The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that aid could be suspended to areas of war-torn Yemen under the control of Houthi rebels unless they abide by accords aimed at ensuring that supplies are not diverted.
“Humanitarian workers in Yemen are being denied access to the hungry, aid convoys have been blocked, and local authorities have interfered with food distribution,” the WFP said in a statement.
“This has to stop.”
The statement explained that some “obstructive and uncooperative” Houthi leaders had hampered the independent selection of beneficiaries and a request for a rollout of a biometric registration system, which would allow the WFP to identify the most hungry and ensure that they receive food assistance.
“If the beneficiary targeting and biometric exercise is not carried out as agreed, WFP will be left with no option but to suspend food distributions in the areas controlled by Ansarullah, the Houthis,” David Beasley, the agency’s executive director, wrote in a letter sent to the rebel movement.
He was referring to accords the WFP signed with the warring parties in December and January.
The unusual threat from the UN agency, which is feeding more than 10 million people across Yemen, reflected what it said were “obstacles that are being put in our way”.
“We face daily challenges due to the unrelenting fighting and insecurity in Yemen. And yet, our greatest challenge does not come from the guns, that are yet to fall silent in this conflict – instead, it is the obstructive and uncooperative role of some of the Houthi leaders in areas under their control,” the statement read.
“If we are not given the access and freedom to decide who gets this vital assistance, then we will have to take the hard decision of implementing a phased suspension of our operations in Houthi-controlled areas.”
Herve Verhoosel, spokesman for the Geneva-based WFP, said Monday that the latest letter was hand-delivered to the Houthi leadership in Yemen.
It was “the second letter WFP has sent requesting greater access”, he said.
“WFP noted some progress after the first letter was sent in December, but in recent weeks that progress has halted and in some cases it has been reversed.”
The phased suspension of aid would be a last resort and nutrition activities directly aimed at malnourished children and women would continue, the statement said.
WFP said it previously worked with leaders to resolve problems, such as when the Saudi-led coalition which is fighting against the Houthis, delayed the movement of cranes to the key port of Hodeidah and cut food supplies by blockading the port.
Negotiations with Houthi leaders to open up access to hungry people had not yet brought tangible results, WFP said, although some had made positive commitments.
“Unfortunately, [Houthi leaders] are being let down by other Houthi leaders who have broken assurances they gave us on stopping food diversions and finally agreeing to a beneficiary identification and biometric registration exercise.”
In December, the WFP said the photographic and other evidence it had obtained showed trucks illicitly removing food from designated food distribution centres and local officials falsifying records and manipulating the selection of beneficiaries.
It accused one local partner organisation affiliated with the Houthi Ministry of Education of committing fraud and said humanitarian food was being sold on the open market in Sanaa.
“This conduct amounts to the stealing of food from the mouths of hungry people,” Beasley said in December.
But Houthi rebels denied accusations by the WFP of stealing humanitarian aid.
In December the Associated Press news agency also reported that along with the Houthis, forces loyal to the Yemeni government had siphoned off aid meant for thousands of families residing in the besieged city of Taiz.
WFP’s threat of a partial pullout comes after fighting around Hodeidah marred an apparent diplomatic breakthrough by UN envoy Martin Griffiths, who got the Iranian-aligned Houthis to agree to a unilateral withdrawal of their forces from Hodeidah and two other ports earlier this month.
Since then, Houthi fighters and Saudi-backed pro-government forces have battled in the port city, breaching a ceasefire and casting into doubt the full implementation of the plan for both sides’ forces to move back from the port.
The Yemen conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since a Saudi-led military coalition intervened in support of the beleaguered government in March 2015, according to the World Health Organization.
The fighting has triggered what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 3.3 million people still displaced and 24.1 million – more than two-thirds of the population – in need of aid.