Facing Two Fronts: COVID-19 amidst the Yemeni Civil War
At times of acute crisis, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. A global pandemic, like the one we are facing today, is a perfect example of where our natural response is to focus solely on the aspects which are most acutely affected: a nation’s healthcare system and its economy. However, the trickle-down effect of COVID-19 can seriously affect other crucial areas of life, particularly peace and conflict.
CSPPS has launched this series of articles, which zooms in on the role of civil society in supporting local response action. Via interviews with frontline responders, we discuss the short-term and long-term effects COVID-19 is having on prospects for peace and stability in their countries.
“Our world faces a common enemy: COVID-19. The virus does not care about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith. It attacks all, relentlessly … Let’s not forget that in war-ravaged countries, health systems have collapsed. Health professionals, already few in number, have often been targeted. Refugees and others displaced by violent conflict are doubly vulnerable. The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.”
(UN Secretary-General’s Appeal for Global Ceasefire, 23 March 2020)
Once the magnitude of the current pandemic became clear, so did the fact that those in a state of ongoing conflict will be impacted most severely. Following the appeal by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the Saudi-backed coalition declared a two-week unilateral truce on April 8th in an attempt to contain the devastating impact of COVID-19 in an already war-torn Yemen. However, this has not been upheld. Instead, conflict has spiked over the past weeks, leading to multiple deaths on top of the already towering death toll. And although the Saudi coalition announced a month-long extension of their unilateral ceasefire on April 24th, scepticism about their actual compliance to this statement cannot be said to be unfounded.
The Yemeni Civil War has been ravaging the country since March 2015, after Houthi opposition forces overran the capital Sana’a in 2014, which prompted an international response, led by Saudi Arabia in support of current Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Saudi response to the Yemeni situation can only be described as abhorrent: civilians, young children, nobody has been spared in this struggle for power. A draft of the 2017 UN report on children and armed conflict condemned the Saudi coalition, stating: “In Yemen, the coalition’s actions objectively led to the listing for the killing and maiming of children, with 683 child casualties attributed to this party, and, as a result of being responsible for 38 verified incidents, for attacks on schools and hospitals during 2016.”
The struggle over control of the nation has left approximately 80% of the population relying on humanitarian aid and has led to more than 100,000 casualties due to the violence, of which 12,000 are civilian. Additionally, more than 85,000 people are said to have died from famine as a direct consequence of the war. All the while, the country suffers from the worst epidemic of cholera in modern history, making the Yemeni situation the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. A looming pandemic over this already dire situation only intensifies the need for a sustainable peace.
For the third article in this series, the Secretariat of the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS) discussed the reality of the ceasefire in Yemen in light of COVID-19 with Maged Sultan, member of CSPPS and Chair of the Youth Without Borders Organization for Development (YWBOD) in Yemen.
“In spite of the pandemic spreading all over the world, the warring parties in Yemen pay no attention to work together to face this crisis. Instead, the violence and armed conflict continue, and each party is trying to gain more political and military victory over the other.”
Despite the ceasefire declared by the Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition, which promised to stop airstrikes for two weeks, the opposing Houthis have come with unreasonable conditions from their end and have called the declared ceasefire a “ploy”, Sultan explains. Both parties have since continued their struggle for power.
Since the failed call for a nation-wide ceasefire, Sultan states, “the Houthis have escalated violence against the forces of the internationally recognised government in Ma’rib, the north of Yemen, and they could gain some more geographical areas and military camps there. Also in Al-Jawf, violence continues, and the internationally recognised government forces continue to try to restore some of the areas lost to the Houthis. Just two days ago, they managed to regain one of the military camps there.”
“The Houthis have escalated violence against the forces of the internationally recognised government in Ma’rib, the north of Yemen, and they could gain some more geographical areas and military camps there. Also in Al-Jawf, violence continues, and the internationally recognised government forces continue to try to restore some of the areas lost to the Houthis. Just two days ago, they managed to regain one of the military camps there.”
The Houthis are imposing a ban on travel in Taiz, and conflict has soared since the start of the pandemic. In a similar manner, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which seeks to separate the South of Yemen from the rest of the nation, continued to exercise its power over Aden, undeterred by the Riyadh Agreement struck last November.
By issuing decrees of curfew and other measures, supposedly to contain the spread of COVID-19, the STC had found additional means of asserting its control over the region. On April 26th, this escalated into a declaration of self-rule, completely shattering the Riyadh Agreement and, with it, any prospect of imminent peace. The independent control over the Southern governates only further jeopardises the possibility of an upheld, nation-wide ceasefire in Yemen, bringing the state of the nation to a political as well as military boiling point amidst COVID-19.
“I just want to say again: the warring parties in Yemen did not respond positively to the global spread of the virus. Instead, they take this matter as a means of gaining more political or military control.”
On April 10th, Yemen’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Hadhramaut, sparking panic amongst its incredibly fragile population. To illustrate the extent of this fear, Sultan told us of the many posts on social media that circulated after the announcement of the case, calling for the patient to be killed in order to spare the rest of the population. In a society where the majority of the population owns weapons, a scare like this can easily escalate, or result in a much faster spread of the virus when suspected cases are withheld out of fear of the repercussions. Misinformation and fear amongst a fragile population, as we have seen in our second article on the Liberian context, will undeniably worsen any status quo. In this context, amidst the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, a global pandemic could very well be the final blow to whatever is left of the Yemeni nation.
“The majority of the population (more than 70%) depends on daily earnings, aside from the exorbitantly high percentages of poverty and unemployment across the country. A curfew will take away those daily earnings, and there are no alternatives provided, not by the government, nor by other actors. What will such people do? Robberies and other crimes are the expected consequences, which poses a real threat to national cohesion and communal peace.”
Sultan recalls a meeting he had with security forces two days before our conversation, in which he asked what procedures were being put in place to prepare emergency security teams in the event of the virus spreading within the city. “Nothing”, was their response, “there are security teams in place, but they are not prepared to work effectively within the COVID-19 situation. Most likely, policemen will run away out of fear of infection, rather than enforce peace.”
As regards gender-based violence especially, Sultan foresees a surge once a nation-wide curfew is imposed. “Once men and women will be confined at home, there will be an increase in domestic violence. This is exactly what happened in 2015, at the beginning of the war: because people were forced to stay at home, the terrible economic situation and the lack of awareness surrounding gender equality, a lot of gender-based violence occurred. On the other hand, if security provisions will fail out of fear amongst the security forces, we can expect to see an escalation of cases of rape and sexual harassment on the streets as well.”
As no security institution is working adequately at the moment, especially not with the looming pandemic, local insecurity and conflict are on the rise. Sultan, as Chair of the Youth Without Borders Organization for Development and member of CSPPS, has therefore initiated a peacebuilding project, in collaboration with the local police and communities. In Taiz, they install security cameras in some high-risk areas which are directly connected to a server based in the police station, to reinforce whatever sense of security there is left. Additionally, they engage in the distribution of masks and hand sanitizer, and have started public sensitisation campaigns, as have other civil society organisations across Yemen, to raise awareness about social distancing and other precautions to avoid infection.
In order to support the faltering healthcare system (only half of Yemen’s healthcare facilities are still fully functional, and there are only 500 ventilators available in the whole country), YWBOD is providing logistic and medical requirements like oxygen tanks and hand sanitizer to two emergency units, but this effort does not suffice as challenges are mounting nation-wide. As UN Secretary-General Guterres put it in his most recent appeal on April 23rd: “The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency – but it is far more. It is an economic crisis. A social crisis. And a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.”
“People – and their rights – must be front and centre. …. We have seen how the virus does not discriminate, but its impacts do – exposing deep weaknesses in the delivery of public services and structural inequalities that impede access to them. We must make sure they are properly addressed in the response.” (Secretary-General of the United Nations, 23 April 2020)
Upon the question whether Guterres’ appeal for a global ceasefire has been fruitful so far, Sultan states: “As the world is busy with the coronavirus, the conflicting parties of Yemen abuse the situation in their favour, rather than taking actions and measures which can bring solutions to the virus.” Sultan urges for the Riyadh Agreement to be enforced, and for the international community to put further pressure on all the warring parties, whether local or international.
“Especially amidst COVID-19, a nation-wide ceasefire to solve this immense humanitarian crisis should be the priority of everyone involved. This, however, requires voices from inside the country, as well as real pressure from the global level. In order to do so, we need to meet the urgent needs of a ceasefire, mobile resources as well as joint efforts to fight COVID-19 from a holistic perspective.”
The international community has an obligation to protect and respect human rights, not least the rights of the most vulnerable. More than 6.7 million Yemenis, an unprecedented figure, were already in need of assistance before the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic can only worsen their predicament.
In his recent briefing to the United Nations Security Council, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths painted a picture of the current situation, saying that “Yemen cannot face two fronts at the same time: a war and a pandemic. And the new battle that Yemen faces in confronting the virus will be all-consuming. We can do no less than stop this war and turn all our attention to this new threat.”
Facing two fronts, Sultan calls upon the international community, including the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, of which CSPPS is part, to support the call for a true ceasefire. Yemen needs a nation-wide ceasefire, to be upheld, respected and supported by all stakeholders. As CSPPS, we support Sultan in his plea, and call for a global community in which members hold each other accountable for their actions, and the devastating consequences thereof. The urgency is undeniable. Amidst this global pandemic, especially when it threatens those who have already lost so much, there is simply no more time left to lose. The time to act on peace is now.
Article by Charlotte de Harder - CSPPS