By Matthew Russell Lee
UNITED NATIONS, March 30, updated with video — Amid continued airstrikes in Yemen, on March 30 came reports of an airstrike on an internally displaced persons camp in Haradh. Inner City Press immediately sought confirmation (and comment) from the UN, and then from the US State Department.
From the State Department transcript:
Inner City Press: about Yemen. There’s this report of an IDP camp in northern Yemen called Haradh that was hit, and MSF said that several dozen people were killed by an airstrike. And I wanted – last week, Jeff Rathke said that the U.S. couldn’t corroborate casualties. But does the U.S. have anything to say about the way in which the campaign is being waged and safeguards that should be in place? And do you – is there any – do you see the situation moving closer toward resuming dialogue between Houthis and Hadi, or further away?
MS. HARF: Well, that’s certainly the goal, right, to get on a path back to political dialogue. So even through the military action that we’re supporting, that is the goal. I think it’s a challenge at the moment given the Houthis’ actions, quite frankly, but we’re trying.
I just saw the report before I got on the phone about the IDP camp, so let me look into that and see if there’s more we can share. I just don’t know the facts on it. But in every conflict, we’ve always been clear that all sides should avoid civilian casualties. That’s certainly – I mean, it’s important for us. We’ve called on all sides in conflicts, including here, to take feasible measures to minimize harm to civilians, so that’s obviously important to us. But let me check on the specifics and see if we can anything back to you after the briefing.
Later on March 30, a US State Department official made this response to Inner City Press, on background:
“We have seen the media reports regarding the attack on the Mazraq camp for internally displaced Yemenis, which reportedly left over 20 individuals dead. We cannot confirm details of the attack. We offer our condolences to the families of the victims. The loss of civilian life in any conflict is tragic.
“We call upon all sides in Yemen to comply with international humanitarian law, including the obligation to take all feasible measures to minimize harm to civilians.”
Inner City Press also asked the March president of the UN Security Council, Francois Delattre of France, about the Haradh IDP camp; he said it had not come up in the UN Security Council. Yet? Video here.
At the March 30 UN noon briefing, Inner City Press asked UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq if the UN had any comment on civilian casualties in the Saudi-led offensive on Yemen, and if Ban Ki-moon raised the issue at the Arab League summit.
Haq said Ban had raised it. But what has been said publicly by the UN? Haq said the UN pulled 100 international staffers out of the country on Saturday but still has 13 internationals and 700 local staff and partners there.
Inner City Press asked Haq if any of these 713 were in the Haradh camp. This, Haq did not answer.
It was UNHCR which answered first, via its Spokesperson for Asia, Babar Baloch:
“Dear Matthew: Sadly, the reports are correct. Our team on the ground confirms the attack on Al Mazraq area in Hajjah that took place around 11.30am local time with unconfirmed reports of 15 to 20 deaths and as many injured. There are two IDP camps in the area that host some 1100 displaced families. We are not able to confirm how the attack happened, but remain concerned for the safety and security of the displaced.”
In front of the UN Security Council on the morning of March 30, questions were asked of entering Ambassadors – nearly all about Boko Haram. Inner City Press asked a spokesperson about the airstrike on IDPs in Yemen but news seemed not to have reached the Security Council. Later, a Council member’s spokesperson said they’ve heard of it but do not for now anticipate any meeting. Why not?
An hour later, still silence from Ban Ki-moon and the UN Office of the Spokesperson. Finally, four minutes before the day’s noon briefing, this from UN Spokesperson’s Office:
“OCHA in Yemen says that its local partners report that airstrikes hit one of the IDP camps and the surrounding area in Hajjah and that there are reports of civilian casualties. The United Nations and partners are working to verify this information.”
At the highest levels, the UN system is in a sense “all – in” with the Saudi military coalition, quiet on the fact that it includes Sudan and on civilian casualties.
Back on March 27 in Washington Inner City Press asked State Department spokesperson Jeff Rathke if the US has been in contact with the UN’s Jamal Benomar:
“On Yemen, has the U.S. had any contact with Jamal Benomar, the special advisor who’s supposed to be mediating? And how do you think that the – what’s the process from bombing to getting the Houthis back to the table? Is anyone actually reaching out to them?”
Rathke said he didn’t have such information in front of him. But later a State Department official told Inner City Press on background:
“We remain in regular contact with UN Special Advisor Jamal Benomar. We understand that Benomar remains engaged with political representatives from all parties, including the Houthis. While we have not had direct contact with the Houthis, we have passed messages to them.
“The path for political dialogue will come when the Houthis and former regime elements halt their destabilizing military actions and realize that the only viable path forward is through peaceful negotiations.”
On civilian casualties in Sana’a, Rathke said “we’ve always been clear that in every conflict, all sides should avoid civilian casualties. I don’t – I’m not able to corroborate those reports that you’ve mentioned, but clearly, we think it’s important to act in a targeted way in any kind of military conflict.” Here is Amnesty International’s report. This will be updated.
Inner City Press also asked Rathke about the Maldives government threatening migrant workers with deportation for demonstrating about abusive conditions, and the 11 year sentence imposed on former defense minister Nazid. Rathke said he may revert with some comments. Here is the State Department’s March 13 comment on the Maldives, here.
And later the State Department issued a “Question Taken” about the Maldives, including press freedom, here.
On March 26 Inner City Press asked Rathke if the US thinks former President Saleh could play any role going forward, and for its position on Sudan participating in the “Saudi coalition” the US supports.
Rathke replied about the US Treasury Department sanctions imposed on Saleh on November 10, 2014, and reiterated previous US criticism. From the State Department transcript (video here from Minute 26:49)
QUESTION: Matthew Russell Lee, Inner City Press. I wanted to know what the U.S. thinks of the role of former President Saleh, and do you think that he has any role to play in the negotiations that are trying to be had? And also, you said repeatedly that the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, and it’s said that Sudan is one of the partners and that they’ve offered three air force planes. And I wanted to know, would the U.S. support Sudanese participation in bombing Yemen?
MR. RATHKE: So I’ll take the second one first. We are aware that the Government of Sudan has announced that it is taking part in the actions organized by the Saudis. We’re not in a position to confirm the details of or the nature of their participation. Again, this is a Saudi-organized and Saudi-led coalition, so I don’t have more to say on that aspect.
You asked about former President Saleh. And so we have long made clear our concerns about the obstructive role that former President Saleh plays in Yemen. He has consistently sought to undermine Yemen’s political transition. This is widely recognized by the international community, which, in fact, sanctioned former President Saleh under UN Security Council Resolution 2140 just a few months ago. That was in November 2014. And the reason was for his obstruction of the political transition and undermining the government.
The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned former President Saleh on November 10th, 2014 for engaging in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security, and stability of Yemen. So our position on him and his role, I think, is quite clear.
On Inner City Press’ question on Sudan, note this is the same Sudanese air force bombing civilians in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
Inner City Press also asked Rathke about the US restricting Cuban diplomats to within 25 miles of Columbus Circle in New York — Rathke said this is being negotiated, along with the US’ desire for free movement in Cuba — and if the US will be replacing Russ Feingold as Special Envoy on the Great Lakes.
I have no personnel announcements, Rathke said, twice.
Earlier in the day reporters complained about the lack of answers from the International Monetary Fund. Rathke at least kept fielding questions, and had a surprising number of if-asked statements in his binder.
Inner City Press at the International Monetary Fund briefing on March 26 asked again about the status of the IMF program in Yemen. From the IMF transcript:
Inner City Press: I wanted to ask you about Yemen. I asked online actually a couple of times ago, and you had said it wasn’t helpful but there would be a review in the spring. Now, with these air strikes by Saudi Arabia and Houthi’s moving on Aden, what is the status of the IMF’s program, and what is the thinking, how are you going to review it?
MR. MURRAY: Thanks for that question. Well, obviously, we are watching the rapidly evolving situation in Yemen carefully and closely at the moment. Given a host of uncertainties surrounding Yemen at this moment, the first review under the Fund supported program is postponed until the situation clarifies.
When it will clarify? Can’t say. Certainly, the review mission is postponed. One of our biggest concerns about Yemen is the impact on the poorest there, and the economic reverberations of events. Way too soon to say what those will be, but we are just going to have to keep an eye on the situation.
Inner City Press: Has the IMF had any kind contact with the Houthi’s since they have been in contact –
MR. MURRAY: I’m not aware of any recent contact with the Houthi’s, certainly not in recent days. I really don’t have any recent guidance on that.
Back on January 22, Murray had answered Inner City Press that while events in Yemen were not helpful, the review was not until Spring. Now it is postponed indefinitely.