This afternoon (18 June), UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths will brief Council members in closed consultations via video-teleconference. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock will also brief. Griffiths is expected to present a framework for peace talks and update members on his mediation efforts to end the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition offensive against the port city of Hodeidah, held by Houthi rebels. Last week, the Council met twice on the situation in Hodeidah.
When Griffiths briefed the Council this past April, he said that in two months he planned to present it with a framework for resuming negotiations to end the conflict in Yemen. Despite having warned then that an offensive against Hodeidah would “take peace off the table”, Griffiths is still expected to outline the strategy that he has been developing. The contours of a political solution, according to Griffiths’ April briefing, remain an end to fighting; the withdrawal of forces and the handover of heavy weapons in key locations; and an agreement on the establishment of an inclusive government.
Griffiths travelled to Sana’a this weekend to continue discussions with the Houthis, apparently including the group’s leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, on his plan to avoid a major battle for Hodeidah. The UN has warned that a prolonged battle could have a “catastrophic” impact on what is already the world’s gravest humanitarian situation, where 22.4 million people require assistance and 8.4 million are severely food insecure, predicting as many as 250,000 civilian deaths from violence, disease and starvation. Griffiths appears to have told members during Thursday’s consultations (14 June) that he was working to reach an agreement with the Houthis whereby they would withdraw from Hodeidah port, the UN would take over its management, and port revenues would go towards paying civil servant salaries. He is also reported to have said that he intended to negotiate the even more difficult issue of their withdrawal from Hodeidah city, which the Houthis have seemed unwilling to do, unlike their greater openness towards options for the management of the port. At a press conference today, Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said that the Houthis must unconditionally withdraw from Hodeidah.
Members are likely to be looking forward to details of the negotiating framework and the outcomes of Griffiths’ latest discussions with the Houthis. Some members could inquire how his Hodeidah plan fits into his broader political strategy, or reiterate their concerns that events on the ground seem to be sidelining the prospects for resuming peace talks. Last month, Griffiths’ office issued a press release saying that he was making good progress in developing the framework, while reaffirming his concerns over the effect of a military escalation to this process. Last week, the UAE asserted in a 13 June letter to the Security Council that “depriving the Houthi militia of its control over Hodeidah port is the most effective way to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table and end the war” (S/2018/607).
Despite all members recognising the significant consequences that the battle for Hodeidah could have on Yemen’s humanitarian situation, they emphasised different points during last Thursday’s meeting, organised following the start of the operation. It seems that the P3 stressed the importance of the port remaining operational and the parties complying with their international law obligations and protecting civilians, but they did not call for the attack to stop. Sweden proposed that the Council call for an immediate freeze of the military attack and for Griffiths to be given more time, an appeal that appears to have been backed by several elected members. It seems that Russia similarly stressed that all violence should stop, and deplored that the Special Envoy had not been provided additional time to work out an agreement before the attack on the city. Coalition member Kuwait highlighted the importance of upholding international humanitarian law, and with other members, highlighted the coalition’s commitment to protecting the port and minimising the humanitarian consequences of the Hodeidah offensive, which the UAE stressed in its 13 June Council letter. Kuwait has further highlighted that Houthi control of the city violates resolution 2216.
Current dynamics make it unlikely for the Council to take a strong position on the situation. Agreeing to press elements following each of the meetings held last week on Hodeidah proved difficult. Following the Thursday meeting, Council members expressed deep concern about the risk to the humanitarian situation; reiterated that Hodeidah and Saleef ports remain open and their call for the implementation of all Council resolutions, including resolution 2216; and urged all sides to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law.
The UK, as the penholder on Yemen, had been thinking of proposing that the Council adopt a presidential statement on Griffiths’ framework, but this seems less likely in light of the current escalation on Hodeidah.
The coalition views the port as a means for the Houthis to finance their war effort, and to divert the flow of humanitarian aid. It also asserts that Hodeidah port is used to smuggle weapons. The Yemen Panel of Experts in its most recent annual report said that the use of Hodeidah port for weapons smuggling is “unlikely”, noting that this route is closely monitored. The UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism, which has provided clearance for commercial vessels to the port since May 2016, and in recent months has increased its inspections to around ninety percent of commercial ships, has never reported discovering any weapons. The coalition also conducts its own inspections of shipments to the port. Coalition member states have not reported any of these inspections to the 2140 Yemen sanctions committee, as required by resolution 2216, which established the arms embargo.
The Houthis inherited large quantities of arms from the stockpiles of the Yemeni army, including ballistic missiles, when they took over the capital in September 2014. The Panel has reported that external sources of arms are more likely to come through land supply routes emanating from southeast Yemen or the Omani border. Black markets along front lines are further believed to be likely sources of arms and ammunition.