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The UN's role in alleviating humanitarian crises: the case of Yemen

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The UN's role in alleviating humanitarian crises: the case of Yemen

November 30, 2020

by Greta Sanna from The London School of Economics

Image of Yemen

For numerous years now Yemen is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises the contemporary world has seen. This has inevitably led the United Nations to focus their attention to this region of the world, exploring the root causes of the tragedy and evaluating initiatives to attenuate it. In a desperate need to reduce fatalities, the UN has employed numerous resources to this cause, but what have been the results obtained by the recent efforts to prevent famine, support the civilians’ safety and find a peaceful solution? Comprehensively, it is undisputed that the UN’s humanitarian role in Yemen has been crucial to the alleviation of famine and the mediation of peace, and that without the organisation the consequences of war could have been extremely detrimental to the population.

In a time of unceasing conflict and under the threat of the current global pandemic, Yemen is in desperate need of foreign aid. As stated by WFP Spokesperson Herve Verhoosel “Today twenty million Yemenis – some 70 per cent of the population – are food insecure, marking a 13 per cent increase from last year”. As outlined in the August 2020 WFP report, these numbers add up to around 10 million people being one step away from famine. These figures have further been exacerbated by a year of severe flooding which has damaged roads, bridges and electricity grids hindering foreign aid. In this current climate, the United Nations have taken an uncompromising position to allow for the provision of food and medical treatments to the region. To allow for unimpeded humanitarian access the organisation faced increasing challenges due to the restrictions placed by the Ansar Allah authorities. In late 2017, there have been concrete steps, including several peaceful negotiations with Houthi leaders, to reopen Sana’a airport to humanitarian flights granting access to aid personnel and cargo. Namely, reopening the airport has allowed for numerous Yemeni patients to return to their country after having travelled to neighbouring ones for medical treatment. Opening sites of entry to the region also allowed for food imports to remain largely stable in recent months, diminishing the impact of the ongoing famine crisis.

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Although the successful provision of goods to attenuate famine can be considered a proud accomplishment for the UN, there is a consensus that more long term solutions are necessary to effectively manage the ongoing humanitarian crisis, including initiatives for conflict resolution. For this reason, since the uprisings in Yemen broke out in early 2011, the United Nations has been engaged, through the good offices of the Secretary-General, in helping Yemenis to find a peaceful solution. The United Nations provided support for the negotiations between the Government and the opposition, which resulted in the signing of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative and its Implementation Mechanism in Riyadh on 23 November 2011. Additionally, the organisation has since managed an active engagement with the entirety of Yemeni political groupings to advocate for peace and stability through dialogue and negotiations in accordance with Security Council resolution. More specifically, resolution 2216 (2015) demanded that all Yemeni parties, to refrain from further unilateral actions that could undermine the political transition in Yemen, and further demanded that the Houthis immediately and unconditionally end the use of violence. Enabled by the cooperative efforts of the signatory countries, the resolution passed almost unanimously with 14 votes. Following, a brief truce took place, regrettably not a durable one.

As the sparks of conflict have reignited in 2020, Yemen is once again succumbing to the turmoil of war.  However, this time the hardships are considerably Sisyphean, as Yemen has to face two fronts: a war and a pandemic. “Now, more than ever, all political actors must cooperate in good faith, refrain from taking escalatory actions, and put the interests of Yemenis first”, stresses UN Special Envoy for Yemen Mr. Griffiths. On March 23rd, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued an urgent appeal for a global ceasefire in all corners of the world to focus together on the true fight – defeating COVID-19. Following an appeal by Guterres, Yemen Government troops, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, announced a unilateral ceasefire on the 8th of April for an initial two-week period. After a number of strenuous negotiations the Stockholm Agreement finally came into being. A historic outcome of the talks which marked the first time in two years that the internationally-recognized Government and the Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, had come to the negotiating table, to talk face-to-face. The Stockholm Agreement resulted in a ceasefire in the rebel-held but contested port of Hudaydah, on the Red Sea, vital for the flow of food and humanitarian aid into Yemen. The hopeful outcome of these negotiations not only crystallized the long-awaited prospect of peace but has also taken a significant step towards alleviating the current humanitarian crisis. Therefore, as a result of the UN’s efforts to facilitate platforms for dialogue and consensus, an effective mediation of the conflict was achieved. As stated by Griffiths “People’s lives have been saved, the humanitarian programme has been protected, and I think it also showed that the parties could actually agree on a different way out of a crisis.”

Retaining as prime focus the debilitation of war and the country’s subsequent recovery, the United Nations is undoubtedly central to Yemen’s fate. With these objectives in mind, the organisation needs individuals to negotiate and mitigate conflict but also to establish the provision of goods and restore structures and institutions such as schools and roads. Specialised staff and open-minded professionals are necessary to effectively provide the foreign support developed countries are responsible for. It is crucial for the countries in need such as Yemen, that the United Nations take part at the negotiating table. Consequently, it is key that individuals are willing to undertake a job that encompasses these responsibilities and has a concrete impact on the current socio-political world. The role will involve a number of obstacles, but the rewards will come with the awareness of saving lives and counseling for a world of peace and prosperity.

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