An estimated 150,000 civilians have been displaced and tens of thousands have been left with little or no humanitarian aid in Northern Yemen as a result of recent conflict. Fighting between the Houthis, a Shia rebel group based in the northern province of Sa’ada, and the Yemeni government began in 2004 when cleric leader, Hussein al-Houthi, launched an uprising against the government. The government re-commenced military action in July 2009 after a year-long ceasefire, and the violence escalated through September during Operation Scorched Earth. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called the situation for civilians alarming, and aid organizations are declaring the civilian conditions in Northern Yemen a humanitarian crisis.
Thousands of civilians fled their homes to escape the fighting and find safety. However, they are now stranded, often with no access to food, medical attention, electricity, shelter, clean water, or protection. In Sa’ada city, civilians are literally trapped as they have been barred from leaving by the Yemeni government. The area has been inaccessible to outsiders for over a month, and food reserves are running out.
The Yemeni army blocked aid to Sa’ada city, claiming that the current situation is too dangerous for civilians and aid workers to enter. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent have been able to assist individuals who managed to escape the conflict area, but those stuck in the city have been left with no humanitarian aid. Additionally, the UNHCR set up camps in the peripheral areas of the Sa’ada region but remains unable to provide aid within the city itself. Aid organizations are stockpiling resources on the Saudi side of the Yemeni border in the event that Yemen and Saudi Arabia are able to negotiate border openings. They are also hoping that the Houthi rebel group and the Yemeni government declare a temporary cease-fire so that humanitarian groups can enter the area, but this seems unlikely. A ceasefire was briefly declared for Eid al-Fitr, but both sides accused the other of violating it.
Even those who are able to reach refugee camps are unsafe. On September 17, Yemeni air strikes hit a refugee camp near the Sufian area, killing 87 civilians and injuring 40 others. According to UNICEF, many of the casualties are reported to be women and children.
Various local Arab NGOs have urged the Yemeni government to respect its international obligations to protect civilians in compliance with the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons (Convention). The Convention applies to internal armed conflicts and prohibits attacks that target or indiscriminately harm civilians.
Like all non-state armed groups, the Houthi rebel group is bound by the same humanitarian law treaties as Yemen. Both parties have an obligation under Article 23 of the Convention to allow the civilian populations at risk, especially women and children, access to humanitarian aid. Further, Article 54 of Additional Protocol One prohibits countries and non-state actors from leaving civilian populations with inadequate access to food and water.
Human Rights Watch has gathered information on the fighting that indicates serious violations of the laws of war by both sides, including the use of child soldiers, the use of landmines in civilian areas, and the taking of civilian hostages. As hundreds of civilians wait, displaced from their homes and exposed to the violence of war, it is clear that neither side is upholding its international obligations.
In its flash appeal on September 2, an effort to organize a response and to stimulate funding for relief efforts in Yemen, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned that the crisis could worsen in the following weeks and called on the international community to step up relief efforts. Currently, the U.S. $23.7 million humanitarian appeal has received no funding.