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Yemen: UN chief demands release of aid workers held by Houthis

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Four additional UN staff members have been detained and held incommunicado by the de facto authorities since 2021 and 2023, without access to their families or their respective organizations and agencies. 

This is an alarming development that raises serious concerns about the Houthis’ commitment to a negotiated solution to the conflict. The United Nations condemns all arbitrary detention of civilians,” Mr. Guterres said. “I demand the immediate and unconditional release of all detained UN personnel.”

The UN chief’s call came as he met with his Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, in Jordan. They discussed recent developments in Yemen including an escalating crackdown on civic space by the de facto authorities that reportedly led to the arbitrary detention of dozens of UN, NGO, and aid workers.

UN and civil society targeted

The Special Envoy’s Office noted that the four staff held ahead of the latest detentions worked for the UN education, scientific and cultural agency, UNESCO, and the UN human rights office, OHCHR.

The 13 UN staff detained over the past few days included six from OHCHR, one each from the Office of the Special Envoy (OSESGY), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Programme (WFP), UN World Health Organization (WHO) and two from UNESCO. At least 11 civil society workers were also arrested.

In the meeting between the Secretary-General and Mr. Grundberg, the Special Envoy briefed on efforts to secure the release of the personnel including a meeting on Monday with Mohamed Abdul Salam, the Houthi chief negotiator, in Muscat. He also met senior Omani officials to solicit support. 

“We are working diligently to secure the immediate and unconditional release of our detained personnel through all available channels,” Mr. Grundberg told UN News, as he called for the release of all arrested NGO workers as well. 

During their encounter, the Secretary-General and his Special Envoy also stressed that the United Nations stands in solidarity with all humanitarian workers and civil society actors who play a crucial role in providing life-saving assistance and support to the people of Yemen. 

Human rights chief’s call

Echoing the call to immediately release all the detainees, UN human rights chief Volker Türk expressed deep concern about the conditions in which they were being held, while also rejecting false allegations about their activities.

Two of the UN personnel detained last week are women, along with at least one other female civil society worker, continued the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as he insisted on an immediate end to “any further targeting” of human rights and aid workers in Yemen.

The UN human rights office has been working in Yemen since 2012, Mr. Türk noted, “for the promotion and protection of the rights of all the people of Yemen, including through engagement with the de facto authorities”.

Humanitarian crisis impact

The development has added to deepening concerns about the humanitarian emergency in Yemen where needs remain huge.

After nearly a decade of conflict between the internationally recognized government in and despite truce conditions largely holding, aid teams have repeatedly warned that 17.6 million people – half of the population in Yemen – face food insecurity and nearly half of all children under five suffer from moderate to severe stunting. 

According to the UN aid coordination office, OCHA, 4.5 million people remain displaced across the Arabian peninsula country, many of whom have experienced multiple displacements over several years, as a result of more than nine years of conflict between the Government of Yemen and the de facto Houthi authority in control of the capital, Sana’a, and other areas of the country.

Top relief official’s plea

According to UN’s top relief official, the recent wave of detentions could have a negative impact on an already dire situation. 

“Aid workers are neutral in a conflict. Their safety and the safety of the civilians they serve must be guaranteed,” said Martin Griffiths, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator to UN News. Ahead of the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha beginning this weekend, he added: “My heart goes out to the families of the detained personnel who fear for the wellbeing of their loved ones instead of celebrating Eid al-Adha together.” 

Peace moves

In his briefing to the Security Council last month, UN Special Envoy Grundberg noted that the warring parties had agreed to a number of commitments in December including a nationwide ceasefire and an inclusive political process under UN auspices. 

However, he warned that announcements by Ansar Allah – the official name for the Houthi movement – to expand the scope of attacks on Red Sea shipping were a “worrisome provocation in an already volatile situation”.

On Tuesday, Mr. Grundberg told UN News that the recent arrests hinder his efforts and erode trust. However, he noted that his efforts to convene the parties to address key issues related to the economy, a nationwide ceasefire and the launch of talks to reach a sustainable political settlement will continue for the benefit of the Yemeni people.

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