“Yemen’s Hodeidah has become an alarming humanitarian tragedy.”
This is the article headline, the label that Newsweek and the writer have given us: HOW THE HOUTHIS HAVE PROVOKED A HUMAN DISASTER IN YEMEN
There is a reason for this absurdity: The Hodeidah port is still under the control of the Houthis, an Iranian-backed militia that took control by force areas in Yemen in their failed attempt to overthrow the government in September 2014.
Houthi = bad guys. But! Is this the right label? According to a special report by IRIN News:
Imports into the port of Hodeidah have slowed drastically over the course of the war due to restrictions imposed on vessels by the Saudi-led coalition in addition to damage to port facilities as a result of the conflict. Hodeidah is said to be ‘functioning at minimal capacity’ with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) expecting the country’s stocks of wheat and sugar to run out by the end of April.
I expected better than Newsweek. They have published a purely propaganda piece from Yemen’s ambassador to the US. The ambassador blames the Houthi for taking revenue from illegitimate taxes and customs on incoming goods, creating black markets to fund their war efforts, and corruptly managing aid.
He left out a vital detail – The Saudi-led coalition, the one his ousted President Hadi government has allied with, is preventing aid from even getting into the city. What goods are coming in to even be taxed?
The report by the UN Security Council cited by the ambassador was by a panel that did not even meet with the Houthi. Now, that could be the Houthi’s own fault, but anyway… this report was still written without their input. The UN only met with representatives from the ousted Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia. Despite that, the very same report by the UN Security Council explains the part that the ambassador left out of his opinion article in Newsweek – the Saudi blockade on ships and airplanes on cities such as Hodeidah:
The coalition has already imposed a maritime and air blockade of areas controlled by Houthi-Saleh forces with an inspection regime whereby ships and aeroplanes are required to obtain clearance from the Evacuation and Humanitarian Operations Cell within the Ministry of Defence of Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh.
Here is the part of the report where the panel mentions the black market on fuel. While the ambassador claims that this is hurting Hodeidah, the panel is of the opinion that the Saudi-led coalition (again… this is the ambassador’s ally) is responsible for this black market because of their fuel restrictions on port cities:
From the end of July to 6 October, the Minister of Transport imposed restrictions on fuel imports to the Red Sea ports of Yemen under Houthi control (Mocha, Hudaydah and Salif). Consequently, shortages of fuel in areas controlled by Houthi-Saleh forces contributed to a flourishing black market, with fuel sold at prices four to six times higher than normal.43 Accordingly, the Houthis, who control the fuel market in their areas, have also taken advantage of the price increase.
The Security Council linked the obstruction of humanitarian assistance to acts threatening the peace, security or stability of Yemen. There is also, however, a clear link between the humanitarian context and the impact of the implementation of the arms embargo by the coalition on commercial and humanitarian shipments to Yemen.
Humanitarian actors do not have the capacity to provide for the large amounts of required food, medicine and fuel, all of which have been substantively affected by the impact of the commercial blockade. One clear example has been the impact of the shortage of fuel, which has had a knock-on effect on electricity supplies, water pumping, hospitals and inflation, having a negative impact on purchasing power in a domestic black market system where the prices of basic essentials are exorbitant.
Who is responsible for airstrikes on Hodeidah, which impacts humanitarian aid? And rises fuel prices? This is the fault of the Saudi-led coalition, ambassador, not the Houthi:
Between 1 April and 17 August, the number of shipments into Yemen rapidly decreased, compounded by the coalition’s security delays. Coalition air strikes on infrastructure at the port of Hudaydah on 17 August limited access to berths and created delays in offloading cargo, severely impeding commercial and relief operations in August and September, exacerbating humanitarian conditions and increasing the prices of food, fuel and other basic commodities. The bombing of the airport in Sana’a delayed flights and humanitarian cargo for 10 days.
The panel’s report places blame on the situation for the humanitarian situation on the Houthi in Aden, not Hodeidah. This does not mean that the Houthi are the good guys here. This means that neither are the good guys, but the Houthi cannot in particular be blamed for the problems in Hodeidah as the ambassador pointed out. He’s got the wrong city:
Attacks on sea and air routes into the country have resulted in further obstructions to the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The Houthi-Saleh shelling of the port of Aden, along with the overall conduct of hostilities, has also had a negative impact.
Houthi-Saleh forces have systematically besieged Aden and Ta‘izz and attacked humanitarian service providers and their facilities, obstructing the distribution of aid and humanitarian assistance. 101 The sieges were undertaken by blocking roads and access routes and resulted in shortages of food, water and medical supplies.
And it seems that the Houthi aren’t the only ones starting black markets for selling aid supplies. Resistance members with the ambassador’s government forces have done the same in other cities:
In addition, the Panel documented obstruction of humanitarian assistance through the sale of aid on the black market in Ibb and Sana’a by Houthi-Saleh forces and in Aden by members of the resistance.
The Houthis obtain funds based on the Islamic zakat practice by imposing a khums tax, equivalent to 20 per cent of earned profit, on all merchants and farmers. The Panel collected testimony indicating that the tax was imposed on khat farmers, especially in the cities of Sa‘dah, Amran and Sana’a.
Khat is a drug and the plant uses a lot of water to grow it. Perhaps this is a way for the Houthi to encourage farmers to grow food, which is very much needed.
Where the report points out how both parties are at fault in other ways, yet the ambassador used it as evidence that only the Houthi are at fault:
The Panel has observed that not a single humanitarian pause to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people has been fully observed by any Yemeni party or by the coalition. By their failure to engage in good faith, the Yemeni parties to the conflict and all participants in the United Nations-brokered consultations, including members of the Sana’a and Riyadh delegations, bear responsibility for obstructing the cessation of hostilities and the resumption of the political process.
Concerning the first pause, the President conveyed his written acceptance to the Secretary-General and added that he had notified the coalition; however, the pause, which was to begin at midnight on 11 July, never entered into effect. United Nations officials reported that they had observed an air strike in Sana’a just two hours after the announced start of the pause. The Panel noted that the second pause was also violated by all parties at its outset, according to media outlets, and that fighting even intensified in Hajjah and Jawf, according to some press reports.
In the view of the Panel, all Yemeni parties to the conflict and all participants in the two consultations, including members of the Sana’a and Riyadh delegations, bear responsibility for obstructing the cessation of hostilities and the resumption of the political process by failing to act in good faith.
All parties to the conflict in Yemen have violated the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, including through their use of heavy explosive weapons in, on and around residential areas and civilian objects, in contravention of international humanitarian law. The use of such attacks in a widespread or systematic manner has the potential to meet the legal criteria for a finding of a crime against humanity.
Most recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated, with regard to the conduct of hostilities in Yemen, that he had “observed with extreme concern the continuation of heavy shelling from the ground and the air in areas with a high concentration of civilians, as well as the continued destruction of civilian infrastructure — in particular hospitals and schools — by all parties to the conflict, although a disproportionate share appeared to be the result of air strikes carried out by coalition forces.” Accordingly, that Houthi-Saleh combatants are positioned in residential areas, in violation of international humanitarian law, does not suspend the coalition’s obligation to respect international humanitarian law when undertaking military objectives.
The report lists A LOT of violations against humanitarian laws by both parties, but I want to point out this one in particular on the city of Saada since the ambassador sees this as a pro-government document. Entire cities or governorates cannot be considered military objects, even with attempts to provide advance warning.
On 8 May, the entire city of Sa‘dah and region of Maran were declared “military targets” by the coalition. Sa‘dah remains one of the most systematically targeted and devastated cities in Yemen, attributable to coalition air strikes and the targeting of the entire city in direct violation of international humanitarian law.
Here is one of the examples of violations against international humanitarian laws by the Houthi (so I have one of each):
The Panel documented systematic shooting of protesters, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture of detainees, summary extrajudicial executions, disappearances and a case of defilement of a corpse in the city of Ibb, an area of strong protest and activism against the presence of Houthi-Saleh forces. The Panel also recorded attacks on the homes of political opposition figures and the raiding of offices of local officials in Ibb.
The panel also concluded that both parties are recruiting child soldiers, though it’s believed that the Houthi are responsible for the majority of that recruitment.
It is so easy to label one party as responsible for a bad situation. You can read that document by the UN panel and use it as the ambassador did – pick out only the parts that suit your cause. The Houthi could look like complete villains. Or you could read it from the other perspective and the Saudi-led coalition that the ambassador has sided with looks like monsters. It’s a shame that Newsweek shared this opinion piece that used this rational, fairly independent report (despite not meeting both parties) to paint such an unfair picture of their opponent. How many of Newsweek’s readers will click that link provided to the report?
This is a good lesson for anyone reading the news. Don’t always accept the label provided. In this case, Newsweek gives you everything you need to dig deeper.