By Yvonne Pan
In September 2014, the Houthi armed movement of northern Yemen took control of the capital city, Sanaa, before quickly overthrowing the Yemeni government. The uprising marked an escalation of long-brewing religious and cultural conflicts—the Houthis had risen up against the government six times between 2004 and 2010. In response, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition launched a military operation intended to restore the ousted government to power, due to the perception that Iran — which seeks to oppose Saudi control of the region—had influence over the Houthis.
For the people of Yemen, however, the conflict has created an even greater concern: the Saudi-led coalition has implemented blockades and import restrictions, which have driven up the price of food in a country heavily reliant on agricultural imports. Moreover, a third of the coalition’s airstrikes have targeted non-military infrastructure, including those crucial to the food supply chain. Compounded by a crash of the Yemeni Rial, the resulting famine remains one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world years into the war, with millions at risk of starvation.
Billions of dollars have been given to humanitarian aid organizations with the intent of easing the famine; however, controversial incidents suggest that organizations have not maintained the neutrality necessary when it comes to the sourcing and management of aid. Specifically, the fulfillment of their humanitarian missions may often involve interactions with the warring parties, from acquiring funding to appeasing their unreasonable demands.
The Importance of Principled Aid
To examine this issue of humanitarian neutrality in Yemen, it is necessary to first define “neutrality,” as well as understand its importance. The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) defines four principles of humanitarianism: first, human suffering must be addressed wherever present; second, humanitarian actors must not take part in hostilities or ideological controversies; third, aid must be given on the basis of need and need alone; fourth, aid must be separate from non-humanitarian objectives that any actor may hold in the area. The latter three principles can be especially crucial for the safety of humanitarian workers and the continuation of their work—should a humanitarian organization, even with the intention of reaching more people in need, be perceived as favoring one side of the conflict by obliging unreasonable demands, focusing on certain populations, etc., its workers can become seen as combatants loyal to a particular warring party, exposing them to hostilities. This was the case when five staff members of Médecins Sans Frontières were murdered in Afghanistan, leading to the organization’s withdrawal from the region. The Taliban spokesperson who claimed responsibility cited the Taliban’s belief that Médecins Sans Frontières works for American interests and therefore denouncing them as targets for the Taliban. When engaging populations in conflict zones, the ability of humanitarian organizations to keep their workers safe and able to deliver aid can depend on their ability to appear neutral.
Threats to Humanitarian Neutrality in Yemen
And yet, the interests of combatant parties can easily become intertwined with the interests of humanitarian organizations, because the latter may be reliant on combatant parties for funding or access to those in need. This appears to be the case in Yemen.
Firstly, despite being combatants in the Yemeni conflict, a majority of humanitarian aid to the country comes from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the United States and the United Kingdom, which have supported the Saudi-led coalition politically and logistically, have also each contributed hundreds of millions of dollars. The guidance around combatants being donors to humanitarian efforts is not well defined, and while an organization can attempt to use these funds in a neutral, independent manner, it nonetheless becomes vulnerable to the perception that it is acting on behalf of of one side to the conflict. At the same time, any and all funding is valuable to a humanitarian mission, making it understandable that organizations are reluctant to refuse money from combatant parties.
On the opposite side of the civil war, the Houthis appear to have taken steps to obstruct aid and bend it to benefit their interests, often in the form of unreasonable demands and actions to which aid organizations must acquiesce for the sake of continuing their operations. For the purposes of this analysis, a warring party’s demand may be defined as unreasonable if it would cause the organization to violate the latter three humanitarian principles laid out by OCHA. Consequently, an organization that acquisces to such demands may not appear to be fully independent in its actions.
Notably, the Houthis have allegedly manipulated aid organizations’ beneficiaries’ lists—which determines who receives aid—in areas under their control, favoring supporters and families of wounded or killed soldiers. As there is only so much aid available, this preferential treatment would lead to others in equal or greater need to get much less than their fair share. Allowing this would be a violation of the third and fourth humanitarian principles: aid must be given out based on need alone, and humanitarian action must be independent of an actor’s non-humanitarian agenda in the area. At the same time, the Houthis have demanded sensitive information like the identities of aid recipients from organizations, presenting another violation of the fourth principle. In interviews, aid workers have expressed that humanitarian agencies are sacrificing their independence in order to deliver any aid at all, as Houthis have threatened international workers with movement and permit denials, visa rejections and expulsions, and other obstructions if they don’t comply with their demands.
The above examples of threats to humanitarian neutrality present an issue that has already caused difficulties for the humanitarian response in Yemen, and which may continue to do so if solutions are not implemented. On one occasion in 2017, for instance, an organization implemented a project funded by the aforementioned Saudi aid effort. The project took place in Ibb, an area under Houthi control, meaning that the Saudi Arabian flag accompanying the project undermined the organization’s reputation and complicated its ability to carry out activities. And as previously described, food that was meant for those in need have allegedly been diverted to support Houthi combat efforts, and beneficiary lists have been tampered with, leading humanitarian aid to be associated with supporting a party to the conflict. However, threats of further obstruction from the Houthis have hampered aid organizations’ capacity to respond.
Approaches for Humanitarian Organizations
Two general approaches provide a starting point for aid organizations: place more scrutiny on the distribution of aid, and raise awareness on compromises to neutrality (instead of using neutrality as an excuse not to speak out).
While it may be necessary to accept funding from warring parties, aid organizations should ensure that the process by which aid is distributed thereafter is not associated with any warring party. Broadly, this means that between the reception of funding and the disbursement of aid, only humanitarian workers would be allowed to handle said aid. In doing so, humanitarian organizations would be better able to “brand” themselves as neutral when working in territories controlled by a hostile force, avoiding the circumstances of Médecins Sans Frontières in Afghanistan or the Saudi-funded mission in Ibb.
At the same time, aid organizations faced with obstructionist demands should speak out by alerting donors and the public, instead of defining neutrality as staying silent. Despite armed groups’ exploitative practices against humanitarian aid, organizations have failed to condemn them on a wider basis. Workers and officials have expressed that one interpretation of the principle of neutrality informs the silence approach, but that approach only perpetuates the exploitation of aid. Here, it must be argued that allowing a warring power to dictate how and to whom a humanitarian organization delivers aid is far from maintaining neutrality, as doing so benefits certain combatants. For aid organizations, the most effective way to combat obstructionist demands is to raise donor awareness, as donors hold the ultimate influence over aid. The efficacy of such an approach was seen in early 2020, when the Houthi-owned Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation demanded that each of the UN’s humanitarian programs pay a two percent tax on each of the UN’s humanitarian programs. As a result of international aid groups speaking out, donors suspended funding to operations in Houthi-controlled areas, leading the tax plan to be put on hold.
In conclusion, the ongoing conflict in Yemen calls for a neutral, principled response from humanitarian aid organizations as they work to help those devastated by the resulting famine. Neutrality holds great importance here, as perceptions that an organization is favoring one party to the conflict can have detrimental effects on its mission. However, war-conflicted funding sources and unreasonable demands mean that aid organizations must take a more proactive stance towards maintaining their neutrality.
Yvonne Pan is a writer for the Human Rights & Development team and currently a first-year undergraduate at the University of Washington College of Arts & Sciences.