Yemen’s war has spawned the largest single-nation humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian aid chief, Stephen O’Brien. Yet Yemen’s conflict receives little media coverage and it’s increasingly difficult to get critical information on the country’s multiple crises, which include a rising civilian death toll, a surging cholera outbreak and an entire nation on the brink of famine.
After almost three years of conflict dubbed “the forgotten war,” Yemen just became even more difficult to access for non-U.N. personnel like human rights monitors, researchers, and journalists. A recent report from IRIN News revealed the formally recognized Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition have ramped up restrictions on human rights activists and journalists boarding U.N.-chartered flights to Yemen’s capital, Sana’a — one of the last few avenues of access to the war-torn nation.
“The country is on its knees,” Elias Diab, an emergency management specialist for UNICEF based in Sana’a, told VICE News. “The restrictions are being imposed by both parties and are extremely impacting our work.”
Fighting between the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels has produced a civilian death toll of more than 10,000, put 17 million people at risk of famine, and pushed thousands more into the grips of cholera.
Both sides have clamped down on civil society, making it increasingly difficult for world leaders, international organizations, and media outlets to get accurate, up-to-date information vital in protecting Yemen’s civilians. The crackdown on access has stirred alarm among humanitarian workers and human rights monitors, who fear the situation is only getting worse, but in silence.
“We continue advocating to allow the journalists’ access to all parts of Yemen, but in the meantime we have no choice but to abide by this decision, which is beyond our control,” U.N. spokesman Ahmed Ben Lassoued told IRIN News.
“They are giving the Saudis a blank check to do what they want in Yemen.”
Throughout the war the Saudi-led coalition has shut down airports and naval ports, blocking out human rights workers and monitoring groups, while the Houthis have been accused of arbitrary detentions and the forced disappearances of dozens of people, including journalists and lawyers. Saudi-coalition airstrikes, which are blamed for a “disproportionate amount” of civilian casualties, have claimed the lives of numerous reporters and human rights activists.
“What’s going to come next?” Diab asked. “If you’re not present, you cannot protect, you cannot deliver.”
Unimpeded access for human rights monitoring is “a key obligation” under international humanitarian law, said U.N. chief O’Brien at the launch of the 2017 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan, in January.
Yemen was already extremely limited in terms of its transparency. The country ranks 166th out of 180 countries on the 2017 Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Six journalists were killed in Yemen in 2016 alone, the highest number on record, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and just last week two journalists were killed in Central Yemen while covering the war.
Closing off in the thick of a cholera outbreak
Humanitarian aid workers say tightening access couldn’t come at a worse time as the country teeters on the brink of famine and a cholera epidemic sweeps the country. Meanwhile an emboldened Saudi Arabia — buoyed by its renewed relationship with the U.S. under President Trump — continues to ramp up strikes and trade embargoes that have disproportionately affected Yemen’s civilians and ignores calls for greater precaution in its battle with Houthi rebels.
The U.S.’ few inconsistent attempts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights violations in Yemen have helped set the tone of the Saudi-coalition’s escalating defiance, human rights experts warn. The Trump’s massive $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia will be brought before the Senate Thursday, where it is expected to face resistance from a growing number of Senators concerned by America’s role in Yemen.
“It’s very clear what the message is from the highest levels in Washington,” said Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They are giving the Saudis a blank check to do what they want in Yemen.”
Cholera has spread at a rapid pace since its outbreak in April. Weakened health facilities and limited access to medicine in Yemen have spurred an “unprecedented increase” in cholera cases, according to Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. The World Health Organization now estimates over 96,000 suspected cases of cholera in Yemen, with 746 people dying as a result of the disease. Figures are multiplying by the day, with no signs of slowing down.
“It is sad today, but we hope the cholera outbreak will be the turning point in turning people’s attention to Yemen,” he told the Associated Press in an interview published last week.