What's In Blue

Posted Mon 13 Jul 2020

Yemen: Mandate renewal of UNMHA and Council VTC on the FSO Safer oil tanker

Tomorrow (14 July), the Security Council is expected to adopt a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) for one year until 15 July 2021.  The adoption will take place during the first Council in-person meeting since mid-March. The following day (15 July), Council members will hold a videoconference on the FSO Safer, the oil tanker moored off the coast of Hodeidah governorate in the Red Sea that is at risk of polluting the waters and causing severe environmental and humanitarian harm. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Inger Andersen are expected to brief. Following Wednesday’s session, members may issue press elements.

UNMHA mandate renewal:

Discussion on the UNMHA mandate renewal has been straightforward. The UK, as the penholder on Yemen, circulated a draft resolution on the mandate last week, providing a two-day period for comments. On 9 July, the draft resolution was placed under a silence procedure, which it passed, and the text was then placed in blue.

UNMHA will retain its four-point mandate, including leading and supporting the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) that oversees the ceasefire and redeployment of forces set out in the December 2018 Hodeidah agreement between the government and the Houthis, and monitoring their compliance with the accord. The most significant change is that the mandate extends UNMHA for one year, rather than for six months as has been the practice since the mission’s establishment in January 2019.

The only other notable change is language on the COVID-19 pandemic. Since late April, most UNMHA personnel have been withdrawn from Yemen over concerns about the pandemic, with a core team of 12 personnel remaining in Hodeidah. In requesting the Secretary-General to fully deploy UNMHA expeditiously, language has been added that this should take into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, it states that the parties to the Hodeidah agreement should ensure not just the safety and security but also the “health” of UNMHA personnel. The Secretary-General is requested to present to the Council a review of UNMHA, as has been the practice, one month before the mission is due to expire. Only one member submitted comments, apparently to avoid different interpretations by the parties over the COVID-19-related language.

VTC on the FSO Safer

Wednesday’s session on Yemen will focus on the FSO Safer oil tanker. Since the 1980s, the oil tanker has served as a floating storage and offloading facility in the Red Sea for oil transferred by pipeline from Marib governorate. It is located about 7 kilometres off the Ras Isa oil terminal, north of Hodeidah city in Houthi-controlled territory. When the conflict escalated in March 2015, it ceased operations, and maintenance was halted. The UN has warned the Council since at least April 2019 that the lack of maintenance of the 44-year old vessel could cause a major leak or explosion that would release its more than 1.1 million barrels of oil into the sea, creating an environmental catastrophe.

OCHA’s monthly briefings to the Council regularly include updates on talks with the Houthis, ongoing since 2018, to allow a UN-led technical mission to undertake an assessment of the vessel and carry out initial repairs. This assessment will determine the appropriate next steps, which may include safe extraction of the oil.

The situation gained new urgency when the ship’s engine room flooded on 27 May. Workers from the Safer Exploration and Production and Operations Company—a government-run corporation that owns the facility—made repairs that prevented the tanker from sinking. It is unclear how long the ad hoc repairs will last. The Associated Press reported, based on an internal government document it had obtained, that parts of the tanker and equipment are covered in rust and the inert gas that prevents the gathering of inflammable gases had leaked out.

During the meeting, Lowcock is likely to provide an overview of recent developments and discussions with the Houthis on gaining access for the technical team. He is further expected to describe the humanitarian consequences of an oil spill. Andersen of UNEP will talk about the likely environmental impacts. A potential oil spill could be four times greater than the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident in Alaska, which spilled about 260,000 barrels of oil.  One scenario from a modelling of potential oil spills during this time of the year is that the oil would largely remain confined to the Yemeni coast, devastating coastal communities and access to fishing in Hajjah, Hodeidah and Taiz governorates. A spill could also potentially cut off access to Hodeidah port for up to six months. The port is the key entry point for critical imports of food and humanitarian assistance to northern Yemen, so millions of Yemenis would be affected. Other reported potential consequences could include damage to desalination plants and disruption of international shipping routes.

The dedicated session on the tanker—a rare meeting of the Council involving UNEP—is meant to raise awareness of the seriousness of the situation and underline the urgent need to resolve the issue. Council members worry that time to do so is running out. The Houthis recently informed the UN that they sent a mission to the vessel at the start of the month, and, in a note verbale of 5 July, said that they would grant the UN access. They have previously agreed to grant access to a UN-led mission, however, only to backtrack, so Council members are likely to want to hear of any substantive indications of progress, such as visas being granted to the team.

Members have repeatedly stated their concern about the oil tanker and the need for the Houthis to allow the UN team access. Resolution 2511 in February renewing the Yemen sanctions regime was the first formal Council product that mentioned the Safer, “[e]mphasising the environmental risks and the need, without delay, for access of UN officials to inspect and maintain the Safer oil tanker, which is located in the Houthi-controlled North of Yemen”. Last month’s 29 June press statement on Yemen was the first statement by Council members specifically calling on the Houthis to “immediately grant unconditional access for United Nations technical experts”, while expressing “deep alarm at the growing risk that the Safer oil tanker could rupture or explode, causing an environmental, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe for Yemen and its neighbours”.

The governments of Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen sent a letter to the Council presidency in March on the risks posed by the Safer. The Yemeni government has sent several letters since 2018, most recently on 1 June detailing the 27 May incident, and on 3 July affirming its support for a Council special session on the issue. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council recently claimed that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the US would be responsible in case of an accident, saying that they have prevented the Houthis from selling the oil. In addition to sending the UN assessment mission, part of the discussion around the tanker has been on what to do with the oil. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has proposed that any revenue from the oil, which is considered of low quality and probably not worth much, be used to pay civil servants’ salaries. Some Houthis apparently saw the vessel as providing a deterrent in the run-up to a coalition offensive against Hodeidah in 2018. More recently, it seems that they have used the vessel as negotiating leverage linked to wider political talks.

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