France urged to cancel joint Saudi conference on Yemen

French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo by: Michele Limina / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

BRUSSELS — France is under pressure to abandon next Wednesday’s humanitarian conference on Yemen, co-organized with Saudi Arabia, as NGOs argue it is “inconceivable” to hold it in light of the Saudi-led offensive against the port of Hodeida.

There have also been criticisms about a lack of clarity over the event. One week ahead of the meeting in the French capital, major partners, including officials from the United Nations and European Union member states, were still in the dark about what it would entail and who would attend. Civil society groups, meanwhile, are weighing whether to show up to a consultation with the French government next week, having been excluded from the main event.

“It’s difficult to understand that France would co-organize an event with one of the parties to the conflict, which is right now attacking civilians and at the same time trying to present itself as a key humanitarian actor,” said Fanny Petitbon, advocacy manager for CARE France. “The Saudis and UAE are heavily funding the U.N. humanitarian response plan. But it’s a completely schizophrenic position. For us, France would lose all its credibility if it maintained the conference.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said in April that the meeting would offer “clarity on what is being done and what needs to be done, and allow for new humanitarian initiatives for civilians to be taken.” But officials from two major partners working on Yemen told Devex they had “no idea” about the conference agenda, and were yet to receive invitations a few days before it is due to be held.

A Saudi-led coalition, including the United Arab Emirates and with logistical support from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, has been fighting the Iran-backed Houthi separatist movement in Yemen since 2015, in an effort to restore the internationally recognized government of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The U.N. human rights office had documented more than 5,000 civilian deaths by the end of last year, though campaign groups say the true figure is likely much higher, and Saudi Arabia has been accused of blocking humanitarian access.

Battle for Hodeida puts local aid workers in the crosshairs

A Saudi-led offensive on Yemen's major port city is putting access to food and water at risk, and placing increased strain on local aid workers as the security situation deteriorates further, international NGOs have warned.

In two letters to Macron this month, a group of NGOs said that any attack on Hodeida — a key port city for food and aid supplies — would make holding a humanitarian conference in conjunction with Saudi Arabia “inconceivable.” Such an attack came last week.

“Large parts of the Yemeni population would be at risk of entrapment, displacement, disease and worsening food insecurity, including possible famine,” the group, including Oxfam France, Médecins du Monde, Humanity & Inclusion, and the Norwegian Refugee Council wrote to Macron on June 13, just as the offensive was starting. “Such dramatic consequences for civilians would stand in stark contrast to the stated intentions of the conference. In this context, we urge you to reconsider your engagement in this initiative and make it clear publicly.”

Aid groups told Devex last week that the offensive on Hodeida was increasing the risk of cholera and famine, and putting local aid workers in danger. The latest fighting has also put the spotlight on French arms sales to coalition forces, including tanks, fighter jets, and artillery. In 2016, France approved export licenses potentially worth up to €45 billion ($51.84 billion) to Saudi Arabia and UAE, with deliveries worth about €2 billion, according to Reuters. French media reported last week that French special forces were present in Yemen with UAE forces. The U.S. and U.K. have also been criticized for supplying arms to Saudi Arabia during the course of the conflict.

The French government said last week that the offensive made holding the conference even more important. “Reports on the ground convince us of the need for the international community to pay special attention to the question of humanitarian access. That is the purpose of the humanitarian conference we have proposed to hold on June 27,” the foreign ministry said. It added that Macron had spoken with Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and “called on stakeholders to exercise restraint and to protect civilian populations.”

Petitbon said the French government seemed happy simply to have got Saudi Arabia to the table to talk about humanitarian issues, but that for CARE it was not good enough unless it came alongside concrete aims and action.

Fighting intensified this week as coalition forces battled to claim Hodeida airport. A resident told Reuters: “Water has been cut off to many of the areas near the Corniche area because the Houthis have dug trenches and closed water pipes. Many people are fleeing these neighborhoods and going deeper into the city center.” Around 600,000 people live in and around Hodeida. U.N. humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande said before the offensive that “in a prolonged worst case, we fear that as many as 250,000 people may lose everything — even their lives.”

Civil society are not the only ones lamenting the lack of detail on Wednesday’s conference. Asked what the concrete results might be, an official from a major EU member state who works on Yemen, told Devex on Monday: “I have no idea. We have very, very little information … We don’t have an invitation yet and there is no agenda. So we don’t know what the deliverables or topics are going to be.”

“The French are very well known for their ability to organize conferences,” the official added. “[But] if it were my team, I’d be pretty worried.”

A U.N. official told Devex on Tuesday that no formal invitation had been received and that no information had been conveyed from the French side on what the conference would involve or what it hoped to achieve.

A French official said last week that the agenda would likely be set “a few days” beforehand, adding that “with these kinds of international conferences the last details on the agenda, the deliverables, the participation of people, are often decided very late.”

“We are still discussing with the Saudis to define the concrete agenda and what will be scheduled,” the official said. “Such discussions usually take time, to be sure that we’re in tune on that.”

A donor pledging conference on the Yemen conflict was held in Geneva, Switzerland, in April, where Saudi Arabia and UAE each pledged $500 million — nearly half the $2.01 billion that was promised by 40 states.

The French official said the Paris meeting “is not a donor conference. Its importance is to address humanitarian access, to first assess the U.N. humanitarian needs and to deliver on concrete actions to ease the U.N. access and to alleviate the conditions of Yemeni people.”

However, NGOs are concerned that participating in an event outside U.N. auspices — in contrast to the pledging conference — risks creating a perception of bias. “Even as humanitarian organizations, our level of engagement in the conference could be misconstrued as cooperating with a party to the conflict,” said Suze van Meegen, protection and advocacy adviser at NRC.

Van Meegen added that the participation of Yemeni civil society is “essential” to the success of the conference, but “the capacity of those people to participate safely with a belligerent determining their movements and then having a list of their names is questionable, which raises questions about the whole conference and the structure of it.”

The French foreign ministry did not respond to questions about how they plan to involve Yemeni civil society at the conference, why NGOs are not invited to the main meeting, or the status of invitations to attendees.

However, a spokesperson said: “The humanitarian conference we are considering will be organized first at an expert level on June 27 to discuss the situation and the measures to be taken in the light of recent developments on the ground in Yemen. NGOs will be consulted, international organizations associated, and states that have a role to play in facilitating humanitarian access will be invited.”

NGOs met with the French government on Monday at the Elysee palace in Paris, where officials maintained that the conference would go ahead.

“For them, it’s actually a big win to expose the Saudis and Emiratis on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis, so [the French] feel that France is really taking a big risk in hosting the conference and it’s very brave and courageous to do it,” Petitbon said.

“But for us, hosting a conference is not going to make the difference, it’s about what we want to achieve with it — not just a one-day event ... When we asked the French what they wanted to get out of the conference we didn’t really get a clear answer. It was extremely vague and they were just happy to know that the Saudis have accepted to talk about international humanitarian law,” she added.

At the meeting on Monday, Petitbon said that French officials mentioned the possibility of a two-hour consultation with NGOs on Thursday this week, which the officials would then synthesize for Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to include at the beginning of the conference. However, no invitations arrived and NGOs told Devex the consultation is now expected early next week. The French foreign ministry said the consultation was “confirmed,” without giving a date.

Petitbon added that NGOs were split on whether to attend any consultation and would likely decide at the last minute. “Some NGOs said, ‘we’ve never refused to go to any meeting, so why should we start now?’ Others said ‘we can’t expect anything out of this meeting and we won’t have any control on the synthesis that will be used and we don’t know what the French will take out of this consultation.’”

Some members of EU civil society are concerned that NGO involvement in the consultation could help legitimize a conference which they say should be scrapped.

But on Thursday, Bérénice Van Den Driessche, the EU advocacy adviser for NRC in Brussels, said that NRC would most likely attend the consultation as a “last chance” to raise their concerns and understand the “ever-changing plans” of the French government.

“The NGO consultation is not an endorsement of the conference at all,” she added.

“It may be a bit of an exercise for form, because honestly we’ve already been consulted and we’ve voiced our concerns in [the letters to Macron] but also in private. But I think if that’s the formal place to do it, then that’s the formal place to voice the problems we have with the conference.”

The Saudi foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment this week.

U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, who is working to find a political solution to the conflict, did not respond to request for comment. Griffiths will meet with EU foreign ministers on Monday next week, after which EU countries are expected to issue a joint statement.

Update, June 21: This story was updated to include a statement from the French foreign ministry provided after publication.

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.