What's In Blue

Posted Wed 13 Jan 2021

Yemen: Briefing and Consultations via Videoconference

Tomorrow (14 January), Security Council members will hold a videoconference (VTC) briefing, followed by closed VTC consultations, on Yemen. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths will brief, providing his regular monthly update on mediation efforts to broker a nationwide ceasefire and to resume peace talks. Other anticipated briefers are Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and Executive Director of the World Food Programme David Beasley. General Abhijit Guha, the head of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement, is expected to brief members during the closed consultations. The UK, the penholder on Yemen, is expected to propose a press statement.

Negotiations remain stalled on Griffiths’ proposed joint declaration for a ceasefire, confidence-building measures and restarting peace talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel group. Griffiths is likely to recall the appointment of the new Yemeni government on 18 December 2020 that included representatives of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), fulfilling a key element of the Riyadh Agreement, the power-sharing accord brokered by Saudi Arabia in November 2019 between the STC and the Yemeni government. The formation of the government had brought some hope of momentum towards organising in-person talks between the government and the Houthi rebel group to overcome differences on the joint declaration.

Such prospects, however, were soon dealt a major setback with the attack on Aden airport on 30 December 2020, which killed at least 25 people, including three staff of ICRC, and wounded over 50 others. The attack took place shortly after a plane carrying the new Yemeni cabinet had arrived from Saudi Arabia. The government has said that no one on the plane was hurt. While events around the incident remain unclear, news reports have said that at least one missile was used, which would suggest the Houthis were responsible as they are the only other party to the conflict known to have such weapons. Griffiths, who condemned the attack, travelled to Aden last week, where he met with Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, who had also served as prime minister in the previous government, and with other members of the new cabinet and local officials. Over the past week, Griffiths has also undertaken visits to Riyadh to meet with Saudi officials and Yemeni President Abd Raboo Mansour Hadi.

Another key focus of tomorrow’s briefing is likely to be the US announcement on 10 January that it is designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation. For the past two months, media sources have reported that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the outgoing Trump administration planned to designate the group as part of its maximum pressure campaign on Iran, viewing the Houthis as an Iranian proxy. UN officials have discouraged the move, as have others, worried about its implications on the humanitarian situation and the political process in Yemen. UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said yesterday that the UN “continue[s] to be extremely concerned about the potential impact of the US designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation”.

Lowcock may focus much of his remarks on the UN’s concerns about the decision.  The Houthis control territory where about 70 percent of the population lives, and relief operations in what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis inevitably interact with the Houthis and risk violating the US law. One immediate concern is that no waiver exemptions have been issued yet. The US statement on 10 January says that it is prepared to grant licenses and guidance for international organisations and humanitarian activities “simultaneously” with the entry into force on 19 January of the terrorist organisation designation. However, until these are granted and there is greater clarity on how organisations can apply for waivers, major disruptions to aid operations are anticipated. The timing of the move is particularly disconcerting for the UN, rendering more difficult its priority of preventing famine.

The decision is likely to have even greater impact through its effect on the economy and, in particular, the private sector that is reportedly responsible for ninety percent of Yemen’s food imports. It is unclear what exemptions will be provided for importers, and commercial banks and insurance companies, wishing to avoid any potential criminal liabilities, may cease to do business with them. Lowcock could note that the Security Council has recognised the importance of protecting commercial imports as part of the humanitarian response. Resolution 2451 on the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement “reiterates the need for the unhindered flow of commercial and humanitarian supplies and humanitarian personnel into and across the country”, as have other Council presidential statements and press statements.

Griffiths may also touch on the US decision, which the UN has said could have a detrimental impact on efforts to resume the political process, and further polarise the positions of the parties. The move also complicates UN efforts to deploy a technical team to the FSO Safer oil tanker, the decrepit vessel moored off Hodeidah, which the UN warns could create a major environmental disaster if the oil on board leaks or explodes. While the Houthis finally approved the deployment of the team in November, it is likely to be delayed pending review of the potential liabilities that the mission could incur by the US designation, which has broad restrictions prohibiting “material support to terrorists”.

Executive Director Beasley may also address the US decision, against which he personally lobbied Pompeo last month, while stressing the importance of securing waivers to continue aid work. He is likely to recall the findings of the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC)  analysis published on 3 December 2020. The IPC findings showed that 16,500 people were experiencing famine-like conditions (on Tuesday, Dujarric said that 50,000 people are already living in famine-like conditions). Overall, the IPC projects that the number of people experiencing Phase 4 food insecurity—emergency food insecurity conditions—is poised to increase from 3.6 million to 5 million people in the first half of 2021 and that 16.2 million people, more than half of Yemen’s population of 30 million, will face Phase 3 “crisis” levels of food insecurity or worse by mid-2021.

Beasley could point out that the foreign terrorist designation will hamper efforts to mobilise the resources needed to scale up operations and could be a tipping point in the effort to avert famine. He may appeal to Council members to continue to advocate for support for the relief operation.

In their interventions, members are likely to condemn the 30 December attack in Aden. They may reiterate their support for Griffiths and calls for the parties to continue to work with the Special Envoy to obtain a ceasefire and restart peace talks. Members likewise remain concerned about the humanitarian situation; in this regard, as in past Council meetings, they may encourage donors to support the humanitarian response, and call on the parties to facilitate humanitarian access and comply with international humanitarian law. Members may also express concerns that the US designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation will worsen the humanitarian crisis and negatively impact UN efforts to negotiate a political solution. The closed consultations could provide members an opportunity to engage in a frank discussion about the designation.

The UK has informed members that it plans to propose a press statement to condemn last month’s attacks at Aden airport. The 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee is scheduled to hold a VTC meeting on 22 January to discuss the final report of the Yemen Panel of Experts.