Expected Council Action
In April, the Council is expected to hold its monthly briefing with Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths and a representative from OCHA. The mandate of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) expires on 15 July 2020.
Key Recent Developments
Heavy fighting has continued since mid-January, with the Houthi rebel group seizing new territory in the north and appearing poised to attack Marib governorate. The governorate and its provincial capital, the city of Marib, have emerged during the war as an important Yemeni government stronghold, experiencing an economic and population boom from Yemenis fleeing violence, its oil and gas reserves, and investments by Saudi Arabia. A battle there would further undermine progress made in late 2019 to resume a political process, as well as placing a new heavy toll on civilians, including the 800,000 internally displaced persons in Marib.
On 1 March, the Houthis took the city of Al Hazm, the capital of the northern Al Jawf governorate, resulting in a new “massive displacement”, according to OCHA. Its fall was seen as opening the way for the Houthis to attack Marib. Concerned by this prospect, Griffiths visited Marib on 7 March. In public remarks, Griffiths said, “Marib must be insulated from conflict, remain a haven for Yemenis and continue its path to development and prosperity”. He repeated his call for a freeze in military activities.
Briefing the Council on 12 March, Griffiths said that there was a real risk of a protracted military escalation. He added, “It is imperative that the parties agree to participate in a public, accountable, nationwide de-escalation mechanism that quiets the tempo of war and steers Yemen off this precarious path”. Griffiths also reported increased clashes in and around Hodeidah. The day before, according to news reports, a Houthi sniper shot a Yemeni government liaison officer serving in one of the joint observation posts set up last year to monitor the Hodeidah ceasefire. That led the government to suspend its participation in the Redeployment Coordination Committee that oversees implementation of the Hodeidah agreement. During the briefing, Griffiths also noted continued restrictions on the movement of UNMHA personnel, saying that mission patrols had not been able to enter Hodeidah city since October 2019. Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ramesh Rajasingham also briefed, echoing Griffiths’ call for a cessation of hostilities.
Echoing his appeal two days earlier for a global ceasefire in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, on 25 March, Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate ceasing of hostilities in Yemen, and for the parties to focus on reaching a political settlement and working together to counter a potential COVID-19 outbreak. The Houthis, government and Saudi Arabia-led coalition that supports the government all expressed support for the Secretary-General’s call. Despite these positive overtures, on 28 March, the coalition announced that it had intercepted two ballistic missiles as well as drones that the Houthis claimed to have fired at Riyadh and areas in southern Saudi Arabia. The attacks were followed by a series of coalition air raids on Sana’a.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 43rd session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) received an oral update on 27 February from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on the human rights situation in Yemen. Bachelet told the HRC that since March 2015, OHCHR has verified and confirmed the killing of 7,734 civilians, including 2,103 children, and injuries to 12,269 others due to indiscriminate attacks, landmines, improvised explosive devices, and the storage of weapons and explosives in residential areas, by all parties to the conflict. The actual numbers are likely to be far higher, she said. Despite the ceasefire in Hodeidah, it was the location with the highest number of civilian casualties in 2019 (102 civilians killed and 310 injured), she added. Thousands more people have died from illness and malnutrition resulting from constraints on humanitarian aid, the blockade, and the collapse of the economy and key institutions and services. Currently, out of a national population of 30.5 million people, 20.1 million face hunger and 14.4 million need immediate assistance for their sustenance or survival. Since March 2015, 3.65 million people have been displaced, including 410,000 in 2019, she said.
In a 6 March statement, OHCHR expressed concern over the 35 Yemeni parliamentarians sentenced to death—in absentia—by the Houthi-controlled Specialized Criminal Court on 3 March on charges related to their participation in last year’s April 2019 parliamentary meeting in Sayoun that had been called for by President Abdo Raboo Mansour Hadi.
Key Issues and Options
The military escalation has significantly set back progress made during the latter part of 2019 to resume a political process through the dialogue between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement between the government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council. Critical issues include how the Security Council can support de-escalation efforts and the resumption of an inclusive political process that can lead to UN-mediated peace talks. Preserving the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which includes the Hodeidah agreement, as well the stalled Riyadh Agreement, remains important.
The humanitarian crisis continues to be severe. OCHA usually briefs on five key priorities: the protection of civilians, humanitarian access, funding for the aid operation, support for the economy, and the need for a political solution. A battle for Marib, where there is already fighting, would likely have new devastating humanitarian consequences. Ongoing challenges include the operating environment for humanitarian actors, particularly in the Houthi-controlled north. During the 12 March briefing, Rajasingham said that restrictions in Yemen had prevented the UN from conducting assessments to quantify the 2020 humanitarian response plan (HRP). Therefore, he said, OCHA would continue applying its 2019 Yemen HRP, “to maintain the programmes that have helped prevent famine, roll back cholera and otherwise save millions of lives” noting that considerable funding will be required, though probably somewhat less than in 2019 (a December 2019 global humanitarian overview published by OCHA estimated that $3.2 billion would be needed in 2020, compared to $4.16 billion in 2019.) As of late March, a pledging conference for Yemen was scheduled for 2 April in Riyadh. There has been discussion to convene it remotely, though it is still likely to be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite reporting no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the pandemic poses a new major concern for Yemen, which has struggled to deal with other health crises during the war because of the strain on its health care and sanitation systems, including the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Oman had confirmed 1299 cases and 167 cases respectively, by 28 March. The government and the Houthis have introduced measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including restrictions on flights to Sana’a and Aden, prompting concerns among humanitarian actors that these could affect aid operations. On 20 March, Griffiths urged the parties to release all “conflict-related” prisoners as part of a long-delayed prisoner exchange agreement, citing the risks posed by COVID-19.
At the time of this writing, members were considering a press statement to echo the Secretary-General’s call for a country-wide cessation of hostilities given the risks posed by COVID-19. Moreover, the P5 and the key states in the region that have influence on the parties could seek to exert pressure directly on the sides to de-escalate and cooperate with the Special Envoy to resume a political process.
Council members have appeared to remain quite united on Yemen, despite the contentious sanctions renewal in February that led to abstentions by China and Russia. At the 12 March session, members seemed unanimous in their calls for the parties to de-escalate and on the importance of restarting a political process. During the Council’s public sessions, most members have also been raising concerns about the increasing Houthi interference with humanitarian operations that OCHA has flagged over recent months and the need for the Houthis to allow a UN assessment mission access to the moored SAFER oil tanker off the Ras Issa oil terminal, which risks causing a major environmental disaster in the Red Sea. Tunisia is the Arab member on the Council that traditionally champions positions of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government. The US recently reduced its humanitarian funding due to the Houthis’ interference with aid operations, as it has warned that it would do during recent Council briefings on Yemen. Russia at times expresses concerns about the Council criticising or singling out the Houthis more than other actors.
The UK is the penholder on Yemen. Ambassador Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) chairs the Yemen 2140 Sanctions Committee.
UN DOCUMENTS ON YEMEN
|Security Council Resolution|
|25 February 2020S/RES/2511||This resolution renewed the Yemen sanctions regime for one year.|
|Security Council Letters|
|16 March 2020S/2020/207||This was a letter from Yemen on the suspension of its participation in the Redeployment Coordination Committee overseeing the Hodeidah agreement.|
|11 March 2020S/2020/200||This was a letter from Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and Yemen on the risks posed by the SAFER oil tanker.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|12 March 2020S/PV.8745||This was a briefing on Yemen with Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ramesh Rajasingham.|
|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.|