The Humanitarian Influence of Yemen's Truce
Since 2014, the armed conflict in Yemen has produced one of the world’s most intractable humanitarian crises. The proxy war between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has devastated the economy, displaced 6 million Yemenis, and left millions on the brink of starvation. More than 23.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and casualty estimates from direct and indirect causes are an astonishing 377,000 individuals, a result of indiscriminate shelling, widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and a brutal and sustained air campaign. In April 2022, a two-month truce was established between the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government (IRG), halting military offensives in observance of the Ramadan holiday. The truce, mediated by a UN special envoy, lays groundwork for future settlement of the conflict. Confidence-building measures included IRG and coalition forces easing restrictions on fuel entering the Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeidah and commercial flights landing in the rebel-held capital of Sana’a. The parties also committed to reopening talks over road access to Houthi-controlled areas to ease movement constraints of civilians and humanitarian organizations.
Despite grievances by both sides over the deal’s implementation, the truce was renewed twice. Although hostilities did not cease completely, the truce resulted in a significant reduction in violence and casualties, greater economic opportunities, and improved access to humanitarian aid. In October, however, the truce expired, with both sides rejecting an extension and expansion proposal. This failure threatens to thrust the country back into war, subjecting millions of civilians once again to the conflict’s indiscriminate brutality.
The Truce’s Humanitarian Impact
The six-month truce provided a critical moment of relief for civilians and humanitarian operations. Although hostilities between the parties did not cease completely, a significant reduction in violence led to a decline in displacement and a 60 percent decrease in civilian casualties. This alone represents a substantial humanitarian benefit.
The opening of Sana’a airport improved the ability of humanitarian NGOs to import essential food and health resources, and the cessation of hostilities enabled greater aid access to internally displaced persons (IDPs). Increased fuel imports provided little economic relief to civilians, as global fuel prices and commodity prices have risen because of the conflict in Ukraine. However, the resumption of fuel imports helped ensure stable access to essential clean water, healthcare, electricity, and transportation services.
Although the truce created greater operational space for humanitarian actors, its benefits may be exaggerated. Despite the decline in hostilities, an average of 44 civilians were killed during each month of the truce from landmines, IEDs, unexploded munitions and continued violence in key conflict areas. The positive impacts of the truce did not accrue equally across the country, and ongoing access challenges have undermined aid mobilization efforts. Throughout the truce period, humanitarian access across the country remained challenging due to bureaucratic impediments and increased violence against humanitarian staff in both Houthi- and government-controlled areas. Reporting on humanitarian access by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicated that the primary obstacle to humanitarian access during the truce resulted from the imposition of movement restrictions on aid workers, and nearly 90 percent of access incidents occurred in Houthi-controlled areas. Additional obstacles to humanitarian activities—such as suspension, interference in project designs, and arbitrary demands for data, documents, and reporting—were attributed to IRG authorities. Between April and June 2022, delayed or interrupted assistance affected up to 5.5 million civilians. Furthermore, despite improved security conditions, gaps in available funding for humanitarian response in Yemen limited the capacity of humanitarian actors to efficiently deploy relief services during the truce.
Southern Yemen experienced a drop-off in food assistance as the Saudi and UAE governments, traditionally responsible for the regional aid budget, ceased all contributions to humanitarian operations. A UN survey in southern Yemen revealed that many IDPs held negative impressions of the truce period, as they perceived conditions as largely unimproved. Persistent political and tribal violence and unresolved human rights and governance issues shaped divergent outcomes of the truce for civilians in the region. Continued armed clashes between Houthi and IRG forces and the resulting risk to civilians also shaped local perceptions of the benefits of the truce.
The Current Humanitarian Status
Despite “incidents of concern,” the Yemeni conflict has yet to slip back into full-fledged war. Nonetheless, millions of civilians are now at risk of renewed fighting and the threat of air strikes, ground shelling, and missile attacks. As each side of the conflict seeks to gain control and derive benefits from the fragile economy, the IRG has moved to further restrict fuel flows and frozen the assets of corporations importing fuel in Houthi-held areas. The tit-for-tat economic conflict could threaten to set off a new spiral of military escalation. More troubling, recent Houthi attacks on IRG oil terminals and seaports in southern governates have forced the shutdown of exports and threaten to set off a new spiral into active hostilities.
Early figures suggest that security and humanitarian conditions have begun to worsen. Child casualties have risen by an average of 42.5 percent since September. Escalations and shellfire in Ta’izz and Lahij, for example, pose new threats to civilians, and the International Organization for Migration’s rapid displacement tracking shows an alarming 191 percent increase in displaced households in just one week. This marks the highest rate of displacement since the truce was implemented.
Approximately 40 percent of Yemenis are now facing food insecurity. The escalation of economic competition among warring parties and intensifying drought conditions driven by climate change continue to worsen this vulnerability. As winter rapidly approaches, Shelter Cluster partners estimate that 54,000 displaced and vulnerable families require support and protection against severe low temperatures. As of mid-December, the 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), which sought $4.3 billion to assist 17.9 million Yemenis, was only 55.5 percent funded. Without continued commitments from donors, UN OCHA Yemen has warned that millions of people, most of them women and children, will go hungry.
Across the country, humanitarian aid workers continue to face challenges in reaching vulnerable populations due to bureaucratic impediments, including interference in humanitarian operations and travel permit denials or delays. Violence against humanitarian personnel by IRG-affiliated armed groups has impeded humanitarian access in the Lahij Governorate, where fighting and active displacement are underway. In Houthi-controlled areas, mahram policies requiring females to be accompanied by male guardians impede the movement of female aid workers and access to vulnerable women and girls. The combined impact of access challenges and inadequate funding have forced aid organizations to limit or shut down critical aid programming.
A Path Forward
While not perfect, the truce enabled a level of stabilization within Yemen and provided a glimpse of a quieter future. Substantial improvements in humanitarian conditions, however, depend on continued international support and the willingness of the parties to facilitate humanitarian access and commit to a political solution.
In the immediate term, all efforts must be made to protect vulnerable populations from resurgent hostilities and to support humanitarian response efforts. The Houthis and the IRG must recognize their responsibility to facilitate humanitarian access and foster improved humanitarian conditions through peace negotiations. While the cooperation of the coalition forces is an important component of any future agreement, peace will be dependent on the concessions and commitments of the local parties. All parties to the conflict, however, should be held accountable by the international community in accordance with their obligation to protect civilians. Although progress on human rights and governance issues will take time, quicker political and diplomatic gains can be made by removing the bureaucratic and armed impediments to humanitarian actors.
Current and future humanitarian operations must also be sustained with sufficient funding. Despite the impact of global financial austerity, and the substantial funding dedicated to the impacts of the war in Ukraine, some key donors have maintained their funding for Yemen. In March 2022, leading donor states pledged more than $1.3 billion at the United Nation’s High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen; the United States alone almost doubled its contribution from $805,865,648 in FY 2021 to nearly $1.1 billion in FY 2022. However, amid growing humanitarian needs, total pledges were $370 million below the previous year. Notably, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates failed to make pledges, despite having accounted for about 40 percent of pledged funds in 2021. The two countries have also reduced their combined contribution to this year’s HRP by more than $350 million. Given their engagement in the conflict and previous commitment to support humanitarian action in response, these states should recommit themselves to supporting humanitarian activities.
As back-channel discussions to advance the UN-backed peace negotiations continue, the parties must find a way to build trust and promote a comprehensive resolution of the conflict. However, the establishment of a durable ceasefire, halting hostilities, and providing a pathway for settlement will be dependent on the ability of mediators to create value incentivizing sustained cooperation among the parties and on the parties themselves leading and embracing a negotiated process. The future of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis will ultimately depend on the perception that continued conflict offers no hope for the future, as well as a collective endorsement of a way out of the conflict that prioritizes the dignity and safety of Yemen’s civilian population.
Sierra Ballard is a research assistant with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jacob Kurtzer is a senior associate with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.
This commentary was made possible through the generous support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of are the sole responsibility of CSIS and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government.