Peace Still Possible As Port City Braces For War

The fate of Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, a vital lifeline to the outside world, hangs in the balance.

Over the past week, Yemen’s “forgotten war” has returned to the headlines. Attention has focused on the Saudi coalition’s offensive against Iran-backed Houthis in the port city of Hodeidah. Diplomatic and humanitarian sources say the assault threatens the lives of millions of civilians due to restrictions on freedom movement and blockades of essential supplies.

The newly appointed UN special envoy Martin Griffiths claims there may still be time to avoid catastrophe if management of the city is handed over to the UN. This opportunity presents itself due to the synchronicity of three factors. First, the Houthis have shown openness to the possibility of the port being handed over to a third party. Second, the Saudi coalition has expressed that they would prefer not to launch a battle in an urban centre. And finally, there is intense pressure from outside stakeholders and the international community to contain the humanitarian crisis. On June 23, a top Emirati official confirmed a “pause” in the planned offensive, to allow for negotiations to occur.

Hodeidah city is currently held by the Houthis and is the entryway for 70% of the country’s fuel, goods, and humanitarian aid. The UN describes it as the “single most important point of entry for the food and basic supplies needed to prevent famine and a recurrence of a cholera epidemic.” If fighting were to eventuate, Human Rights Watch urges both sides to minimize harm to civilians and non-military sites during the fighting and to ensure that aid and essential goods reach the most vulnerable. Further, the necessary steps must be taken to maintain the port’s functionality.

Since the conflict began, Hodeidah and its people have paid a heavy price for the political decisions taken by the opposing sides. Both parties are breaking international law: The Houthi authorities have contributed to the crisis by blocking and confiscating food and medical provisions and unduly hampering the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable areas. Meanwhile, the city has been subject to air raids and a naval blockade by the Saudi-led coalition, supported by the U.K. and U.S., for over three years. Currently, there are around six-hundred thousand civilians at danger in and around Hodeidah. If the delivery of humanitarian aid and essential supplies to civilians is obstructed by this offensive, it will have devastating consequences. To avoid the humanitarian fallout in Yemen, it is essential that negotiations take place and port accessibility is prioritized.

The naval blockade, which increased in intensity over the course of 2017, has had a terrible impact on Yemeni society. Amnesty International’s 2018 Stranglehold report describes how this was instrumental in creating one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. Because of the restrictions, food imports had decreased from 96% of the monthly national requirement in July 2016 to 51% in April 2018 (Yemen was importing about 90% of its food). In terms of the humanitarian aid that makes it through, Aljazeera reports that despite some of it being allowed into the country by the Saudis, it is not sufficient to meet the population’s urgent needs. Further, Stranglehold states that 75% of the population in Yemen needs humanitarian assistance. Access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene is a rare thing for around 16 million people, while food insecurity is affecting an estimated 17.8 million. Such conditions foster a breeding ground for all kinds of social maladies, and disease outbreaks, like cholera, are becoming increasingly pervasive.

The arrangement between the Saudi coalition and the Houthi de facto authorities in Hodeidah would be dependent on whether the parties can reach a compromise. An agreement would certainly spare the city further suffering. “We fear that as many as 250,000 people may lose everything – even their lives… Cutting off imports through Hodeidah for any length of time will put Yemen’s population at extreme, unjustifiable risk” said Yemen’s UN humanitarian coordinator. A peace deal would also avoid further unnecessary casualties, as Houthis tend to leave behind IEDs, mines, and booby-traps as they retreat. Optimistically, a UN presence in the city could give both sides the breathing space to step back from the brink and seek a non-violent solution for the good of the vast majority of Yemen’s population. Furthermore, if progress can be made here, belligerents and the international community may well move on to apply more far-reaching peace frameworks such as those promoted by organizations like the International Crisis Group.