What's In Blue

Posted Tue 23 Jun 2020

Closed Videoconference on Yemen

Tomorrow (24 June), Security Council members will hold a closed videoconference (VTC) on Yemen. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, and General Abhijit Guha, who heads the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), are expected to brief.

Griffiths is expected to update members on a joint declaration that he has been negotiating with the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel group for a nationwide ceasefire; humanitarian and economic measures (including the opening of the Sana’a airport, reducing restrictions on imports to Hodeidah ports, paying civil servant salaries, and establishing a joint operations cell to combat COVID-19); and resuming peace talks. Griffiths may note progress in the negotiations—something that the Secretary-General suggested during his luncheon this month with Council members—but it seems that he has yet to reach a deal, despite tomorrow’s session having been postponed from last week in order to continue negotiations. The closed session is an opportunity for members to discuss more frankly the issues preventing an accord. Council members have previously discussed pursuing a resolution that would support an agreement the parties may reach on Griffiths’ proposals.

On the ground, fighting has recently escalated. The Houthis and government forces continue to battle in the north, and there remains concern that the Houthis may press further towards the government stronghold of Marib city. Airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which backs the government, increased after the expiration on 23 May of the unilateral ceasefire that the coalition announced in April to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The coalition conducted heavy airstrikes on Sana’a and other Houthi strongholds for several days last week, after claiming to have intercepted bomb-laden Houthi drones and after a ballistic missile was fired at southern Saudi Arabia. Earlier today, the coalition announced that it had intercepted a new round of ballistic missiles and drones targeting Riyadh.

In southern Yemen, the government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) also continue to battle in Abyan and Socotra governorates. On 22 June, the STC reportedly seized several state buildings, including the governor’s headquarters, during fighting in Socotra’s capital of Hadebo. Earlier this month it was also reported that the STC had captured 64 billion Yemeni rials being transferred to the Central Bank in Aden. Council members have called for the STC to reverse its actions since declaring self-rule and seizing government institutions in Aden in late April, in defiance of the Riyadh Agreement, last year’s power-sharing arrangement brokered by Saudi Arabia. According to news reports, the government and STC agreed to a ceasefire today.

Lowcock is expected to cover the worsening humanitarian crisis, which is being exacerbated by a “rapidly spreading” COVID-19 outbreak, according to a 15 June update from OCHA. As of 23 June, the World Health Organisation has reported 971 cases and 258 deaths from the coronavirus, mostly in government-held areas, but lack of testing makes it impossible to know the true level of infections. It is believed that the Houthis, for their part, are hiding the extent of the outbreak in the north, reporting four cases in total by mid-June.

In recent months, OCHA has warned the Council about the funding shortage facing relief efforts, which has forced the scaling-back or closure of three-quarters of the UN’s major humanitarian programmes. Lowcock is likely to mention the 2 June virtual pledging conference hosted by Saudi Arabia and the UN. The conference generated pledges totalling $1.5 billion, significantly short of the $2.41 billion OCHA says is required through the end of the year. Saudi Arabia made the largest commitment of $500 million, although just $300 million would be directed through the UN. Lowcock is likely to stress that these pledges should now be quickly disbursed.

In addition, there is renewed alarm about the risks posed by Yemen’s already beleaguered economy. The decline in remittances because of the global pandemic and the near-depletion of Yemen’s foreign reserves are among the economic factors threatening to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

Guha is likely to cover the latest UNMHA review, requested by the Council when it last renewed the mission for six months in January. The review says that the Hodeidah agreement “has been severely challenged over the past four months by political and military events taking place elsewhere in Yemen, a crisis of confidence within the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) and the operational constraints imposed by COVID-19 pandemic”.

The government suspended its participation in the RCC, which oversees implementation of the 2018 Hodeidah agreement, after the 11 March shooting of a Yemeni government liaison, who died in April. According to the review, the government has set out four conditions for returning to the RCC: (1) the deployment of UN monitors at the observation posts; (2) the opening of secured humanitarian access routes; (3) the relocation of UNMHA headquarters to a neutral location (that is, not situated within territory under the exclusive control of one party); and (4) an investigation being conducted into the shooting incident.

In late April, UNMHA relocated most of its personnel to their home countries to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19. A team of 12 personnel, including Guha, remains, based in the mission’s new land headquarters (still in Houthi-held territory) since May, after previously being located on a vessel off Hodeidah port. The review indicates the importance of continuing UNMHA. Council members may stress the importance of reactivating the RCC. They may also seek to discuss with Guha those activities that the mission has continued since its downsizing, those it has ceased, and when he foresees the safe return of its staff.

In other developments, the Secretary-General released this month his annual report on Children and Armed Conflict. This year’s report de-listed the Saudi-led coalition for committing grave violations affecting children, citing “a sustained significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes and the signature and implementation of the programme of time-bound activities to support the implementation of the memorandum of understanding signed in March 2019”. The coalition was identified as responsible for killing and maiming 222 children last year, compared to 729 in 2018 and 670 in 2017.

The decision has triggered controversy—the day the report was made public on 15 June, at least 12 civilians including four children were killed in strikes on a vehicle in Shaada District, Sa’ada Governorate, in the north of Yemen, according to the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen, Lise Grande. During today’s Council VTC on Children and Armed Conflict, some members raised concerns that if parties that do not appear to have stopped committing violations against children are de-listed, the credibility of the monitoring and reporting mechanism is called into question.

In the report, the Secretary-General also decided that the Houthis will now be listed in section B of the annex for recruitment and use of children, owing to recent command orders to stop the practice and to release children, and to enhance dialogue with the UN. Section B is for parties that have put in place measures to improve the protection of children, and was first created several years ago amid coalition members’ protests about being listed. The Houthis remain listed under section A of the annex, as are other non-state actors, for killing and maiming and for attacks on schools and hospitals. Yemeni armed forces are listed in section B for recruitment and use of children.

During tomorrow’s session, members are also likely to raise concerns about the condition of the SAFER oil tanker located off the Houthi-held Ras Isa terminal in the Red Sea, which risks creating a major environmental disaster. On 27 May, the engine room flooded after a pipe burst, though emergency repairs prevented the vessel from sinking. A Yemeni government letter to Council members on 1 June appealed to the UN and the international community to pressure the Houthis to allow a UN technical team access to the tanker and to have the oil unloaded. The Houthis have said that any accident would be the responsibility of the coalition for preventing them from selling the oil, and that there should be serious negotiations on the matter.

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