What's In Blue

Posted Mon 17 Aug 2020

Yemen: Closed Videoconference

Tomorrow (18 August), 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 of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) are expected to brief. The Council’s monthly meeting on Yemen was initially scheduled as a public as well as a closed VTC. But members agreed recently to hold it only as a closed session since the Special Envoy briefed publicly just three weeks ago, on 28 July.

Griffiths is expected to update members on his efforts to broker an agreement between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel group on a joint declaration for a nation-wide ceasefire, a series of economic and humanitarian measures and the resumption of peace talks. Griffiths was in Riyadh last week to discuss the government’s latest comments and proposed amendments to the joint declaration, which he will take back to the Houthis in what seems will be a push to reach an agreement over the next month. As he has previously told members, outstanding issues have been over some of the economic and humanitarian measures, in particular arrangements for re-opening Sana’a airport, the payment of civil service salaries and the opening of roads for humanitarian access. In press elements the day of his last briefing, Council members called on the parties to agree rapidly to Griffiths’ proposals.

The Special Envoy may comment on efforts overseen by Saudi Arabia to implement the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement between the government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), which members are likely to be interested in discussing. After a ceasefire announcement in June, on 29 July the coalition announced that the government and STC had renewed their commitment to the Riyadh Agreement, with the STC abandoning its 25 April declaration of self-rule. In accordance with the 29 July announcement, a new governor for Aden, Ahmed Hamid Lamlas, and a security director for Aden, General Mohammad Ahmed Salim al-Hamedi—both from the STC—were appointed earlier this month. Talks continue on forming a new government within the 30-day period as set out in last month’s announcement, with the government to feature an equal number of ministers from northern and southern Yemen, including representatives of the STC. Security measures regarding the withdrawal of rival forces are likely to be more challenging and to take some time.

At the 28 July briefing, Lowcock asserted that “[t]he humanitarian crisis in Yemen has never been worse”, highlighting an increase in hunger, the COVID-19 pandemic, and deteriorating economic conditions which include the near-depletion of Central Bank reserves, a decline in remittances, and a fuel shortage. Tomorrow, Lowcock may mention the flooding that has swept through Houthi-held parts of Yemen since mid-July due to heavy rains, and which, according to OCHA, have killed more than 130 people, displaced thousands, and caused heavy damage, including to the historic Old City of Sana’a. Lowcock is again likely to flag the critical funding shortfall facing humanitarian relief efforts, which he has attributed mostly to a sharp reduction in pledges and payments this year from Gulf countries.

On the humanitarian situation, Council members may underscore the parties’ responsibility to protect civilians. Members may condemn air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition on 6 August in Al Jawf governorate that killed nine children and further injured seven children and two women, according to the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande. Members may also register concerns stemming from the 6 August statement of High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet about human rights violations against journalists in Yemen, including a fear that the Houthis may carry out the execution of four journalists sentenced to death in April, and the assassination in June of a Yemeni photojournalist in Aden by unidentified gunmen.

Perhaps the most urgent issue is the threat posed by the FSO Safer oil tanker, moored in the Red Sea near Hodeidah city and which has served since the 1980s as an offloading facility for Yemen’s oil exports. The vessel has been out of operation and has had no maintenance since March 2015. Due to its deteriorated condition, there is real concern of a major oil leak or explosion and the environmental, humanitarian and economic disaster likely to ensue. Emergency repairs by divers in late May prevented the ship from sinking and prompted last month’s special session of the Security Council with UN Environment Programme Executive Director Inger Andersen and Lowcock, who has raised the issue for over a year during his monthly briefings. As discussed at the meeting, an oil spill of its 1.14 million barrels would be four times greater than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 and would cause decades-long damage to eco-systems in the Red Sea and destroy livelihoods for millions of Yemenis (and inhabitants of neighbouring countries). It could also force the important ports of Hodeidah and Saleef to close for months, or release pollutants damaging water supplies for Yemenis in the event of an explosion. Despite the Houthis having informed the UN that they would allow access for a UN-led technical team to the vessel in early July, the Houthis have still not issued the required entry permits.

Members are likely to be keen to discuss ways to maintain pressure on the Houthis to enable action to prevent the potential crisis. In their 28 July press elements, members “noted conflicting Houthi announcements regarding UN access to the Safer tanker and called for concrete action as soon as possible, including agreeing to entry permits, safe travel route to the tanker and all other logistical arrangements in order to facilitate unconditional access for UN technical experts to assess the tankers’ condition, conduct any possible repairs and make recommendations for the safe extraction of the oil”.

In other Council-related developments, last Friday (14 August), the Council’s 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee discussed with the Yemen Panel of Experts the Panel’s mid-term update. As anticipated, the issue of external arms flows to the Houthis, including Iranian arms, was considered. The US has reported several arms interdictions off the coast of Yemen in November 2019, February 2020 and June 2020. In terms of Panel recommendations in its latest mid-term update, it seems that the most significant were proposals to designate individuals for violations related to sexual violence. It was an issue flagged by the Panel in its last January report that depicted the repression of women critical or perceived to be critical of Houthi rule. Further action now depends on a Council member initiating designation proposals that would subject the individuals to an asset freeze and travel ban.