March 2020 Monthly Forecast

Posted 28 February 2020
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MIDDLE EAST

Yemen

Expected Council Action

In March, the Council is expected to hold its monthly briefing on Yemen with Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and a representative of OCHA. General Abhijit Guha, the head of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), is expected to brief during consultations. UNMHA’s mandate expires on 15 July 2020.

 Key Recent Developments

Following several months of relative calm, heavy fighting resumed in mid-January between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel group in the Nihm district and in Al-Jawf, Marib and Sa’ada governorates. The escalation has included a considerable increase in airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition backing the government. It has also featured Houthi cross-border aerial attacks against Saudi Arabia, which had completely ceased after late September 2019. Following the Houthis’ downing of a Saudi fighter plane on 14 February, Saudi airstrikes that were widely seen as retaliatory killed as many as 31 civilians in Al-Jawf on 15 February, according to a statement by OCHA.

Despite the escalation, the first medical flights transferring patients out of Sana’a for treatment abroad brought a total of 28 people to Egypt and Jordan on 3 and 8 February. An agreement to open the UN-operated air bridge out of Sana’a airport, which had been closed to civilian air traffic since August 2016, was announced by the coalition in late November 2019. The parties to the conflict participated in a meeting of the Supervisory Committee on the Implementation of the Prisoner Exchange Agreement from 10 to 16 February in Amman and agreed on a detailed plan to complete the first large-scale exchange of prisoners, according to a joint statement by the Office of the Special Envoy and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

At an 18 February Council briefing, Griffiths sounded a sombre tone over the escalation, stressing that progress achieved during the latter part of 2019 was “at grave risk of being undone”. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock reiterated the importance of a nationwide ceasefire to avoid the risk that violence might spiral out of control. Lowcock also raised new alarms about Houthi restrictions on aid operations that, he said, were not consistent with humanitarian principles, describing the situation as “unacceptable”. He said that he hoped the Houthis would implement recent announcements to drop a proposed two percent tax on non-governmental organisations and to fulfil a long-standing agreement with the World Food Programme on biometric registration. Lowcock warned that donors might suspend funding if they do not believe aid is going to the intended beneficiaries.

Lowcock and Griffiths both stressed the need for a UN assessment mission to finally gain access to the moored SAFER oil tanker off the Ras Isa oil terminal, which risks causing a catastrophic oil spill in the Red Sea. Lowcock and Griffiths further recalled that the medical air bridge out of Sana’a must be able to run flights regularly, as thousands of people require treatment abroad. In consultations, Council members were briefed by General Guha of UNMHA.

Sanctions-Related Developments

At the 18 February Council meeting, the chair of the Yemen 2140 Sanctions Committee, Ambassador Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), briefed on the work of the committee, covering its activities since the last  briefing by the chair on 15 May 2019. She noted the committee’s consideration of Panel of Experts’ recommendations from its 2019 reporting and final report in January. King called on the parties to the conflict to investigate and prosecute members who violate international humanitarian law (which was one of the Panel recommendations to the committee). According to King, the committee also recently considered a request by Khalid Ali Abdullah Saleh to delist his father, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who died in December 2017, but said that the committee had not approved the petition.

On 25 February, the Council adopted resolution 2511, renewing asset freeze and travel ban sanctions until 26 February 2021 and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 28 March 2021. (The targeted arms embargo against the Houthis is open-ended). This followed a difficult negotiation, with 13 members voting in favour, while China and Russia abstained.

Regarding the arms embargo, the US detained a dhow—a traditional ship—in the Arabian Sea on 9 February that it said was transferring Iranian arms, including anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, to the Houthis. During the Council’s February briefing on Yemen, US Ambassador Kelly Craft said evidence from the seizure had been made available to the UN.

Key Issues and Options

The military escalation is threatening to severely undermine progress made towards resuming peace talks during the latter part of 2019. Critical issues for the Council include how to support de-escalation efforts, restart negotiations for a political settlement to the conflict, and further implement the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement between the government and Houthis and the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement between the government and the separatist Southern Transition Council.

The humanitarian crisis—the largest in the world, with 24 million people requiring assistance—remains severe. OCHA usually briefs on five key priorities to mitigate the situation: the protection of civilians, humanitarian access, a fully funded aid operation, support for Yemen’s economy, and the need for a political solution.

Council members are likely to monitor and be prepared to react further to developments, having called “for an immediate cessation of these hostilities” in a 30 January press statement. The Council could consider adopting a presidential statement reiterating this call and emphasising the need for the parties to return to the negotiating table. Regarding the humanitarian situation, in resolution 2511 renewing the sanctions, the Council expressed serious concern over hindrances placed on delivering assistance, singling out increased interference in Houthi-controlled areas and emphasised the need, without delay, for UN access to inspect and maintain the SAFER oil tanker that is located in the Houthi-controlled north. A next step may see donor countries suspend funding for aid operations if Houthi interference or restrictions continue.

Council Dynamics

Council members have been quite united on Yemen. At the 18 February session, they called for the parties to de-escalate and emphasised the importance of restarting peace talks. Moreover, while the session had initially been scheduled solely as consultations, it was apparently decided to include a public session to raise widespread concerns about increasing Houthi interference with humanitarian operations and failure to allow the UN assessment mission to gain access to the SAFER oil tanker.

Council unity was strained during negotiations on the sanctions resolution. Differences included whether to refer to the Panel of Experts’ findings that the Houthis have continued to receive arms with characteristics similar to those produced in Iran. The US, in particular, at times seeks to highlight what it perceives as Iran’s destabilising role. This has been a red-line for Russia, which it described last month as being counter-productive.

The UK is the penholder on Yemen.

UN DOCUMENTS ON YEMEN

Security Council Resolutions
25 February 2020S/RES/2511 This resolution renewed the Yemen sanctions regime for one year.
13 January 2020S/RES/2505 This resolution extended the mandate of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement until 15 July 2020.
Security Council Meeting Records
25 February 2020S/PV.8732 This was the Council adoption renewing Yemen sanctions and the explanation of vote .
18 February 2020S/PV.8725 This was a briefing on Yemen with the Special Envoy Martins Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock the chair of the Yemen 2140 Sanctions Committee, Ambassador Inga Rhonda King.
Security Council Press Statement
30 January 2020SC/14094 This press statement called for an immediate cessation of the hostilities that had broken out since mid-January in northern Yemen.
Sanctions Committee Document
27 January 2020S/2020/70 This was a final report of the Yemen Panel of Experts.