Expected Council Action
In May, the Council is expected to hold its monthly briefing with Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, a representative from OCHA, and the head of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), General Abhijit Guha. The mandate of UNMHA expires on 15 July 2020.
Key Recent Developments
The Special Envoy has continued his efforts to broker a ceasefire agreement and resume a political process to end Yemen’s war, which has gained new urgency over concerns about a potential COVID-19 outbreak in Yemen.
On 25 March, the Secretary-General called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Yemen, following his 23 March appeal for a global ceasefire to help create conditions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The call was initially welcomed by the Houthi rebel group, the Yemeni government and its allies, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. However, on 28 March, the coalition announced that it had intercepted two ballistic missiles aimed at Riyadh and southern Saudi Arabia that the Houthis claimed to have fired. Heavy coalition air strikes on Sana’a followed. Despite the military escalation, Saudi Arabia announced on 8 April a two-week unilateral ceasefire for coalition operations, beginning the next day, because of the threat of COVID-19.
In a 10 April press statement, Council members endorsed the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and welcomed Saudi Arabia’s unilateral ceasefire announcement. The statement also welcomed the Yemeni government’s “positive response to the ceasefire call” while calling on the Houthis “to make similar commitments without delay”. It stressed that further military escalation “would hinder the access of humanitarian and health care workers, and the availability of health-care facilities necessary to tackle a COVID-19 outbreak”. That same day, Yemen confirmed its first case of COVID-19, an older worker at the al-Shahr port in the eastern governorate of Hadramawt.
Fighting, including coalition airstrikes, was continuing (mainly in Marib, Al Jawf, Al Bayda, and Taiz governorates), despite the unilateral ceasefire announcement, when Griffiths briefed Council members on 16 April during a video teleconference (VTC) meeting on Yemen. The Special Envoy said that he had presented to the parties a set of proposals for a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian measures, and the resumption of a political process. Elaborating on the economic and humanitarian proposals, he said they might include measures to release prisoners and detainees; open Sana’a International Airport; pay civil servants’ salaries; open access to roads; and ensure the entry of ships carrying essential commodities into Hodeidah ports, “all of which will help directly and indirectly in the fight against COVID-19”. Negotiations were ongoing with the parties and were not being impeded by the need to conduct them virtually, according to the Special Envoy, who said that agreements could be expected “in the immediate future”. He added: “I can report that we are making very good progress. We are moving towards a consensus over the proposals, particularly on the principle of a nation-wide ceasefire”.
Speaking about the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic during the meeting, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock underscored that Yemen’s war has degraded the country’s health system, exhausted people’s immune systems, and increased acute vulnerabilities. “As a result, epidemiologists warn that COVID-19 in Yemen could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than in many other countries,” Lowcock said. He emphasised that maintaining the current humanitarian operation is essential to help Yemenis stay healthy and defend themselves from COVID-19. He warned, however, about the funding shortage facing the aid operation, which has received only $800 million compared to $2.6 billion at the same time last year. Without additional funds, 31 of the UN’s 41 major programmes would start closing down in the next few weeks. Among other points, Lowcock observed that the pandemic’s impact on the global economy could also affect Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. The fall in oil prices makes it harder to finance imports and pay civil servants’ salaries, and the economic slowdown was causing a decrease in private remittances from the diaspora, which are Yemen’s largest source of hard currency.
In press elements on 17 April, Council members called on the Houthis and Yemeni government “to engage constructively with Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ proposals for a nationwide ceasefire, confidence building measures, and the restart of the political process, with a view to reaching agreement on these as soon as possible”.
On 25 April, the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-rule and a state of emergency across southern Yemen. The announcement undermined the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia for the government and the STC to share power after heavy fighting between the sides during August and September. The coalition urged “an immediate end to any steps contrary to the Riyadh Agreement”. The move was also rejected in statements by the southern governorates of Al-Mahra, Abyan, Hadramawt, Socotra and Shabwa. A Security Council press statement on 29 April expressed strong concern at the STC declaration and called for expediting the Riyadh Agreement’s implementation.
Also on 26 April, General Guha announced that UNMHA was temporarily reducing personnel in Hodeidah due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though Guha and a core team of staff and monitors would remain.
Key Issues and Options
How the Council can support efforts to establish a ceasefire in Yemen and restart a political process remains a key issue, made all the more critical given the risk posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Houthis have so far appeared bent on pressing their current military advantage ahead of any new peace talks, while the government has apparently been reticent to engage on some of Griffiths’ proposals around economic and humanitarian measures. A related concern is the implications for the political process and the humanitarian situation if the Houthis press their offensive against the government stronghold of Marib governorate, which could uproot more than 1 million people, including over 800,000 displaced persons already in Marib.
Yemen’s humanitarian crisis—the largest in the world, with 24 million people, or 80 percent of the population, requiring humanitarian assistance—is poised to worsen if the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold. A ceasefire is considered critical to help control the spread of the disease and deliver humanitarian assistance. As of 28 April, Yemen still had only one laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19, though a statement by UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande that same day expressed concern of the “very real probability that the virus has been circulating undetected and unmitigated”. On 29 April, the government reported that five cases had been confirmed in Aden.
Other issues include the deteriorating situation in southern Yemen and salvaging the Riyadh Agreement, and the suspension in March of the Redeployment and Coordination Committee (RCC), which oversees the December 2018 ceasefire agreement on Hodeidah. The government withdrew from the RCC after a government liaison officer to the agreement was shot by a Houthi sniper; the official died in April.
Since fighting intensified in January, the Council has issued press statements on 30 January and 10 April and press elements on 17 April that called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Council members with influence on the parties as well as regional countries may continue to press the sides to reach a ceasefire agreement. If the parties agree to the Special Envoy’s proposals, he plans to convene a virtual meeting of the government and the Houthis to confirm their commitment to the agreements. Council members could welcome plans for such a meeting or endorse any new agreements that are reached.
Council members appear to be aligned in their support of the Special Envoy, desiring a ceasefire and resumption of a political process while being very concerned about the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in Yemen. Tunisia is the Arab member on the Council that traditionally champions positions of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government, and Saudi Arabia has appeared increasingly intent on finding a way to end the war, which has lasted more than five years. At the end of March, the US reduced its humanitarian funding because of the Houthis’ interference with aid operations. Russia expresses concerns at times about the Council’s 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|
|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 Letter|
|21 April 2020S/2020/322||This was a letter from the US regarding two shipments of arms and related materiel from Iran seized by the US, which it said were likely bound for Houthi forces in Yemen.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|21 April 2020S/2020/313||This contained the records of the briefings and statements made during the open part of the 16 April 2020 Council VTC meeting on Yemen.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|29 April 2020SC/14176||This press statement was on instability in southern Yemen.|
|10 April 2020SC/14159||This statement welcomed the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s 8 April announcement of a unilateral ceasefire in support of the UN peace process and the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate cessation of hostilities to counter a possible COVID-19 outbreak, and called on the Houthis to make similar commitments without delay.|