The United Nations chief has warned of a “death sentence” for Yemen as an international donor conference yielded less than half the funds needed to fund urgently needed humanitarian programmes and prevent a devastating famine in the war-ravaged country.
The UN had appealed for $3.85bn at Monday’s virtual pledging event that was co-hosted by Sweden and Switzerland, but just $1.7bn was offered.
“Millions of Yemeni children, women and men desperately need aid to live. Cutting aid is a death sentence,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement, describing the outcome as “disappointing”.
“The best that can be said about today is that it represents a down payment. I thank those who did pledge generously, and I ask others to consider again what they can do to help stave off the worst famine the world has seen in decades,” Guterres said.
The outcome of today’s pledging event for Yemen is disappointing.
I thank those who pledged generously & ask others to consider again what they can do to help stave off the worst famine the world has seen in decades.
The @UN stands with the starving people of Yemen.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) March 1, 2021
Yemen’s war broke out in late 2014 when the Houthi rebels seized large swaths of the country, including the capital, Sanaa. The fighting escalated in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates assembled a United States-backed military coalition in an attempt to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
What Saudi leaders thought would be a quick military intervention has turned into a protracted conflict that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN. Both fighting sides have been accused of war crimes during the grinding conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and pushed millions of people to the brink of starvation.
Last year’s humanitarian funding had dropped to half of what was needed and half of what was received the year before, according to the UN.
More than 100 governments and donors took part on Monday’s conference. Some of the headline pledges, including $191m from the US and Saudi Arabia’s $430m, were smaller than last year’s donations. However, Germany offered 200 million euros ($241m), compared to $138m last year.
Shrinking humanitarian budgets last year forced the closure of many programmes including health services and food distribution, heaping hardship on a country where some two-thirds of the population relies on some form of aid to survive.
According to the latest UN data, more than 16 million Yemenis – about half the population – will face hunger this year. Nearly 50,000 are already starving to death in famine-like conditions.
The world body has warned that 400,000 Yemeni children under the age of five could die from acute malnutrition.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam hit out at the pledges, saying it was a whitewashing attempt for those countries involved in the conflict.
“The conference … does not help Yemen as much as it helps the aggressor nations by giving them the opportunity to cleanse their record and present themselves as donor countries,” he said in a tweet.
‘The time is now’
The conference comes as the US steps up efforts to revive a peace process under new President Joe Biden and the Houthis push to seize the government’s last northern stronghold.
Biden’s administration has halted “offensive” support to the Saudi-led military coalition, while it has reversed a “terror” blacklisting of the Houthis imposed last month by former President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration – a designation that many said would have severely impeded aid efforts.
But Houthi fighters have intensified operations against Saudi Arabia as coalition air raids pound rebel positions in the north of Yemen, in a bid to stop their campaign to seize the government stronghold of Marib.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday urged the rebels to halt the battle for Marib, warning that Yemen’s suffering will not stop until a political solution is found.
“The necessary first step is to stop their offensive against Marib, a city where a million internally displaced people live, and to join the Saudis and the government in Yemen in making constructive moves towards peace,” he told the conference.
“We can only end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by ending the war… so the United States is reinvigorating our diplomatic efforts to end the war,” he said.
“The time is now to make this push to bring about a more stable, prosperous Yemen whose citizens will be able to rebuild their lives and at long last have hope for a better future.”
Guterres said the only way of relieving the suffering for Yemeni people was to secure a nationwide ceasefire and a political solution to the conflict.
“There is no other solution,” the UN secretary-general said. “The United Nations will continue to stand in solidarity with the starving people of Yemen.”
Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, also said he was “deeply disappointed” with the outcome of the conference.
“This means continued massive cuts to emergency food, water, shelter and medical support. The shortfall in humanitarian aid will be measured in lives lost,” said Egeland in a statement.
“I told governments at the conference that I have just seen children who are already dying of starvation in Yemen. It is in their power to prevent full-scale famine, or forever have this stain on their consciences. So far, they have failed to act.
“Yemen needs three things to avert a catastrophe: more money that we can use today; a famine-prevention ceasefire; and full access to people in need.”