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Pompeo to Pressure U.N. Over Aid to Yemen
The Trump administration is upset that too much of it is falling into the hands of Houthi rebels.
The Trump administration is pressuring the United Nations to scale back vital aid operations in Yemen as Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents seek greater control over how humanitarian assistance is delivered in territory under their control.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to travel to U.N. headquarters on March 6 for a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, during which Pompeo will raise concerns about what he sees as the U.N.’s sluggish effort to freeze aid deliveries in the face of persistent Houthi obstruction and seizure of lifesaving relief, according to diplomatic sources. Pompeo is expected to single out the U.N. relief coordinator, Mark Lowcock of the United Kingdom, for resisting U.S. appeals to take a more aggressive approach and suspend more relief programs in Yemen, those sources told Foreign Policy.
The humanitarian standoff comes at a tense moment in the nearly five-year-long conflict. A promising diplomatic push between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government’s top sponsor and a U.S. ally, to end the conflict has stalled as Houthi rebels have resumed missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, while Riyadh has resumed its air attacks on the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa.
During the planned meeting at the U.N., which has not been publicly announced, Pompeo also intends to raise U.S. concerns about a number of other so-called leadership issues, including China’s growing international clout at the United Nations; the recent publication, which the United States opposed, by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights of a list of companies doing business in illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank; and a push to install more Americans in senior U.N. leadership positions.
The push to suspend aid to Yemen comes in response to efforts by the Houthis, who are Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, to impede the delivery of humanitarian assistance in northern Yemen, part of a broader strategy to enforce greater control over how aid is distributed in territory under its control. The actions have infuriated donor countries, including the United States, private charities, and U.N. relief officials.
They have accused the Houthis of seeking to violate humanitarian aid norms to divert aid to gain an upper hand in the conflict, make money, and provide preferential treatment for communities that are loyal to their cause. The United States plans to freeze spending on a series of programs later this month, causing friction with other donor nations and NGOs that want to keep aid all supplies flowing, officials familiar with the matter say. The United States has not specified which programs it would stop funding, but a senior U.S. official told reporters there would be “exceptions for truly lifesaving programs,” including feeding sick children.
There are differences of opinion over how aggressively to cut off aid in Yemen, the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, where some 80 percent of the country’s 28 million people depend on international aid and protection.
The U.N. recognizes the need to suspend specific aid operations, but only on a case-by-case basis, and only if they are convinced such assistance would violate established humanitarian standards that require aid be distributed strictly on the basis of need. They fear the U.S. push for full-fledged cuts threatens to endanger lives.
“Any reduction in aid in northern Yemen would not constitute a full suspension of U.S. Government assistance, but would maintain the most critical life-saving activities that directly mitigate famine, such as treatment of acute malnutrition and cholera,” Pooja Jhunjhunwala, acting spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), told Foreign Policy in an email.
The U.N. chief underscored the “importance of sustaining the humanitarian operation, which is being implemented in challenging conditions, but is providing life-saving assistance to millions of Yemenis,” according to a Feb. 12 statement from his office. “The Secretary-General supports continuing dialogue with all the interested parties to ensure that help reaches all those who need it, in accordance with humanitarian principles.”
Aid workers warn that suspending relief to areas controlled by the Houthis could worsen an already dismal humanitarian situation.
“Conditions in Yemen continue to deteriorate, and humanitarian need is greater than ever as families struggle to stay safe and pay for their next meals,” said Scott Paul, a policy advisor at Oxfam America. “For millions of the most vulnerable Yemenis, access to aid and services is a matter of life and death. The parties to the conflict and the international community need to push for peace and make sure aid gets to those who need it most.”
The United States insists that there is a consensus among key donor states and private charities, which are “drawing up plans … [that] involve suspending a lot of assistance programs, with exceptions for truly lifesaving programs—feeding children and things like that,” a senior State Department official told reporters on Feb. 25. “They’ve also been doing things like harassing, even torturing implementing staff, diverting aid toward groups and areas that they favor.”
“Most governments, including the U.S., can’t allow their funds to be used this way,” the State Department official said.
The State Department official suggested that the decision to suspend aid to the Houthis was first proposed by the U.N. and other international relief organizations—a claim that has been challenged by representatives of relief agencies, who say the remarks could threaten the safety of relief workers on the ground in Yemen. Several relief organizations drafted a letter to the State Department challenging that account and making it clear that the aid groups do not favor an aid cutoff. The groups urged the United States and other donors to seek a diplomatic agreement with the Houthis to ease its aid restrictions. It is unclear whether the letter, which was described by two sources, has been delivered to the State Department yet.
The move to suspend some aid “is a last resort that follows more than a year of advocacy and diplomatic engagement calling on the Houthis to respect humanitarian principles,” a State Department spokesperson said. Under current U.S. government estimates, the spokesperson said, “due to the Houthis’ restrictions, $65 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance, provided in the last two years to NGO partners to assist nearly 1.4 million people, is already not being implemented.”
The U.S. campaign has fed suspicions among some observers that Washington’s hard-line stance may be driven as much by a desire to apply diplomatic pressure on Iran and its allies in the region than by a concern about Houthi misconduct. It also comes at a time when the White House has proposed deep cuts to its foreign assistance budget.
The latest humanitarian crisis in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, began in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia organized a military coalition to crush a rebellion by ethnic Houthi insurgents, who seized the northern capital of Sanaa and ousted the internationally recognized government.
Throughout the early stages of the war, the Saudi-led coalition blockaded the country’s main port, preventing the delivery of lifesaving aid, fuel, and food into territory controlled by the Houthis, fueling the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The Saudi coalition has received political and military support from the United States beginning under the Obama administration and continuing under President Donald Trump, sparking backlash among a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress who want to halt all U.S. assistance to the coalition.
In the past two years, the Houthis have steadily sought to impose a series of new conditions on the delivery of aid, spurring a new crisis. Last summer, the World Food Program suspended its aid program after the Houthis breached an agreement to allow the Rome-based food agency to introduce a program to track food recipients with biometric equipment. Instead, the Houthis seized the equipment at Sanaa International Airport.
The United Nations and a network of independent relief agencies provide assistance to more than 13 million Yemeni civilians each month.
In a Feb. 18 briefing to the U.N. Security Council, Lowcock, the U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator, said that the Houthis—who are formally known as Ansar Allah—have refused to approve 40 percent of all projects by independent relief agencies or NGOs. The Houthis’ interference has undermined the U.N.’s ability to assess the full humanitarian needs in Yemen or to monitor whether aid is arriving where it is most needed.
“It has also been suggested that NGOs pay a 2 percent tax to fund the authorities’ aid-coordination body,” Lowcock told the council. “The situation is unacceptable. Stopping the world’s largest aid operation would be fatal for millions of people,” he told the 15-nation council.
Lowcock also noted that Yemen’s internationally recognized government has recently seized eight trucks carrying medical supplies. The trucks were returned, but with only 70 percent of their medical cargo. But he said the U.N. is facing “much more serious problems in areas controlled by the Ansar Allah authorities.”
The Houthis, he said, issued more than 200 new regulations on humanitarian operations last year, while “incidents disrupting” the delivery of assistance had soared “by a factor of six” during the same period. “Half of those incidents constrained movements of relief supplies of staff, while approximately a quarter of them involved attempts to influence decisions on who received help,” he added.
In November 2019, the Houthi Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation issued a decree imposing a 2 percent tax on all humanitarian aid entering its territory. It also demanded the authority to manage and coordinate all international humanitarian operations, decide where aid would be distributed, and take possession of all equipment, including machinery and vehicles, brought into the country by aid organizations.
The initiative triggered a push by the U.N. mission in Yemen and donor governments to ramp up pressure on the Houthis to back down.
In mid-January, a top German humanitarian official, Wolfgang Bindseil, wrote that the conditions “would gravely infringe donors/partners contractual terms and violate humanitarian principles. This would be unacceptable to us.” Any decision by a German-funded aid agency to pay a Houthi tax, he added, “would be considered a serious incident of aid diversion.” The United States, which contributed around $750 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen in fiscal 2019, developed plans to start suspending some aid, the Washington Post reported. USAID informed charities at a meeting in Djibouti in early February that it would start cutting funding in early March if the Houthis didn’t back down—it later pushed the deadline until late March.
In early February, USAID also drafted a five-point plan of action to reduce and refocus bilateral and U.N. assistance to Yemen. It called for establishing more stringent conditions to prevent Houthi authorities from diverting aid from the most needy, freezing Houthi institutions out of the aid distribution pipeline, and requiring the Houthis make good on their agreement to let the World Food Program establishment a biometric registration program that ensures aid goes to individuals who need it. The United Sates secured support for its initiative from Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands.
In a Feb. 10 letter to the U.N. leadership in New York and Yemen, the four governments called on the U.N. leadership to revise its strategy and take up the action plan, and to dispatch a high-level visit by U.N. leadership to Yemen to outline the new policy with Houthi officials. The contents of the letter—which was obtained by Foreign Policy—were first reported by the New Humanitarian news agency. It also called for the establishment of a joint committee—made up of representatives from U.N. agencies, international charities, and donor countries.
Two days later, the Houthis pledged to offer a set of concessions.
In response, the Houthi leader Abdulaziz bin Habtoor assured the U.N. that the tax was being canceled and that 120 metric tons of food seized by the Houthis in the Hajjah governorate would be returned to the U.N. He also promised that biometric equipment was being released from Sanaa airport. “I hope my response to your points is sound, hoping that you would duplicate your efforts to secure the highest level of humanitarian assistance and support for the people of Yemen, who are starving and suffering and facing disease outbreaks because of the aggression coalition,” he wrote.
The apparent concessions, according to diplomatic sources, weakened the Americans’ hard-line stance.
The United States, other key donors, U.N. agencies, and relief organizations met in Brussels on Feb. 13 at a meeting co-hosted by the European Commission and Sweden to develop a concerted strategy to get the Houthis to back down. The United States had been proposing a sweeping suspension of aid. But the U.N. and private relief agencies felt that risked worsening the humanitarian crisis. Instead, they agreed to suspend aid if they could establish specific instances of aid diversions.
“All humanitarian actors remain firmly committed to continue providing vital support to the people of Yemen with humanity, neutrality, independence and impartiality,” the co-chair wrote in a summary. “Participants unanimously stated that this situation is untenable and has reached a breaking point.” The United States, according to two diplomatic sources, declined to align itself with the summary, arguing that it wasn’t strong enough.
The participants noted they had agreed on a “common plan re-calibrating humanitarian aid activities, including a phased downscale, or even interruption, of certain operations, if and where principled delivery is impossible and as long as this occurs … Assistance to vulnerable people will continue as long as they can be reached in line with humanitarian principles and donors’ regulations.”
“We support the conclusions outlined by the meeting’s co-chairs, and want to see these conversations continue,” the State Department spokesperson said in response. The spokesperson added that they “appreciate the coordination work” of Lowcock, the senior U.N. official.
“However, we have made clear that the U.S. cannot responsibly fund aid operations if we cannot monitor and protect the humanitarian integrity of these programs. We must see demonstrable progress by the Houthis to remove these obstructions in order for the U.S. to continue providing assistance,” the spokesperson said.
Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the council that the Houthis’ conduct posed a dilemma for the United States and other donor countries that have an obligation to ensure that taxpayer money is spent responsibly.
“We may be forced to consider suspending or reducing our assistance in northern Yemen as early as March unless undue Houthi interference ceases immediately,” she warned. “For any who would point to reports that the Houthis have agreed to rescind the project levy, please know the Houthis have made clear to those on the ground that they expect funding in some manner from the nongovernmental organizations.”
Update, March 3, 2020: This article was updated to include comments from USAID and the State Department.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch