Consultations with Benomar on Current Crisis in Yemen
Tomorrow morning (29 August), Jamal Benomar, Special Adviser of the Secretary-General to Yemen, will brief the Security Council in consultations. The meeting was originally scheduled for 25 August but, in light of the recent political crisis, Benomar requested a postponement in order to stay in the country given the evolving situation. The Council is expected to adopt a presidential statement tomorrow.
The focus of Benomar’s briefing will be on the latest crisis with the Houthis—a Zaidi Shi’a rebel group from the north—which is threatening to derail political transition in Yemen. The crisis began on 18 August when tens of thousands of protestors took part in mass demonstrations in the capital Sana’a and several other cities after Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi called for protests against the “corrupt” government for failing to carry out reforms. He demanded the reinstatement of fuel subsides that were lifted on 30 July, and for President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi to dissolve the government and replace it with one that is more representative. Initially, an ultimatum from al-Houthi gave until 22 August for these demands to be met, or else further “legitimate action” would be taken, suggesting a prolonged campaign of civil disobedience.
Since the protests on 18 August, Houthi rebels set-up protest camps on the city’s outskirts and near several government ministries and demonstrations have continued in Sana’a. The Houthis’ popularity has been growing and is no longer confined its traditional base in the north. The group has tapped into Yemenis’ frustration over the slow pace of change, persisting corruption and a poor economic and security situation. The Houthis have also taken advantage of popular discontent over the lifting of the fuel subsidies. While the action was anticipated, the government did not provide any advance notice and the scale of the reduction was much steeper than expected, resulting in a 60% increase in the price of gasoline and 95% increase for diesel.
President Hadi held an emergency government meeting on 19 August and on 21 August sent a delegation to meet with al-Houthi in Saada, proposing that the group join a “unity government” and promising to review economic policies. The delegation returned to Sana’a two days later without an agreement. Negotiations are ongoing, despite the passing of al-Houthi’s 22 August ultimatum deadline. Since 24 August, pro-government/anti-Houthi counter-protests, mostly organised by al-Islah Islamist party, have occurred in the capital, creating fears of clashes between the two sides. Fighting in the north during June and July between the Houthis and armed groups affiliated with Al-Islah largely subsided after the Houthis agreed to withdraw from Amran, though clashes have continued in al-Jawf governorate.
Council members will be keen on getting more details from Benomar on efforts to resolve the crisis and his assessment on the risk of violence. It seems that forming a new government that would include the Houthis, who are currently not represented, is a viable option. However, reconciling Houthi demands to reinstate fuel subsidies would likely be more problematic. The government, however, could do more to assist the poor, the hardest hit by the increase in fuel costs, and Council members may want to hear Benomar’s assessment of possible options.
On 19 August the Group of Ten Ambassadors (made up of the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council mission to Yemen and representatives of China, France, Kuwait, Oman, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the UK the US and the EU based in Yemen) issued an open letter to al-Houthi that expressed its support for the current coalition government, described recent statements by al-Houthi as “antagonistic, militaristic, and disrespectful of this transition process”, and said that any incitement or provocation of violence would be “strongly condemned by the international community.” The joint letter further recalled the Council’s 11 July press statement (SC/11470), which called for the Houthis to withdraw from territory acquired by force and to disarm.
Benomar has made it clear to Council members previously that he views the Houthis as spoilers. In July, he was disappointed that the Council did not take a stronger stance against the group in its 11 July press statement. The initial draft of the press statement had identified al-Houthi, along with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, as impediments to the transition. But this was eventually removed as members felt doing so could prejudge the work of the Panel of Experts (PoE) responsible for identifying such spoilers, and whose interim report to the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee is expected in September.
Members may seek greater clarification about the extent of the Houthis’ support and the group’s objectives. During this current crisis, Houthi representatives have insisted that their actions will stay peaceful, but have reserved the right to defend themselves if attacked. However, according to their critics, the Houthis are the only group that has taken territory by force. With their control of Saada governorate and other areas in the north, the group has been functioning as a state within a state, drawing comparisons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The UK circulated a draft presidential statement to Council members Wednesday afternoon (27 August) for comment until 10 am this morning. Today a revised version, with minor changes, was circulated and put under a short silence procedure until 5 pm. The draft presidential statement takes a strong position against the Houthis’ recent actions, describing the group and others as stoking conflict in the north and names al-Houthi for undermining the political transition and security. It also condemns the actions of Houthi commander Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim and the forces under his command for overrunning Amran on 8 July. (The only other Yemeni individuals identified to date by name as interfering in the transition have been Saleh and his former vice-president Ali Salim al-Beidh in the 15 February 2013 presidential statement (S/PRST/2013/3)).
In the draft presidential statement, the Council makes a series of demands directed at the Houthis: repeating its call from its 11 July press statement to withdraw their forces from Amran, calling for the cessation of armed hostilities against the government in al-Jawf governorate and for the removal of Houthi camps and checkpoints that have been established around Sana’a. While the Council recalls that individuals undermining the political transition can be subject to targeted sanctions established under resolution 2140, the draft text emphasises the Council’s support for the PoE’s role in collecting information for the implementation of these measures.
The draft presidential statement also highlights the socio-economic challenges facing Yemen and the need for the government to expedite economic reforms while encouraging it to improve social protections. It also condemns growing attacks by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and reiterates that it is ready to sanction individuals, groups and entities that do not cut off ties to Al-Qaida and associated groups through the 1267/1989 Sanctions Committee.
In other recent developments in Yemen, as highlighted by the presidential statement, violence related to AQAP has been worsening. On 8 August, AQAP kidnapped and executed 14 soldiers, and the government needed to reinforce its forces in Hadramawt governorate due to increased attacks. Members may seek Benomar’s assessment on this situation.
Members could also seek more information from Benomar on a reported plan to assassinate Saleh after a tunnel was discovered under his Sana’a compound that was believed would be filled with explosives. Additionally, media reports indicate that the transitional government has been repressing press freedom, including the expulsion of foreign journalists and the 11 June shutdown of a television station. Some members could inquire on this situation, a potentially very negative development in the country’s democratic transition.