top of page

United Nations workers captured by Houthi rebels

17 Jun 2024

What is happening in Yemen?

Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels have detained at least 11 United Nations personnel and several other aid workers in an apparent coordinated crackdown. The abductions, which took place in various parts of the war-torn country, underscore the challenges facing humanitarian workers in Yemen, where a long-running civil war has precipitated one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, are an armed political and religious group that champions Yemen's Shia Muslim minority, the Zaidis. They emerged in the 1990s and have been fighting against the internationally recognised Yemeni government since 2014. The Houthis control the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country's north-west, including the Red Sea coastline.

As part of what they call an "axis of resistance" against Israel, the US, and the wider West, the Houthis have been launching drone and missile strikes targeting commercial ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden since November. The group says these attacks are intended to pressure Israel to end its war in Gaza, which has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians.

In the latest development, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric confirmed that the Houthis had detained 11 Yemeni employees of UN agencies, including two women and nine men working for five different UN bodies and the UN envoy for Yemen. The Mayyun Organisation for Human Rights reported that at least 18 Yemeni aid workers were kidnapped in four Houthi-controlled parts of the country: Sanaa, Hodeida, Amran, and Saada.

Human Rights Watch decried the detentions, stating that the Houthis "appear to be arbitrarily detaining the individuals based on their employment" and that the whereabouts of many remain unknown. The abductees include the husband and children, ages three years and nine months, of a woman who works with a civil society organisation in Yemen.

Yemeni government officials told Reuters that employees of the US-funded pro-democracy group National Democratic Institute (NDI) and a local human rights group were also detained in the raids.

The UN, along with Yemeni government officials and human rights organisations, has called for the immediate and unconditional release of the detained staff. UN spokesman Dujarric said the world body was "pursuing all available channels" to secure their safe release and to ensure access to the personnel arrested.

Yemen's internationally recognised government condemned the "massive abduction campaign," with Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani calling it an "unprecedented escalation and a flagrant violation of international laws and conventions."

The detentions come at a time of increased tensions and questions over the sustainability of the relative calm between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. The Houthis are facing economic pressure and airstrikes from a US-led coalition in response to their attacks on international shipping.

What is in it for you?

For readers in Yemen, the detention of UN personnel and aid workers by the Houthis is likely to have a direct and severe impact on their daily lives. The ongoing civil war has already created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with millions of Yemenis relying on international aid for necessities such as food, water, and healthcare.

The detention of aid workers could lead to a suspension or reduction of crucial humanitarian assistance in Houthi-controlled areas, exacerbating the suffering of civilians who are already struggling to survive. This could result in increased food insecurity, a lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and a deterioration in the provision of healthcare services.

The ongoing civil war in Yemen, which began in 2015, has had a devastating impact on the country's food security, pushing millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine. As a result, Yemen is now facing one of the worst food crises in the world, with the United Nations warning that over 16 million people are at risk of going hungry, and nearly 50,000 are already living in famine-like conditions.

Moreover, the crackdown on aid workers and the targeting of individuals based on their employment with international organisations may create a climate of fear and intimidation, making it even more challenging for humanitarian agencies to operate effectively in Yemen. This could further hinder the delivery of life-saving aid to those who need it most.

Furthermore, the Houthis' attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which they claim are in solidarity with Palestinians in the ongoing Gaza war, risk escalating regional tensions and drawing other countries into the conflict. This could have far-reaching consequences for the Middle East’s stability, security, and economic development.

On a global scale, the detention of UN staff and aid workers in Yemen could have significant negative impacts on humanitarian efforts worldwide, particularly in conflict zones such as Gaza. The Houthis have justified their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as a show of solidarity with Palestinians in the ongoing Gaza war. However, their actions against aid workers in Yemen undermine the very principles of humanitarian assistance and could hinder the delivery of crucial aid to those in need, including in Gaza.

The targeting of humanitarian personnel by the Houthis sets a dangerous precedent that could encourage other armed groups to take similar actions, putting aid workers at greater risk and jeopardising the ability of international organisations to operate in conflict-affected areas.

The detention of UN staff and aid workers in Yemen is a concern for those with relatives or friends working for international organisations in conflict zones. For families and loved ones of those working for the UN and other aid agencies, news of the detentions in Yemen may cause increased anxiety and worry for the safety and well-being of their relatives. This event may also lead to a reassessment of the security protocols and support provided to staff working in high-risk areas, as organisations grapple with the need to ensure the safety of their personnel while continuing to deliver critical assistance to those in need.

What happens next?

In the short term, the focus will be on securing the immediate and unconditional release of the detained UN personnel and aid workers. If the detained individuals are released quickly, it may help to mitigate the immediate impact on humanitarian operations in Yemen. However, even a short-term disruption in aid delivery could have severe consequences for the millions of Yemenis who rely on international assistance for their survival. The incident may also lead to a temporary suspension or scaling back of aid operations in Houthi-controlled areas, as organisations assess the security risks and reevaluate their presence on the ground.

In the long term, the detention of UN staff and aid workers by the Houthis could have far-reaching implications for the humanitarian situation in Yemen and the broader conflict. Furthermore, the Houthis' actions may erode trust and cooperation between the group and the international community, making it more challenging to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The incident could also strain the already fragile relationships between the Houthis and other actors in Yemen, such as the internationally recognised government and regional powers. 

The Polis Team in London

bottom of page