Expected Council Action
In June, the Council is expected to hold its monthly briefing, via videoconference (VTC), with Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, a representative from OCHA, and General Abhijit Guha, who heads the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA). During June, the Secretariat is further expected to submit a review of UNMHA to the Council as requested in resolution 2505. The mandate of UNMHA expires on 15 July.
Key Recent Developments
The Special Envoy has continued his efforts to broker a ceasefire and resume a political process to end Yemen’s war, which have gained greater urgency amidst concerns over the risks of COVID-19 in Yemen.
When Griffiths briefed Council members via VTC on 14 May, he recalled that he had shared draft agreements at the end of March with the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel group on a nation-wide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures, and resuming a political process. Griffiths said he remained in intensive negotiations with the parties on the proposals, and that there had been “significant progress”, particularly related to his ceasefire proposal, while the greatest differences were over the humanitarian and economic measures. In his April briefing, the Special Envoy said these measures include the release of prisoners and detainees, opening Sana’a International Airport, paying civil servants’ salaries, and ensuring the entry of ships carrying essential commodities into the ports in and near Hodeidah. Griffiths has also proposed creating a joint operations cell between the parties to combat COVID-19.
Griffiths spoke, as well, about the deteriorating situation in southern Yemen. On 25 April, the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-rule and took control of government ministries and offices in Aden. Since then there had been military tensions between government and STC-affiliated forces in Abyan and Socotra governorates. Griffiths described developments as “a perfect storm” and “deeply troubling” and called on the government and the STC to intensify efforts to implement the Riyadh Agreement, the November 2019 power-sharing arrangement brokered by Saudi Arabia.
Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ramesh Rajasingham said at the 14 May meeting that the humanitarian agencies believed that community transmission of COVID-19 was taking place across Yemen. At a time when the pandemic threatens to worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, he highlighted that funding shortages could force 31 (out of 41) major UN programmes to start closing down in the next few weeks. According to Rajasingham, an estimated $2 billion would be required to cover essential activities from June through December. Saudi Arabia and the UN will host a virtual pledging conference on 2 June.
During a closed VTC, Guha apparently said that the pandemic and the government’s suspension of its participation in the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC), which oversees implementation of the December 2018 Hodeidah agreement, are the mission’s largest challenges. While Guha remains in Hodeidah with a core team, the majority of UNMHA personnel were working remotely from their home countries to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19.
In press elements issued after the briefing, Council members reiterated support for the Secretary-General’s 25 March call for a ceasefire in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and urged the Houthis to reciprocate the ceasefire announcement made by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. While expressing steadfast support for the Special Envoy, members conveyed their concern at the slow pace of negotiations on the Special Envoy’s proposals. They called on the STC to reverse any actions challenging the legitimacy, sovereignty, unity or territorial integrity of Yemen, including diversion of revenues. The press elements further reiterated that full access must be maintained for humanitarian efforts amid the COVID-19 threat.
Since the briefing, STC and pro-government forces have engaged in heavy fighting in Abyan governorate as the government launched an offensive to take the provincial capital of Zinjibar. Meanwhile, OCHA said that confirmed COVID-19 cases grew, in the week ending 16 May, by almost 325 percent from the previous week, and that infections had been found in 10 Yemeni governorates. According to media reports, officials in Aden said that hundreds of people had died in the city recently with COVID-19-like symptoms, and other reports claim that the Houthis have been hiding the extent of the outbreak in the north. On 19 May, the Food and Agricultural Organisation warned that Yemen could suffer a “catastrophic” food security situation due to the pandemic. As of 28 May, there were 260 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Yemen with 54 deaths.
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. 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 from COVID-19. Other critical issues are the deteriorating situation in southern Yemen and salvaging the Riyadh Agreement.
Since January, the Council has called for a cessation of hostilities or expressed support for the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call in press statements on 30 January, 10 April and 29 April and in press elements on 17 April and 14 May. 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 assent to the Special Envoy’s proposals, Griffiths has said 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 and Wider Dynamics
Council members appear 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 exit the war, which has lasted more than five years. The US at times seeks to highlight what it perceives as Iran’s destabilising role. In April, it sent a letter to the Council, the Secretary-General, the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee, and the facilitator for the implementation of resolution 2231 on the Iran nuclear deal about two recent seizures of Iranian arms, which it said were likely bound for the Houthis. The notification also appears tied to the US push to maintain restrictions on Iranian arms transfers that are set to expire later this year.
The UK is the penholder on Yemen. Ambassador I. Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) chairs the 2140 Yemen 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 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.|