If they are to stay impartial, UN agencies in Yemen must reject Saudi coalition funding

Agencies accepting Saudi funding in Yemen is tantamount to unwittingly abetting the coalition’s war effort and the resultant humanitarian crisis.

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Florence Nightingale, the modern nursing pioneer famed for her work with injured soldiers during the Crimean War, was surprisingly critical of Swiss businessman Henri Dunant’s vision of a voluntary relief society to aid wounded soldiers. She said that such a society would relieve governments of their duties to the injured, “which would render war more easy".

Yemen, where a Saudi Arabian-led coalition has waged a brutal war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since 2015, is proving her uncomfortably right. The Saudis and their allies are conducting this war without explicit authorisation from the United Nations Security Council, the UN organ that is principally responsible for upholding international peace and security. This intervention has resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths and impacts millions of Yemenis in what the UN describes as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Dunant’s proposed society would eventually develop into the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the oldest humanitarian aid organisation in the world. But Nightingale’s criticism of Dunant’s proposal and its underlying ideas, which have come to define the international humanitarian architecture over the last 160 years, continues to resonate today.

Humanitarian aid provides relief to millions of people in conflict situations around the world. However, it can allow protagonists of conflicts to shirk their responsibilities towards war-affected populations and can be used by them as a public relations tool, enabling them to prolong conflicts. While carrying out their military campaign in Yemen, coalition members have been providing funds to several much-admired humanitarian organisations which form part of the UN system, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Health Organisation.

Although critics, echoing Nightingale, may argue that the mere provision of aid by these organisations absolves the warring parties of their obligations towards impacted Yemenis, it is these organisations’ acceptance of coalition funding that is jarring. In fact, it is tantamount to unwittingly abetting the coalition’s war effort and the resultant humanitarian crisis. This risks undermining the work and credibility of these UN aid agencies, which should refuse this funding.

Even with the political manoeuvring within the UN, aid provided by UN organisations has generally been perceived as adhering to the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. These principles, which trace their origins to the ICRC, have been adopted by the UN General Assembly.

As UN agencies take funds for Yemen from coalition members, the perception of its impartiality, independence and neutrality is being eroded away. Over the last four years, these agencies have received hundreds of millions of dollars for Yemen. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a coalition member, contributed $240 million just to the WFP. Although they have yet to deliver the full amount, both countries have pledged $1.5 billion for 2019 for Yemen humanitarian programs, including to several other UN organisations. 

The share of these organisations' Yemen funding coming from these countries varies. A large part of WFP’s Yemen funding is from the two Gulf states, which, ironically, is being used to address the ongoing food insecurity caused by their hostile actions.

Despite these UN organisations’ public calls for the fighting to stop, they still accept this financing, which allows the coalition to obfuscate its role in the conflict. Last year, a leaked internal UN document indicated that the Saudi government had demanded that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs push for positive publicity for its aid funding in Yemen. 

As highlighted in a report in June by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (Acled), the coalition is responsible for 67 per cent of civilian fatalities in Yemen from direct attacks: the good publicity provided by its funding of aid agencies provides the coalition with cover to dampen the level of international political outcry that it might otherwise face, and enable it to continue its military operations. 

UN organisations’ decision to accept money from Saudi Arabia and its allies is driven by expediency. Tasked with simultaneously tackling numerous humanitarian challenges around the world, they are desperate for funding. The support for the coalition from major Western powers, such as the United States, Britain, and France, which are major aid donors, also serves as a greenlight for these organisations to accept this money. 

Although it will be challenging from a fundraising perspective, there needs to be a rule that prevents UN agencies from accepting financing from any state directly involved in military action in a country for humanitarian activities there. The only exception to this rule should be if that action is authorised by the UN Security Council, which would effectively commit the entire UN to that action. Without such a rule, it would not be long before UN relief activities elsewhere in the world also become susceptible to greater manipulation, further risking these agencies’ effectiveness and, eventually, their relevance. 

In the tradition of Nightingale, Sadako Ogata, the respected head of UNHCR in the 1990s, often stated that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” Instead, she contended that political will is key to resolving humanitarian problems. Accordingly, if the coalition were sincere about ending the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it would cease its military intervention and intensify its diplomatic efforts in seeking a political resolution to the conflict. 

By publicly rejecting coalition funding, UN organisations might expose the coalition to greater public pressure and maybe slow down or halt the conflict – which may be the best thing these organisations can do to stop the flow of casualties.

Arslan Malik, an adjunct professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, outside Washington, DC, has worked with the United Nations in New York and in several field assignments. He has previously contributed to the New Statesman.