Insecurity in Yemen has risen sharply in recent months as several parallel conflicts have intensified and expanded. Hundreds of killings have been attributed to the state security services, tribal militias and Sunni and Shia movements since the start of the year. This spike in violence has taken place amidst and has contributed directly to a worsening humanitarian situation, and aid access has been curtailed. While there is some hope that the ongoing political transition, including the National Dialogue process, will help to bring stability, it may also lead to further conflict and greater humanitarian challenges.
The evolving security situation
Yemen faces three main categories of conflict and insecurity. The first has resulted from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has launched regular attacks against Yemeni government and international targets. The second conflict has taken place between the Yemeni government and security services and a southern separatist movement known as al-Hiraak al-Janoubi. Hiraak, which has widespread support across the south, has repeatedly engaged in large demonstrations against what it considers to be a northern-dominated government.
Each of these conflicts has evolved in dangerous new ways following the Arab Spring protests of 2011. In 2011 an Al-Qaeda-linked group known as Ansar al-Sharia seized Abyan governorate in southern Yemen and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law. While the Yemeni military and local militias ultimately defeated Ansar al-Sharia, the 16-month conflict left hundreds dead. Ansar al-Sharia and AQAP were scattered to neighbouring provinces (or melded into the local population) and continue to drive violence.
Hiraak, the southern separationist movement, has also engaged in renewed conflict since the Arab Spring, mounting larger protests and regular, large-scale demonstrations. Yemen’s security services have periodically opened fire on demonstrators killing dozens and increasingly pushing Hiraak to demand independence rather than merely greater autonomy. The situation is likely to escalate further following fighting between the central government and Hiraak in Al Dhale governorate between late 2013 and mid-March this year, when the government and Hiraak agreed to a truce. During the conflict in Al Dhale the government had blocked aid agencies from the affected areas as the Yemeni armed forces shelled the provincial capital; at least 40 people were killed during the fighting.
Finally, the Houthis are engaged in intense bouts of sectarian and political violence against hard-line Salafist (Sunni) militias and the Islamist Al-Islah party. Several hundred people were killed in fighting between Salafists, Houthis, tribal militias and others during the uprising, and the situation has escalated markedly since then; the conflict has pulled in not only Iran (on the Houthi side) and Saudi Arabia (on the Salafist side), but also militants from across the region. In early February 2014 fighting between the Houthis and their sectarian and tribal opponents killed 150 people in Amran governorate alone. The fighting has increasingly neared the capital, with more than 50 people being killed in violence between Houthis and various Sunni groups near Sana’a in early March 2014. Formerly seen as a primarily tribal or territorial conflict oriented around remote northern governorates, the conflict is now predominantly sectarian and national in nature.
The humanitarian crisis
The changing nature of Yemen’s major conflicts affected Yemeni civilians as well as aid agencies. As of late 2013, more than 300,000 people were internally displaced by fighting, and media reports indicate that tens of thousands more have been displaced by more recent fighting in Al Dhale in the south and governorates affected by Houthi fighting (primarily Amran, Sa’ada, Hajja and Al-Jawf). Aid agencies operating in Yemen report that their ability to access affected populations is constrained despite unprecedented levels of humanitarian funding.
In some cases constraints are imposed by aid agencies themselves, based on assessments of local conditions. During the conflict in and around Abyan in 2011 and 2012, aid agencies were able to reach IDPs in surrounding provinces but had little if any access to directly conflict-affected areas. Many aid agencies were reluctant to return to Abyan after the conflict had ended. Aid workers interviewed in 2013 indicated that different NGOs had widely different perceptions of the risks in Abyan.
Armed groups, including the armed forces, also constrain aid access. During the fighting in Al Dhale between the Yemeni military and Hiraak, government forces reportedly prevented civilians from leaving besieged towns and prevented UN agencies and NGOs from entering. The Yemeni commander overseeing the siege of Al Dhale reportedly stopped aid agencies from entering the governorate to assess the situation even after officials in the capital had specifically authorised humanitarian missions. According to the UN, some 50,000 people were cut off from humanitarian assistance. In northern Yemen aid access is affected by sectarian and political violence, particularly around Dammaj, a Salafist stronghold in Sa’ada governorate, as well as by the Houthis, the government and other factions. The fragmentation of the conflict in the north means that negotiating aid access has become far more complicated and uncertain.
Heightened insecurity, particularly when combined with increased humanitarian funding, may lead to additional attacks against aid workers and facilities. The 2013 Aid Worker Security Report indicates that Yemen was the country with the second-most number of aid workers kidnapped (after Afghanistan) in 2012. While the number of attacks against aid workers reflected in the Aid Worker Security Database is relatively low only four in Yemen in 2013 compared to 29 in South Sudan or 17 in Syria several aid agencies note that threats, intimidation and minor attacks are common and often go unreported.
Implications of the transition process for humanitarian action
The various conflicts in Yemen are taking place in the context of a political transition following the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule in 2011. Saleh’s departure was negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), though implementation of the GCC agreement fell to the United Nations under the leadership of Jamal Benomar, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Yemen. The transition includes a National Dialogue process inclusive of all political factions, women, youth and civil society aimed at resolving major sources of conflict and political contention, including southern separatism, the Houthi rebellion, transitional justice, state-building and governance, security and military issues, rights and development. The National Dialogue Conference, which wrapped up this January, was intended to feed into a new constitution and elections later in 2014.
The National Dialogue and the broader transition process have involved several other UN agencies, including the UN Department of Political Affairs and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). UNDP, for instance, has engaged in capacity-building work related to transitional justice. Several NGOs and other UN agencies launched consultative processes to gather inputs from communities and civil society organisations to feed into the National Dialogue. These activities brought development NGOs more fully into the realm of politics and meant that many were viewed as having endorsed the National Dialogue (which Hiraak, the Houthis, many youth activists and some civil society organisations mistrusted). Development agencies’ political actions also coloured many Yemenis’ perceptions of humanitarian actors, which tend to be seen as part and parcel of the broader international community. Few outside of aid circles differentiate between impartial humanitarian activities and more politically-tinged development work.
There is a risk that humanitarian actors could increasingly be drawn into politics and conflict in Yemen, for a number of reasons. Firstly, large amounts of foreign aid to Yemen are provided as humanitarian rather than development assistance. Given that many donors and the United Nations are heavily concerned with security and the political transition in Yemen, it is hard to believe that humanitarian actors will not be under pressure to ensure that the hundreds of millions of dollars in relief aid feed into stabilisation strategies. As a case in point, the UN and European Union (EU) have emphasised their intention to better link humanitarian and development efforts. The Joint United Nations Framework to Support the Transition in Yemen seeks to ‘complement ongoing humanitarian assistance by finding ways of bridging from relief to more durable solutions’ in terms of early recovery and longer-term development.
Secondly, many donor strategies and UN and NGO plans link living conditions and security. These de facto stabilisation strategies aim at improving material conditions in the hope that this will dampen armed groups’ recruitment efforts or reduce opposition to the still-coalescing national government. While such activities are likely to focus upon livelihoods and basic services, they may push development actors into some of the most conflict-affected parts of the country where they will work in close proximity with humanitarian actors, further blurring the distinction between principled humanitarian work and more political development efforts. For instance, one major donor’s operational strategy for Yemen notes, with regard to humanitarian assistance, that it will provide ‘indirect support to the transition by delivering assistance to chronically vulnerable people in urgent need, including those affected by conflict, refugees and migrants, building the resilience of affected communities and improving the capacity of agencies in Yemen to respond to emergencies’. While such an approach does not inherently undermine principled humanitarian work, it does raise the possibility that factors other than need may increasingly guide humanitarian efforts in Yemen.
It is too early to say whether Yemen’s evolving conflicts and the international community’s political objectives in the country will undermine humanitarian efforts. However, there are significant risks. It will be important for donors, development actors, humanitarian agencies and the diplomatic community to jointly consider how they can balance political and developmental objectives with the continuing and expanding need for humanitarian assistance in many of Yemen’s most insecure and contested areas. Ensuring that humanitarian efforts remain distinct and are recognised as apolitical and needs-based among Yemeni communities and armed factions will help to safeguard aid workers and vulnerable populations, and ensure that this vital lifeline for millions of Yemenis is not severed.
Steven A. Zyck is a Research Fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).