The Iran-backed Houthi militia's (Ansarallah) manipulation of food aid distribution is compounding the suffering of Yemeni citizens, and increasing the chances that international aid could be completely cut off, Yemeni and UN officials warn.
The World Food Programme (WFP) Thursday (June 20th) announced the "partial suspension" of aid to Yemen's capital Sanaa.
The suspension would initially target Sanaa city only, affecting 850,000 people, the UN agency said in a statement. But nutrition programmes will remain in place for malnourished children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Ultimately, the suspension will affect all areas in Yemen "under the control of the Sanaa-based authorities", it said.
The Houthis have been manipulating food aid distribution both directly by selling it on the black market and indirectly by diverting it to their war effort, distributing it to their supporters instead of the needy.
The WFP said its decision was taken after negotiations stalled on an agreement "to introduce controls to prevent the diversion of food away from some of the most vulnerable people in Yemen," adding "some individuals seek to profit by preying on the vulnerable".
"WFP has been seeking the support of the Sanaa-based authorities to introduce a biometric registration system that would prevent diversion and protect the Yemeni families we serve, ensuring food reaches those who need it most," said the agency.
The WFP discovered evidence of the food aid diversion last December.
"This conduct amounts to the stealing of food from the mouths of hungry people," WFP Executive Director David Beasley said in a statement published December 31st, 2018. "At a time when children are dying in Yemen because they haven't enough food to eat, that is an outrage. This criminal behaviour must stop immediately."
Exchange of accusations
Despite photographic and other evidence of trucks illicitly removing food from designated food distribution centres, the Houthis rejected the WFP's accusations.
The accusations are part of the WFP's attempt to evade its humanitarian obligations in the wake of the exposure of financial corruption and import of expired food, the Houthis’ so-called National Committee for Humanitarian and Relief Affairs said June 18th.
In response to those accusations, the WFP issued a statement June 19th saying, "WFP is working diligently to ensure that all delivered food meets the highest standards of food safety and is making vigorous efforts to provide aid to more than 10 million people a month threatened by famine because of the conflict."
Last year, WFP accused the Houthis of involvement in 30 cases of aid theft.
Looting, sale of aid on black market
"The Houthis' misuse of aid and the WFP’s temporary suspension of the distribution of aid in Houthi-controlled areas will cause Yemen and its people to lose this aid and the large sums of money allocated by relief agencies to Yemenis," said Deputy Minister of Human Rights Nabil Abdul-Hafeez.
"The deterioration of the relief situation to this extent is due to the Houthis’ abuses," he said, including "looting the aid and selling it on the black market or diverting it to their war effort on the frontlines".
The methods the Houthis use to control the aid include pressuring employees of local aid organisations and establishing new NGOs that take over aid distribution and play the role of intermediaries, he told Al-Mashareq. They also closed all aid organisations not affiliated with the Houthis.
Abdul-Hafeez appealed to the WFP to come up with new distribution mechanisms, suggesting "the use of the 22 humanitarian corridors set up by the legitimate government to deliver the aid".
Exploiting human suffering
"More than half of Yemen's population are facing dire financial circumstances and need urgent assistance, while the Houthi militia is using UN-provided aid to mobilise and recruit fighters," human rights activist Musa al-Nimrani told Al-Mashareq.
"More than one UN official have recently criticised the Houthi militia's practices, including the diversion of aid and control of its distribution," he said.
"The Houthis have inflicted upon Yemenis the largest humanitarian catastrophe since the 1940s, and they continue to exploit this catastrophe and its consequences for their benefit," he said. "In my opinion, this a degree of vileness that cannot be tolerated."
"The Houthis are trading in aid supplies more than they are distributing it on the frontlines, and they are exploiting the humanitarian tragedy in Yemen to attract more humanitarian aid," said economist Abdul Aziz Thabet.
"They have forced people displaced from combat zones to move to provinces under their control in order to control the distribution of aid provided to them," he told Al-Mashareq.
Thabet denounced the Houthis for exploiting the humanitarian suffering they have caused and for "fattening their profits by selling [the aid] on the black market to merchants affiliated with them".