March 2021 Monthly Forecast

Posted 26 February 2021
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Expected Council Action

In March, the Security Council is expected to hold its monthly briefing on Yemen with Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, and General Abhijit Guha, who heads the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement.

Key Recent Developments

Recent weeks have seen intensified diplomatic engagement to stop Yemen’s war, triggered by the new US administration’s policy shift on Yemen. At the same time, the Houthi rebel group has escalated its offensive in Marib governorate, prompting new concerns about Yemen’s already dire humanitarian crisis and the prospects for resuming a peace process.

On 4 February, US President Joe Biden announced the appointment of a US special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, “to push for a diplomatic resolution” to the conflict. Biden also announced that the US was ending support for offensive operations of the Saudi Arabia-led campaign fighting against the Houthis, including sales of relevant arms. From 10 to 11 February, Griffiths met in Riyadh with Lenderking, Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman and Yemeni Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak, among other officials. These meetings followed Griffiths’ first visit to Iran from 7 to 8 February, during which he met with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

The US also announced that effective 16 February, it was revoking the decision in January by the outgoing Trump administration to designate the Houthis as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” and Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi and military commanders Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists”. (The three individuals—who remain under other US sanctions—are under Security Council travel ban and asset freeze sanctions for undermining the peace, security and stability of Yemen.) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the decision was made based on warnings by UN officials and others that the designations would have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities such as food and fuel and would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

On 7 February, the Houthis intensified their offensive to take Marib City. They also escalated drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. Rich in oil and gas fields, Marib governorate has become the Yemeni government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen. The fighting could also have severe humanitarian consequences, especially if it spreads to Marib City, which has seen its population increase since 2015 from 40,000 to 1.8 million inhabitants, mostly due to internally displaced persons from Houthi-controlled areas, according to the Yemen Panel of Experts’ recent final report to the 2140 Sanctions Committee.

At the Council’s 18 February videoconference (VTC) briefing, Griffiths called for the Houthis to stop the offensive, warning that “[t]he quest for territorial gain by force threatens all of the prospects of the peace process”. Welcoming the opportunity offered by the new US focus on Yemen, Griffiths said the parties should immediately agree on a nationwide ceasefire and humanitarian and economic measures to allow, at a minimum, the unhindered flow of fuel and other commodities through Hodeidah’s ports—using the revenues to pay civil servant salaries—and the opening up of Sana’a airport to commercial flights.

Lowcock also expressed alarm during the Council meeting about Marib, saying the front lines were moving closer to civilian areas, missile attacks had hit Marib City and nearby displaced persons camps, and thousands of civilians had already started to flee. He highlighted the Yemen pledging conference scheduled for 1 March as critical to prevent famine. Referring to recent diplomatic engagement, Lowcock said “the world will have wasted the current opportunity for peace if a massive famine is allowed to take hold”.

Earlier in the month, the UN released a statement on 2 February expressing frustration over apparent Houthi backtracking on a commitment to give a UN-led technical team access to the FSO Safer oil tanker. The vessel is moored in the Red Sea off Hodeidah governorate, threatening to cause a major environmental catastrophe if its nearly 1.1 million barrels of oil leak. By the 18 February Council VTC, the Houthis had dropped plans to “review” their approval of the mission, according to Lowcock; however, the UN could still not predict when the team would be allowed to inspect the tanker.

The fifth meeting of the Supervisory Committee on the Implementation of the Prisoners and Detainees Exchange Agreement between the parties, co-chaired by the Office of the Special Envoy and ICRC, was held from 24 January to 21 February in Amman without agreement to release further prisoners.

On 25 February, the Council adopted resolution 2564, renewing the Yemen sanctions measures and the mandate of the Yemen Panel of Experts for an additional year. The resolution condemns the ongoing escalation in Marib and the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, calling for “an immediate cessation of attacks without preconditions”. It also stresses Houthi responsibility for the situation of the FSO Safer and for not responding to the major environmental and humanitarian risk that it poses

In an annex attached to the resolution, the Council imposed the asset freeze and travel ban sanctions on Houthi official Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin. According to the Panel of Exports report, Sultan Zabin is the director of the Criminal Investigation Department in Sanaa, and has played a prominent role in a policy of intimidation and the use of systematic arrest, detention, torture, sexual violence and rape of politically active women. The designation of Zabin was the first addition to the Yemen sanctions list since April 2015, when the Council adopted resolution 2216. Resolution 2564 was adopted with 14 members voting in favor, while Russia abstained.

Human Rights-Related Developments

On 19 February, a spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over the “potentially disastrous humanitarian consequences” of civilians in Marib governorate in northern Yemen, including at least 800,000 internally displaced people, amid an escalation in hostilities between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. The spokesperson also said OHCHR were in the process of verifying information about recent civilian casualties in Marib, following an offensive by Houthi forces. During its 46th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue on 25 February on the oral update of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen.

Key Issues and Options

The fighting in Marib is a key issue as it threatens political efforts and could worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. The Special Envoy is focusing on reaching an agreement for a ceasefire, increasing access through Hodeidah’s ports and reopening Sana’a airport. Linked to any ceasefire agreement is the importance of resuming peace talks as any halt in the fighting will be unsustainable without progress on the political track. Sustaining the Saudi Arabia brokered Riyadh Agreement, the power-sharing accord between the Yemeni government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), is also important for resolving the Yemen conflict. If agreement is reached to establish a ceasefire, the Council may adopt a resolution to endorse the deal. Council members are likely to monitor the Marib offensive closely and may reiterate calls for de-escalation if fighting persists.

The humanitarian crisis, particularly the threat of famine, remains a critical issue. Preventing famine will be more difficult if relief efforts must be diverted to respond to a mass displacement crisis caused by a battle for Hodeidah city. The upcoming pledging conference, to be held virtually, will be critical to raising the approximately $4 billion for this year’s Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan. Stabilising the Yemeni rial and other measures to support Yemen’s economy are also important to make sure Yemenis can afford to purchase food. Council members may highlight the situation in Yemen at the US Council presidency’s signature event in March, a high-level open debate on conflict and food security.

Council Dynamics

Council members remain aligned in their support of the Special Envoy, continuing to back his mediation efforts. The new US focus on Yemen has added momentum in support of his work. Members further share concerns about the humanitarian situation and the threat posed by the decrepit FSO Safer oil tanker. In the past year, members have issued multiple press statements and press elements in which they have called for a cessation of hostilities, highlighted the need for stakeholders and the international community to take measures to avert famine, and called on the Houthis to facilitate the UN technical mission’s access to the oil tanker.

Russia’s abstention on resolution 2564 reflected concerns that it often raises about singling out the Houthis, and its view that the resolution was imbalanced.

The UK is the penholder on Yemen. Ambassador I. Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) chairs the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee.

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Security Council Resolution
25 February 2020S/RES/2511 This resolution renewed the Yemen sanctions regime for one year.