This morning at 11 am, Security Council members will hold consultations on Yemen. The focus is expected to be on the possibility of an imminent attack on the port city of Hodeidah. The UK, the penholder on Yemen, requested the meeting yesterday. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths will brief via video-teleconference from Amman. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock is also expected to brief. It seems that Griffiths may urge the Council to issue a statement on the situation, encouraging the coalition to refrain from an assault.
The Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition has made steady progress over recent weeks advancing towards Hodeidah. By last week, forces supported by the coalition were reportedly within 10 kilometres of the city held by Houthi rebels. Hodeidah contains Yemen’s largest port, through which the majority of commercial and humanitarian supplies are imported; even before the war, Yemen imported 90% of its staple food needs and nearly all its medicine and fuel. Last year, amidst concerns of a coalition offensive on the city, the UN warned that such an attack would be “catastrophic” as the prolonged closure or destruction of the port would make the world’s already greatest humanitarian crisis worse. UN officials have previously informed Council members that no alternative routes, whether through Aden, other ports or land crossings could make up for a loss of access through Hodeidah. Recent UN figures estimate that more than 22 million people in Yemen – three quarters of the population – require humanitarian assistance, and 8.4 million are severely food insecure.
On 8 June, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, said that an attack on the city, which with surrounding areas has a population of 600,000, could create massive civilian casualties. She warned that in a prolonged worst case scenario “as many as 250,000 people may lose everything — even their lives”. Grande reiterated the UN’s view that an attack would almost certainly have a catastrophic impact on Yemen’s humanitarian situation. She further stressed that Hodeidah is “the single most important point of entry for the food and basic supplies needed to prevent famine and a recurrence of a cholera epidemic”. Over the weekend, the UK’s Department for International Development told aid agencies that an attack appeared “imminent”, and that the UAE had informed it that aid agencies had three days to leave the city.
On the political front, when Griffiths last briefed the Council on 17 April, he warned that the renewed prospect of an offensive against Hodeidah would derail his mediation efforts. He is currently scheduled to brief Council members on 18 June about a framework for political negotiations that he has been developing. The Special Envoy was in Sana’a last week discussing this strategy with the Houthis, along with ways to avert an attack on the city. This weekend he was in the UAE, which has been leading the Red Sea offensive. Media reports suggest that Griffiths travelled there to discuss with UAE authorities a possible agreement he had secured with the Houthis to allow the UN to operate the port jointly with the rebel group. Griffiths can be expected to brief members on UN efforts to forestall an attack and the outcomes of his meetings with the Houthis and Emiratis.
While most Council members have been cautious about taking positions on Yemen that could undermine their strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all members recognise and are concerned about the humanitarian impact of an assault on the port. This past March, the Council adopted a presidential statement calling for the full and sustained opening of Hodeidah and Saleef ports, the latter a port also held by the Houthis just north of the city. Its June 2017 presidential statement described Hodeidah as a “critical lifeline”. Besides urging the coalition not to attack Hodeidah, members may stress the importance of the Council having time to consider Griffiths’ strategy to resume peace talks, which could become irrelevant if a lengthy battle for Hodeidah begins.