February 2021 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

Yemen

Expected Council Action

In February, the Security Council is expected to adopt a resolution renewing Yemen financial and travel ban sanctions, which expire on 26 February, and the mandate of the Yemen Panel of Experts, which expires on 28 March. (The targeted arms embargo established by resolution 2216 in April 2015 against the Houthi rebel group is open-ended.) The Council will also hold its monthly briefing on Yemen with Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, and General Abhijit Guha, the head of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA). The chair of the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee, Ambassador I. Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), is also expected to brief.

Key Recent Developments

The war in Yemen persists across multiple frontlines as the Special Envoy maintains efforts to broker a ceasefire and resume a peace process involving the Yemeni government and the Houthis. UN officials continue to highlight the risk of famine, raising concerns that the US designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation could prove severely counterproductive to efforts to ward off catastrophe.

On 30 December 2020, at least 25 people were killed and over 100 injured by multiple explosions at Aden airport shortly after a plane carrying the new Yemeni cabinet arrived from Saudi Arabia. No one on the government plane was hurt. A second attack, by drone, reportedly targeted Mashiq Palace in Aden after the government was transferred there; no casualties were reported in this incident. The new cabinet, announced on 18 December 2020, includes representatives of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), and its formation marked a key step in fulfilling the November 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement between the STC and the Yemeni government. The circumstances of the Aden attacks remain unclear, but the reported use of missiles in the airport attack suggest the Houthis may have been responsible as they are the only other party to the conflict known to have such weapons.

Griffiths condemned the attack on Aden airport, which according to the government included targeting the arrival hall and the VIP lounge. He toured the damage on 7 January when he travelled to Aden to meet with Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed and other members of the cabinet and local officials.

When the US designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation on 10 January, it also labelled Houthi leaders Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim as “specially designated global terrorists”. (The three individuals are under Security Council travel ban and asset freeze sanctions for undermining the peace, security and stability of Yemen.) Since November 2020, media sources had reported that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the outgoing Trump administration was planning to designate the group as part of its maximum-pressure campaign on Iran, which is believed to provide military support to the Houthis. UN officials and others lobbied against the move, worried about its implications on the humanitarian situation and the political process in Yemen.

At the Council’s 14 January meeting on Yemen, Griffiths, Lowcock and World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley reiterated UN concerns. Griffiths observed that the designation could have a “chilling effect” on his mediation efforts and said the decision “should be revoked based on humanitarian grounds at the earliest opportunity”. Lowcock and Beasley also advocated for the US reversing the designation, which Lowcock warned could cause a “large-scale famine that we have not seen for nearly forty years”. Lowcock and Beasley stressed its anticipated impact on commercial food imports, which make up about 90 percent of Yemen’s food supplies. According to Lowcock, many suppliers, banks, shippers and insurers are likely to cease doing business in Yemen due to legal liabilities. “They fear being accidentally or otherwise caught up in US regulatory action which would put them out of business or into jail”, he noted, adding that those who may continue doing business say that food costs will increase by at least 400 percent. Lowcock and Beasley also highlighted the expected disruption on aid operations without exemptions for humanitarian actors, who inevitably interact with the Houthis and risk violating US law.

When the designation officially entered into force on 19 January, the US issued licenses exempting aid groups, the UN, the Red Cross, and exports of agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices. Asked about the announced licenses, Spokesperson of the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said that the UN’s position had not changed, and that “we call on the government to reverse that decision”.

On 24 January, a new round of prisoner exchange talks between the government and Houthis and co-chaired by the Office of the Special Envoy and the ICRC commenced in Amman, Jordan. The last talks held in September 2020 in Geneva resulted in the exchange of 1,056 prisoners.

Sanctions-Related Developments

On 22 January, the Yemen 2140 Sanctions Committee met to consider the final report of its Panel of Experts, which included details of arms transfers to the Houthis in violation of the targeted arms embargo and of the origins of commercial components used by the Houthis in assembling weapons. At the time of writing, the Panel of Experts planned to travel to Aden at the invitation of the Yemeni government to investigate the 30 December 2020 attack.

Key Issues and Options

Restarting the political process remains a key issue. After ten months of negotiations on Griffiths’ proposed joint declaration for a nation-wide ceasefire, confidence-building measures, and the resumption of peace talks, the Special Envoy is continuing to engage the parties to reach an agreement. Fighting—including the Houthi offensive in Marib governorate, the political and economic stronghold of the government—risks undermining peace talks. Sustaining and implementing the Riyadh Agreement is another important related issue. If agreement is reached on the joint declaration, the Council may adopt a resolution to endorse the deal.

Concerns about famine in Yemen were already on the rise before the US designation. According to Lowcock and Beasley, 50,000 people were already experiencing famine-like conditions, and the 3 December 2020 Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) analysis forecasts that the number of people facing Phase 4 emergency food insecurity conditions—just one step above famine—would increase from 3.6 million to five million during the first half of 2021. Funding for the aid operation remains a major challenge. Moreover, stabilising the Yemeni rial is critical to make sure Yemenis can afford to purchase food. Members may continue to advocate in their national statements that donors, particularly Gulf States—which cut back their contributions significantly over the past year—support the humanitarian appeal, and inject hard currency into Yemen’s Central Bank to bolster the Yemeni rial.

In the resolution to renew the sanctions regime, the Council could incorporate recommendations from the Panel of Experts to draw attention to the panel’s findings about the diversion of assets and delays in paying civil servant salaries, especially those of the military, undermining Yemen’s peace, security and stability.

Council Dynamics

Council members appear aligned in their support of the Special Envoy, continuing to back his mediation efforts. Members further share concerns about the humanitarian situation and the risk that the decrepit FSO Safer oil tanker moored in the Red Sea off Hodeidah might cause a major environmental disaster. In the past year, members issued multiple press statements and press elements in which they urged the parties to reach agreement on the joint declaration, called on the Houthis to facilitate the UN technical mission’s access to the oil tanker and, more recently, highlighted the need for stakeholders and the international community to take measures to avert famine.

During January, members were split over whether to attribute responsibility for the 30 December 2020 Aden attacks to the Houthis in a press statement to be issued following their January meeting on Yemen. The US and the UK, in particular, believed that the statement should identify the Houthis as responsible, while Russia argued that members should be careful not to assign blame before an objective investigation is conducted, noting that the Houthis had not claimed responsibility, as they had in many other attacks.

The new US administration has indicated that the foreign terrorism organisation designation might be reversed and that ending the Yemen war will be a foreign policy priority. The US has been criticised for complicity in the war’s widespread violations of international humanitarian law through its military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, as have the UK and France.

The UK is the penholder on Yemen.

UN DOCUMENTS ON YEMEN

Security Council Resolution
25 February 2020S/RES/2511 This resolution renewed the Yemen sanctions regime for one year.
Sanctions Committee Document
22 January 2021S/2021/79 This was the final report of the Yemen Panel of Experts.
Security Council Press Statement
13 December 2020SC/14384 This press statement called for the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement and for Yemen’s parties to meet urgently to bridge differences on the joint declaration, and expressed alarm at the new IPC assessment, among other points, about the humanitarian situation.