Yemen: Informal meeting via Videoconferencing
Tomorrow (16 April), the Security Council will convene an informal open videoconference (VTC) meeting, followed by a closed VTC meeting, on Yemen. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock are expected to brief and their statements will be webcast. The head of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), General Abhijit Guha, is expected to brief members during the closed session. The meeting formats reflect the temporary changes to the Council’s working methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic: while statements by Council members will not be webcast, as has been the case with previous informal open VTC meetings, members may choose to circulate their statements after the meeting, and they will be published in a Council document.
Griffiths is expected to provide an update on his efforts to arrange a virtual meeting of the parties to reach a ceasefire agreement and to resume a political process, which has gained new urgency over concerns about a potential COVID-19 outbreak in Yemen. On 25 March, the Secretary-General called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Yemen, following his 23 March appeal for a global ceasefire to help create conditions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In Yemen, there was already concern that fighting in the north since January, including an offensive by the Houthi-rebel group against the government stronghold of Marib governorate, would further undermine peace efforts, while deepening the humanitarian crisis. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened worldwide, there are particular fears over the threat posed to Yemen, where the health care system has been devastated and widespread hunger and malnutrition during the more than five-year-long war have likely left much of the population immunocompromised.
The ceasefire call by the Secretary-General was initially welcomed by the Houthis, the government and its allies the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. However, on 28 March, the coalition announced that it had intercepted two ballistic missiles aimed at Riyadh and southern Saudi Arabia that the Houthis claimed to have fired. This was followed by heavy coalition air strikes on Sana’a. As part of the continued fighting in Yemen, on 5 April, shelling hit the women’s section of a prison in the southwestern city of Taiz, killing six female prisoners, including one child, which the government blamed on the Houthis. Despite the escalation, on 8 April Saudi Arabia announced a two-week unilateral ceasefire to coalition operations, starting the next day, due to the threat of COVID-19.
On 9 April, Griffiths issued a press release on his “comprehensive initiative to end the war” that he had shared with the Yemeni government and the Houthis in late March, and which he may further discuss with Council members. The initiative includes: 1) a proposal for a nation-wide and accountable ceasefire agreement; 2) a set of economic and humanitarian measures to alleviate the suffering of Yemeni people and build confidence between the parties; and 3) a commitment to the resumption of the political process. Additionally, it aims to support joint efforts of the parties and the UN Humanitarian Coordinator to combat a possible COVID-19 outbreak in Yemen.
Despite the diplomatic activity and unilateral ceasefire announcement, fighting has continued, including airstrikes, and Griffiths has not yet been able to convene a virtual meeting of the parties to discuss his proposal, which he has been seeking to do since their initial positive overtures to the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call. Tomorrow, Council members are likely to underscore the need for the parties to engage with the Special Envoy and to reach an agreement on Griffiths’ initiative, in particular in light of the risk that COVID-19 is poised to worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Some members could flag concerns that it is the Houthis who appear to be most responsible for pushing forward with attacks on internal frontlines. In a 10 April press statement, Council members welcomed Saudi Arabia’s unilateral ceasefire announcement “in support of the UN peace process and the Secretary-General’s call”, as well as the Yemeni government’s “positive response to the ceasefire call”, while calling “on the Houthis to make similar commitments without delay”. The statement stressed that further military escalation “would hinder the access of humanitarian and health care workers, and the availability of health-care facilities necessary to tackle a COVID-19 outbreak”.
Among other points, Griffiths may mention that the situation in the south remains volatile and fragile as implementation of the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement between the government and southern separatists remains stalled. He may also refer to efforts to advance the long-stalled prisoner exchange agreement, which he has highlighted is ever more important given the risks posed to prisoners by the COVID-19 pandemic. He could refer to his office’s efforts to obtain access for a UN assessment mission to the SAFER oil tanker, located off the Houthi held Ras-Isa terminal in the Red Sea, which risks creating a major environmental disaster.
Lowcock is likely to focus much of his briefing on the pandemic and UN preparations to respond to an outbreak. On 10 April, Yemen confirmed its first case of COVID-19, that of an older worker at al-Shahr port in the eastern governorate of Hadramawt. There are concerns that a COVID-19 outbreak could be “catastrophic” for Yemen, according to UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande. Only 50 percent of health facilities are functioning, and the country has experienced the world’s largest recorded cholera outbreak during the war, as well as outbreaks of dengue fever and diphtheria. Twenty million people have been identified in recent years as food insecure, contributing to weakened immune systems and less able to withstand disease.
While warning about Yemen’s vulnerability to COVID-19, Lowcock may underscore that maintaining the current humanitarian response is an especially important contribution in a possible pandemic, as much of it supports programmes to keep people healthy and more resilient to disease. He is therefore likely to raise concerns about a lack of funding for the humanitarian response, which could soon force the closure or scaling back of 31 out of 41 major UN humanitarian programmes unless funding is urgently received, according to OCHA’s 12 April situation report. A scheduled 2 April pledging conference in Riyadh was postponed due to the pandemic and a new date has yet to be announced. Lowcock is likely to welcome Saudi Arabia’s recent commitment of $500 million to the humanitarian response and an additional $25 million for fighting COVID-19, while expressing hope that this money is disbursed quickly. He may further recall that aid organisations are finalising a status report on the humanitarian operation in Yemen, which will carry over programmes from the 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), since access restrictions have prevented the necessary assessments to develop a new HRP for 2020.
Members may be interested in how measures taken by the government and the Houthis to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are affecting the aid operation. Since 18 March, there have reportedly been no flights in and out of Yemen, though sea cargo continues to enter. There could also be discussion of the US decision that went into effect on 27 March to halt about $70 million in humanitarian funding in Houthi-held areas due to the group’s interference in aid efforts.
Guha is likely to speak about his efforts at engaging the parties to reactivate the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) that oversees implementation of the December 2018 Hodeidah agreement. The government suspended its participation in the RCC last month after a Houthi sniper shot a Yemeni government liaison officer serving in one of the joint observation posts for the Hodeidah ceasefire. Guha may further mention continuing restrictions on UNMHA’s freedom of movement. Since October UNMHA patrols have been unable to enter Hodeidah city, reflecting the growing access challenges in Houthi-controlled areas.