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Campaigners slam 'whitewash' as Saudi Arabia co-hosts Yemen humanitarian conference

Saudi Arabia aimed to raise $2.3bn at UN co-hosted virtual conference on Tuesday
A Yemeni policeman wearing a protective face mask stands at a street market in Yemen's third city of Taez (AFP

Human rights groups have criticised a move by the United Nations to co-host an event with Saudi Arabia to raise funds for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

The kingdom was seeking to raise $2.3bn from the emergency donor conference on Tuesday with UN chief Antonio Guterres warning that aid workers faced a "race against time" in the war-ravaged country.

The conference, which was set to take place virtually owing to the coronavirus pandemic, looks to cover emergency requirements in Yemen, including medical aid, food and shelter assistance.

Britain, a leading arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, stepped in Tuesday with a new aid package for Yemen worth £160m ($200m).

"This targeted UK aid package will mean the difference between life and death for thousands of Yemenis who now also face the threat of coronavirus," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.

Along with Guterres, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan and Mark Lowcock - UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs - took part in the virtual conference.

However, human rights campaigners have described the conference as a "whitewash" that ignores Saudi complicity in the state of affairs in the country, where it has been waging an intense bombing campaign since 2015 against Houthi rebels.

“Saudi Arabia keeps trying to whitewash its coalition’s role in the deepening humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, but cohosting the funding event won't fool anyone," Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

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"The Saudi-led coalition, along with Houthi forces that have brutalised civilians and obstructed aid, should immediately cease violating the laws of war and put an end to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen for which they're all responsible.”

The UN had projected that Yemen would pass a death toll of 230,000 by the end of 2019, a figure that combines both deaths from fighting and deaths from diseases exacerbated by the fighting.

While Yemen has already been branded the world's worst humanitarian crisis, aid agencies have warned that a severe outbreak of coronavirus could end up compounding the problem even further.

A survey by 24 international aid groups, including Save the Children, has warned that around 5.5 million people face losing access to food and clean water in Yemen this year.

Prior to Tuesday's conference, Lowcock flagged a funding requirement of $2.4bn for Yemen by the end of 2020, including $180m to battle Covid-19.

So far Yemen has only registered 323 cases of the pandemic in the country, but the country's crumbling and destroyed health infrastructure means any outbreak is potentially devastating.