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Governments are starving Yemenis, fuelling black markets through anti-terror legislation

by Christina Bennett | Overseas Development Institute
Wednesday, 24 October 2018 14:04 GMT

A man holds a sign as he demonstrates against the deteriorating economy in Taiz, Yemen, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Large-scale famine in Yemen is almost assured if Yemenis' access to food and other forms of humanitarian assistance isn’t unlocked.

Christina Bennett is head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute.

The news coming out of Yemen these days paints a bleak picture – more than 10,000 conflict-related deaths, an ongoing cholera epidemic and now the risk of famine for 14 million people. Even more shocking is the fact this has been caused in part by a deliberate economic blockade in a country dependent on imports for 90 percent of its food, and from targeted airstrikes on local farms and fisheries. 

What is little discussed, however, is the degree to which many -- mostly Western -- governments around the world are complicit in the Yemen's people starvation, using far-reaching counter-terrorism laws which directly block the delivery of aid, including food aid, and prevent humanitarian organisations from doing their work.

While these laws are ostensibly aimed at reducing the chances of aid money ending up in the hands of terrorists, the reality is they make it extremely difficult for aid organisations to carry out their life-saving work in regions where they are often needed most and cut off besieged populations from key supplies, such as food.

Though similar measures had been in place in many countries since the 1970’s, these laws were expanded after 9/11 to apply to any group or individual perceived as being associated with terrorism. This means that organisations working in ‘high risk’ places like Yemen must guarantee that neither they, nor any of the people they work with, are in some way benefiting terrorist groups - a level of compliance that most aid organisations find difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Banks and other financial institutions have also followed suit, using this legislation to block, delay or freeze funds to organisations working in conflict zones.

Countries such as Australia have already passed certain exceptions that allow humanitarian organisations to operate in areas controlled by listed terrorist groups, but this practice is not widespread. The United States has previously permitted some degree of latitude to NGOs on an understanding that reaching needy people requires working in places controlled by insurgent groups, but in September tightened the screws on aid organisations working in Syria with a new set of restrictions that make it both impossible and undesirable to do so.

In Yemen, research by the Overseas Development Institute found delayed financial transactions meant critical food assistance programmes have been delayed or shut down for lack of funds. In one case, food was left to rot in a warehouse while the distribution company waited for money to come in.  Funds transfer restrictions have also crippled the Central Bank of Yemen, depriving local traders from important sources of cash and credit and rendering Yemenis unable to purchase what food and other goods make it into the country. It has also delayed or blocked transactions from US and European banks, forcing aid organisations to stop or reduce aid programmes because of a lack of funds. 

By cutting off key relief lifelines, counter-terrorism legislation is also enabling the very behaviours these restrictions are supposed to address. In the case of Yemen, the restrictions on official aid have forced many to turn to the black market for food, fuel and money transfers where money is more likely to end up in the accounts of terrorist organisations.

And governments’ increasingly inconsistent and unachievable set of counter-terrorism demands have left aid organisations feeling frustrated and confused. Despite having well-developed and sophisticated mechanisms that comply with global transparency standards and counter-terrorism legislation, many are seeing their finances delayed, bank accounts frozen or closed, operations stalled, and staff threatened with legal action. Often, their response is simply to suspend work in the worst hit areas to avoid the risk of prosecution.  We saw this same pattern in Somalia in 2011, where widespread famine killed 250,000 people, due to the aid blockages and restrictions placed on relief supplies and aid organisations in large swathes of the country controlled by Al Shabab.

Criminalising historically legitimate and lawful forms of humanitarian engagement and cutting aid organisations off from the resources they need makes them slower and less effective, wastes relief supplies, and, ultimately, destroys the lives of destitute people.  In the case of Yemen, such laws are putting millions of Yemenis on the brink of famine.

Governments must rethink current counter-terrorism legislation now ensure that aid gets through. The clearest way of doing this would be to exempt humanitarian action in counter-terrorism legislation, or frame counter-terrorism offences more narrowly to avoid conflict with humanitarian operations. If what happened in Somalia in 2011 is any indication, large-scale famine in Yemen is almost assured if Yemenis' access to food and other forms of humanitarian assistance isn’t unlocked.