa. This is “having serious implications for patients seeking urgent medical treatment abroad,” according to the UN.

Legal Characterization of the plight:

Geneva Convention (IV); relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.

  • ARTICLE 10[ Link ] 
    The provisions of the present Convention constitute no obstacle to the humanitarian activities which the International Committee of the Red Cross or any other impartial humanitarian organization may, subject to the consent of the Parties to the conflict concerned, undertake for the protection of civilian persons and for their relief.
  • ARTICLE 14[ Link ] 
    In time of peace, the High Contracting Parties and, after the outbreak of hostilities, the Parties thereto, may establish in their own territory and, if the need arises, in occupied areas, hospital and safety zones and localities so organized as to protect from the effects of war, wounded, sick and aged persons, children under fifteen, expectant mothers and mothers of children under seven.
  • ARTICLE 16[ Link ] 
    “The wounded and sick, as well as the infirm, and expectant mothers, shall be the object of particular protection and respect..”
    Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.
  • ARTICLE 23[ Link ] 
    Each High Contracting Party shall allow the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores and objects necessary ….It shall likewise permit the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases.
  • ARTICLE 30[ Link ] 
    Protected persons shall have every facility for making application to the Protecting Powers, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the National Red Cross (Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun) Society of the country where they may be, as well as to any organization that might assist them.
    These several organizations shall be granted all facilities for that purpose by the authorities, within the bounds set by military or security considerations.
  • ARTICLE 3[ Link ] 

In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:
(2) The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.

Food Crisis: Famine in Yemen

As UN warned earlier, the blockade imposed on Yemen could potentially cause food shortages in the country. However the food and other necessary supply shortages evolved into a famine in which it is estimated that at least 17 million people are under the threat of starvation, of which at least 3 million children and women, pregnant and lactating, are suffering from acute malnutrition.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has classified the famine in Yemen to be of “biblical proportions”.

Food shortages along with lack of medical aid, have resulted in the outbreak of cholera, which is an infectious disease that causes severe watery diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and even death if untreated, It is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with a bacterium called Vibrio cholera, instigating 5,000 cases daily.

The blockade on fuel shipments affected the agriculture as farmers became unable to produce.

According to reports collected from multiple sources, at least 50,000 children died from starvation in 2017. Despite international pressure and criticism, the parties to the conflict refused to lower the blockade and persistently carried out attacks on hospitals and public spaces killing civilians, which were pertained to be deliberate and systematic accounting to a genocide.

The international framework recognizes preemptory value to the conventions and laws regarding the health and safety of civilians in times of conflict. Yet despite the primacy recognized to these conventions, their provisions are disregarded and violated, such conventions include:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 25 Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

Article 10.3

Special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons without any discrimination for reasons of parentage or other conditions. Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labour should be prohibited and punishable by law.


Article 11

  1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.
  2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

Article 12

  1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
  2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:

(a) The provision for the reduction of the stillbirth-rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child;

(b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene;

(c) The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases;

(d) The creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.

Although famine can occur as a result of natural phenomena, poverty, or other factors, in the case of Yemen, the severe famine is defined to be of deliberate action employed as a tactic to push national interests and goals in the regional power politics.

Justice in Action calls the parties of the conflict in Yemen to act in respect to the international covenants which bound them by customary law and especially highlights their obligations to protect the rights of the civilians in times of war and peace.

The abuses civilians have suffered amount to not only human rights violations in the international legal framework but they have reach disparaging levels of crimes against humanity and war crimes. JA calls for these crimes to be thoroughly investigated and the cases to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

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