In Hindsight: The Story of the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism in Yemen
Among the several controversies surrounding the Yemen conflict, there is one that has received relatively little attention. The creation of the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) to facilitate commercial shipping to Yemen, a country that in the pre-war period relied on foreign imports for 90 percent of its food, is another example of the difficult relationship between the UN and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting on behalf of the Yemen government. It also demonstrates the Security Council’s reluctance to insist on the proper implementation of its own resolution.
Soon after it began airstrikes in Yemen on 26 March 2015, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition imposed a naval and aerial blockade. Ships seeking entry into Yemeni ports required government authorisation and had to be inspected by coalition forces, delaying or preventing goods from entering. Vessels endured waits of up to four to six weeks before receiving a permit to enter, in particular those trying to reach Hodeidah port. The delays and uncertainty for shipping companies, along with a surge in insurance costs, further reduced the number of vessels shipping goods to Yemen. The situation was exacerbating the unfolding humanitarian crisis caused by the war, because Yemen depends very heavily on imports. Prior to the conflict, in addition to importing 90 percent of its food, it imported 85 percent of medical supplies and the majority of its fuel; this dependency could not be addressed by humanitarian aid alone. By June 2015, only 15 percent of pre-crisis imports were entering Yemen. Fuel was becoming unavailable for generators to keep hospitals open or to run water pumps. The UN began warning about the risk of famine.
The coalition argued that it was enforcing the arms embargo established by the Council in resolution 2216 against Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The measures, however, went far beyond the resolution’s mandate, which only authorised inspections when there were “reasonable grounds” to believe cargoes were in violation of the embargo. The resolution further required that states report all inspections to the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee. The coalition submitted only one inspection report of several air cargos in June 2015.
Council members bemoaned the impact of declining imports on the civilian population, but as a whole, the Council did not call out the coalition for its failure to properly comply with resolution 2216. It fell to the Secretariat to address the situation. In May 2015, the position of regional humanitarian coordinator for the Yemen crisis was created to address the complicated humanitarian response and to resolve the commercial shipping issue. Amer Daoudi, who had a background in logistics at the World Food Programme and before that in commercial shipping, was appointed to the post. He would take on the task of creating UNVIM, though it seems the US was closely involved in the initial idea.
Establishing UNVIM would require the cooperation of the government and coalition, and Daoudi would need to obtain their agreement. Briefing the Council on 28 July 2015, OCHA head Stephen O’Brien said the mechanism “has long been proposed and is still urgently needed”. O’Brien noted that negotiations were continuing. An agreement was struck by 6 August 2015, when Yemen’s transport minister sent the Secretary-General a letter formally requesting UNVIM’s establishment.
On 25 August 2015, Daoudi briefed the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee on how UNVIM would function. Shipping companies would have to notify UNVIM of all planned deliveries to Yemeni ports not under government control, and after reviewing information about the shipment, it would either clear vessels to proceed or flag them for inspection. Daoudi told the committee that UNVIM was expected to be ready in three weeks. But it would take another eight months—until 5 May 2016—for UNVIM to begin operations.
Delays in obtaining from donors the $8 million needed to start the mechanism contributed to the hold-up. UNVIM was unusual for a humanitarian mechanism, so it proved more complicated, particularly for the US, to release its contribution. Funding was finally secured in December 2015.
Daoudi also probably underestimated the political sensitivities surrounding UNVIM. Despite agreeing to UNVIM’s establishment, officials in the Yemeni government and the coalition seemed reluctant to see it become operational and give up their control. In discussions about UNVIM with Daoudi, the Saudis expressed particular concerns over dual use of fuel and about how Iran might thwart the mechanism. Around this time, as was widely reported, Saudi Arabia was also seeking restrictions that aid money it had pledged to OCHA not be used in areas controlled by the Houthis.
On 22 December 2015, OCHA Assistant Secretary-General Kyung-wha Kang told the Council that UNVIM was expected to be operational in mid-January. But by then, the Yemeni government had a new transport minister following a cabinet reshuffle and more consultations were needed. It was also during this period that Daoudi had a falling out with the Saudis. On 17 January, he was refused entry into Saudi Arabia.
The UN announced UNVIM’s launch in February. But continuing disagreements played out at the Council’s 3 March briefing, when Yemen’s ambassador, Khaled Alyemany, said the government opposed UNVIM’s being based in Djibouti. He claimed that the government had not been consulted on this location; the confusion has been attributed to the change in transport ministers. Meetings of the UNVIM steering committee, made up of the UN, Yemeni government and the coalition, in order to sign off on the operation were not organised until late April. Meanwhile, after temporary improvements in late 2015, imports were again in steep decline by early 2016.
During this entire process, some countries sought to convince Yemen and the coalition to accept UNVIM. The Council, however, mostly limited itself to stressing in its press statements on Yemen the need for commercial supplies to enter the country. Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite (Lithuania), as 2140 Committee chair, highlighted in her October 2015 briefing the failure of states to report inspections and, speaking about UNVIM at the Council’s December debate on Yemen, said “any further delays are unacceptable”. Those were the sharpest public rebukes. Only about a week before UNVIM became operational, in its 25 April presidential statement on Yemen peace talks, did the Council call on states to facilitate UNVIM’s full implementation without further delay.
Once it took off, UNVIM seems to have had a positive impact. Food imports during July were at pre-crisis levels, though fuel deliveries remained low at a quarter of needs. The Yemen Panel of Experts’ 27 July midterm report said that since UNVIM’s establishment, disruptions to commercial shipping appear to be minimal. By 30 August, UNVIM had processed 195 vessels, conducting 10 inspections which were reported to the 2140 Committee. The main impediments to imports are now attributed to reduced capacity of ports due to damage from the war.
UNVIM was conceived of as a remedy to the coalition blockade and over-zealous application of the arms embargo. It was a pragmatic solution, with potential to be a model for addressing future situations in which implementation of arms embargos might interfere with commercial shipments vital for the survival of the civilian population. But its drawn-out establishment of a year is a reminder that in politically complex situations, pragmatic solutions need political will and close attention to be able to take shape and play their intended role.