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Yemen: Get Aid to Trapped Civilians

UN Humanitarian Chief Should Use Visit to Highlight Plight of 150,000 in War Zone


Yemeni authorities should allow aid agencies to help up to 150,000 civilians trapped by fierce fighting in northern Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. A visit to Yemen on October 7 and 8, 2009, by John Holmes, the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, can play an important role in bringing the appalling humanitarian consequences of this conflict to the world's attention, Human Rights Watch said.

In a letter sent to Holmes on October 1, Human Rights Watch urged him to call on the Yemeni authorities to facilitate aid agencies' access to civilians in desperate need of food, water, shelter and health care. Holmes is the most senior UN representative to visit Yemen to address the humanitarian impact of the five-year-long conflict between the government and Huthi rebels. According to the UN, the fighting has displaced up to 150,000 people, most of whom remain beyond the reach of humanitarian assistance.

"Fighting and government restrictions means tens of thousands of civilians in northern Yemen are cut off from help that they desperately need," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to help aid agencies reach civilians, not throw up obstacles in their way."

Human Rights Watch urged Holmes to call on donors to respond generously to a UN appeal for US $23.7 million to help those affected. To date, only $3 million has been pledged. A November 2008 Human Rights Watch report, "Invisible Civilians," concluded that government restrictions on humanitarian assistance during the conflict had placed civilians at risk.

According to the UN, as of late September, aid agencies were unable to reach well over 100,000 civilians fleeing the fighting. Some agencies have sporadically been able to help thousands of the displaced who have found shelter in four camps in the town of Sa'da, inside the conflict zone, in Hajjah governorate or elsewhere outside Sa'da governorate. The vast majority of the displaced live with needy host families, in barns and public buildings such as schools and clinics, under bridges, and under open skies on the side of roads. Almost all face food shortages, and many cannot get clean water.

Neither the government nor the rebels have responded to UN calls to open humanitarian corridors. Authorities in Saudi Arabia have forcibly returned Yemeni refugees to the war zone. Civilians escaping the fighting said they had to walk for days through barren mountain terrain to safety because roads were blocked by armed groups or cut off by fighting.

As of late September, witness accounts and credible reports by Yemeni human rights organizations indicated that both sides have failed to take all feasible steps to avoid harming civilians and their property, in violation of the laws of war. Huthi forces may have deployed their forces within densely populated areas, unlawfully putting civilians at unnecessary risk. Government forces may have violated the laws of war in at least three separate incidents involving aerial bombardment that resulted in scores of civilian deaths. Human Rights Watch called on both sides to protect the civilian population in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law.

Human Rights Watch asked Holmes to call on Saudi authorities to immediately stop forcing refugees back into Yemen. Such actions violate the international legal prohibition on forced return to places where their lives or freedom is threatened.

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.