February 2024 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

Yemen

Expected Council Action

In February, the Security Council is expected to hold a briefing, followed by closed consultations on Yemen. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg and a representative of OCHA are expected to brief. The Head of the UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), Major General Michael Beary is expected to brief during the consultations.

Key Recent Developments

Houthi rebel group attacks on commercial vessels have continued, significantly disrupting global maritime shipping by forcing many carriers to suspend transit through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and instead travel the longer route around Africa. The attacks began in November 2023 as the Houthis sought to pressure Israel to end its military campaign in Gaza following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas on 7 October 2023. On 9 January, the Houthis conducted their largest attack when UK and US forces intercepted 21 drones and missiles targeting numerous vessels in the Red Sea.

On 12 January, the UK and the US, supported by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, conducted air and naval missile strikes on over 60 targets across Yemen. The strikes targeted at least 28 locations in Sana’a, Taiz, Hodeidah, Hajja, Sa’ada, and Dhamar governorates. According to the Houthis, five people were killed and six wounded.

The situation escalated as the Houthis continued their attacks and the US announced additional strikes. On 14 January, the Houthis fired an anti-ship cruise missile towards a US naval vessel in the southern Red Sea, which the US reported that it intercepted. On 15 January, a Houthi anti-ship missile for the first time struck a US-owned and -operated commercial vessel, the M/V Gibraltar Eagle, in the Gulf of Aden, and on 17 January, a Houthi drone struck the US-owned and -operated M/V Genco Picardy, also in the Gulf of Aden. That same day, the US announced strikes against 14 Houthi missiles that “were loaded to be fired”. In strikes on 18, 19 and 20 January, the US similarly targeted anti-ship missiles, which were reportedly ready to be fired. The UK and the US, again supported by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, carried out a new round of strikes on 22 January. According to US statements, the operations were intended to “degrade the Houthis’ capabilities to continue their reckless attacks on international and commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden”. As at this writing, the sides have continued to exchange attacks.

In the lead-up to the US and UK strikes, the Security Council held an emergency briefing and consultations on 3 January on the Houthi attacks. That same day, 14 countries, including Council members Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the UK, and the US, said in a joint statement that they were issuing their final warning to the Houthis to immediately end the attacks.

On 10 January, the Council adopted resolution 2722, authored by the US and Japan. The resolution condemned in the strongest terms the Houthi attacks on merchant and commercial vessels, numbering at least 24 since 19 November 2023, and demanded that the group immediately cease all such attacks. The resolution affirmed that the navigational rights and freedoms of merchant and commercial vessels, in accordance with international law, must be respected. It took note of the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to defend their vessels from attacks, including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms. Resolution 2722 was adopted with 11 votes in favour and four abstentions (Algeria, China, Mozambique, and Russia).

On 12 January, the Council held an emergency briefing at the request of Russia on the UK-US strikes. Addressing Russia’s criticism about the legal basis for the military response, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield stressed that the strikes were consistent with states’ inherent right to self-defence as reflected in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Russia countered that such strikes on Yemen’s territory were not an exercise of self-defence and that Article 51 cannot be invoked to ensure freedom of navigation. That same day, Saudi Arabia, which has been working towards a comprehensive peace agreement with the Houthis in talks that have lasted more than a year, called for “restraint and avoiding escalation in light of the events the region is witnessing”.

Council members held their monthly closed consultations on Yemen on 16 January. Grundberg apparently indicated that the parties remained committed to peace talks, although the situation was becoming increasingly complex. In a 13 January statement, Grundberg reiterated the Secretary-General’s appeal from one day earlier, “for all involved to avoid actions that would worsen the situation in Yemen, escalate the threat to maritime trade routes, or further fuel regional tensions at this critical time”. Grundberg further highlighted the need to protect Yemeni civilians and to safeguard the gains of the peace efforts since the April 2022 truce.

On 23 December 2023, Grundberg announced that the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognised government had committed to implementing a nationwide ceasefire, improving living conditions in Yemen, and engaging in preparations to resume an inclusive political process under UN auspices. He has since continued to engage the parties on developing a roadmap for an inter-Yemeni political process that would include implementing the 23 December commitments.

On 17 January, the US announced that it was naming the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group. The US had previously removed this designation as well as de-listing the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2021 amid concerns that the FTO label could worsen the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

Key Issues and Options

A new key concern for the Council is the threat that Houthi attacks present to international shipping and maritime security. Resolution 2722 included a request that the Secretary-General provide monthly written reports through 1 July 2024 on further Houthi attacks on merchant and commercial vessels to inform the Council’s consultations.

The risk that Houthi attacks on Israel and Red Sea shipping, and now the US and UK military response, might upend the Yemen peace talks is a related key issue. Other important issues linked to the political process are the fragile relations between the factions that form the Yemeni government’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) and how a political process should address some PLC members’ calls for a separate southern Yemeni state.

In the event of a deal between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, Council members could issue a press statement to welcome or endorse any agreement. Such a statement could further reiterate members’ support for Grundberg to lead an inter-Yemeni political process for a comprehensive peace agreement.

The humanitarian situation in Yemen remains a key issue. During 2023, 21.6 million people required assistance, while Yemen relief efforts faced a major funding shortage (receiving $1.7 billion of $4.3 billion required). Addressing Yemen’s economic conditions is a related key issue to mitigate the humanitarian need. The impact of the Red Sea crisis on insurance and transportation costs for commercial vessels travelling to Yemen has yet to translate into higher prices for the goods that Yemen imports, such as food, but this is a risk that could worsen the humanitarian situation. The World Food Programme has not yet resumed general food distributions in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, which it suspended in December 2023 because of limited funding and disagreement with Houthi authorities over how to focus on the poorest there. 

Council Dynamics

Council members are united in their support for the various mediation efforts. Members have welcomed the potential for the Houthi-Saudi talks to yield meaningful results. At the same time, they stress the ultimate importance of an inclusive Yemeni political process under UN auspices to achieve a sustainable resolution of the conflict.

Members have condemned the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. They are concerned about the consequences for maritime security, freedom of navigation, and Yemen’s peace process. In addition to its ongoing strikes against the Houthis, the US was a strong proponent for Operation Prosperity Guardian, a naval military coalition of over 20 countries set up in December 2023 to deter and counter the Houthi attacks. In the Council, it co-authored resolution 2722 with Japan. The Houthis continue to hold the Japanese-operated cargo ship, the Galaxy Leader, and its crew since capturing the vessel, linked to an Israeli businessman, last November. The US and Japan were also joined by Ecuador, France, Guyana, Malta, the ROK, and the UK in their request for the 3 January emergency session on the Red Sea attacks.

Algeria, China, and Russia, along with other Council members, have highlighted the importance of recognising the link between the Red Sea crisis and the conflict in Gaza, which they wanted to be made more explicit in resolution 2722. Council members also raised concerns about what they considered imprecise language in resolution 2722 on the right of states to defend their merchant vessels, which Russia argued was not language drawn from existing international law. These concerns contributed to the lack of consensus in adopting the resolution. Russia’s unsuccessful proposal for amendments to the text included language specifying that the resolutions’ provisions should not be construed as setting new precedents in international law and replacing the reference to the right of states to defend their vessels with a more general expression taking note of the applicable rights of member states under international law.

The US has countered that the right of states to defend their vessels is grounded in the right to self-defence. On 12 January, the UK and the US made this point in letters to the Council about the strikes against the Houthis that they said were undertaken in accordance with states’ inherent right to self-defence in article 51 of the UN Charter.

The UK is the penholder on Yemen. Ambassador Hwang Joon-kiik (ROK) chairs the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee.

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UN DOCUMENTS ON YEMEN

Security Council Resolution
10 January 2024S/RES/2722 This resolution demanded that the Houthis immediately cease all attacks on merchant and commercial vessels and took note of the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to
defend their vessels from attacks, including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms.
Security Council Letters
22 January 2024S/2024/90 This was a letter from Russia contending that recent UK and US strikes in Yemen qualified as an unlawful use of force.
12 January 2024S/2024/56 This letter from the US to the Council said that strikes on Houthi military targets in Yemen were conducted in the exercise of its inherent right of self-defence, as reflected in Article 51 of the UN Charter.
12 January 2024S/2024/55 This was a letter from the UK informing the Security Council that it had conducted strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter and the inherent right of self-defence.
Security Council Meeting Records
12 January 2024S/PV.9532 This was a briefing on the US and UK strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen.
10 January 2024S/PV.9527 This was the meeting record and explanation of votes for the adoption of resolution 2722 on Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, and Russia’s proposed amendments to the draft resolution.
3 January 2024S/PV.9525 This was a briefing with Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari and Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization Arsenio Dominguez on the Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea.
Security Council Press Statement
1 December 2023SC/15513 This press statement condemned in the strongest terms recent Houthi attacks against a commercial vessel in the Red Sea, and called for the immediate release of the vessel MV Galaxy Leader and its crew, which the Houthis seized on 19 November.

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