What's In Blue

Posted Wed 17 Feb 2021

Yemen: Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow (18 February), Security Council members will hold their monthly meeting on Yemen through videoconference. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, and the chair of the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee, Ambassador I. Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), are expected to brief in the public session. General Abhijit Guha, the head of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), will brief during closed consultations that are expected to follow.

Recent weeks have seen intensified diplomatic engagement to “fast track” a ceasefire agreement, increase access through Hodeidah ports and re-open Sana’a airport, which Griffiths is likely to refer to at tomorrow’s briefing. This new momentum has been triggered largely by the new US administration’s policy shift on Yemen. President Joe Biden announced on 4 February the appointment of a US special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, “to push for a diplomatic resolution” to the conflict. Biden also announced that the US was ending support for offensive operations to the Saudi Arabia-led campaign fighting against the Houthi rebel group since 2015, which has been responsible for much of the war’s high civilian death toll. This includes ending relevant arms sales.

Griffiths met last week in Riyadh with Lenderking, Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman and Yemeni Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, among other officials. The two-day visit followed Griffiths’ first trip as Special Envoy to Iran from 7 to 8 February, where he met with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and other Iranian officials.

Griffiths is likely to express concern about the Houthis’ escalation of their offensive in Marib governorate to take Marib City, and their escalation of drone attacks on Saudi Arabia this month, which could undermine the new diplomatic engagement. The fall of Marib, which is rich in oil and gas fields and has become the Yemeni government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen, would be a severe blow to future peace talks. The fighting could also have severe humanitarian consequences, especially if it spreads to Marib City, which has seen its population increase since 2015 from 40,000 to 1.8 million inhabitants, mostly due to internally displaced persons from Houthi-controlled areas, according to the Yemen Panel of Experts’ recent final report to the 2140 Sanctions Committee.

The escalation comes as the US has announced that it is revoking last month’s decision by the outgoing Trump administration to designate the Houthis as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization”, and Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi and military commanders Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists”. (The three individuals—who remain under other US sanctions—have been and remain under Security Council travel ban and asset freeze sanctions for undermining the peace, security and stability of Yemen.) A statement by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the move was made in recognition of Yemen’s dire humanitarian situation, and warnings by UN officials and humanitarian agencies that the designations would have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel. The statement added that the US will continue to closely monitor Houthi activities, while remaining “clear-eyed” about the group’s “malign actions and aggression”.

Lowcock is likely to welcome the decision, which he urged on humanitarian grounds at last month’s 14 January Council meeting. He will also raise concerns about the Marib offensive. Earlier this week, Lowcock said on Twitter that “[a]n assault on the city would put two million civilians at risk, with hundreds of thousands potentially forced to flee—with unimaginable humanitarian consequences. Now is the time to de-escalate”. He may further observe that a new humanitarian crisis in Marib will distract from what should be relief agencies’ main focus on preventing widespread famine in Yemen.

His briefing is likely to draw attention to the upcoming pledging conference on Yemen on 1 March, being convened by the Secretary-General and co-hosted by Sweden and Switzerland to raise the approximately $4 billion needed to fund this year’s Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan. Lowcock could note that this is an opportunity for the international community to demonstrate its commitment to preventing famine. He may further observe that if famine occurs, the recent momentum to renew a peace process could be overtaken.

Both Griffiths and Lowcock may also express concern over the continued delays to deploy the UN-led technical mission to the FSO Safer oil tanker. The vessel is moored in the Red Sea off Hodeidah governorate, threatening to cause a major environmental catastrophe if the oil on board leaks. In a rare 2 February statement, the UN expressed frustration over the Houthis’ apparent backtracking on allowing the mission’s deployment, stating that it could no longer predict when the mission might go forward after announcing in November 2020 that it was likely to deploy in February.

Ambassador King, as chair of the 2140 Sanctions Committee, will update Council members on the work of the Committee. Last month, the Committee considered the final report of the Yemen Panel of Experts. Among its findings, the Panel highlighted the diversion of Yemen’s economic and financial resources by the Houthis, the government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). The Panel also reported that “[a]n increasing body of evidence suggests that individuals or entities in the Islamic Republic of Iran supply significant volumes of weapons and components to the Houthis”. It also flagged the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) support to the STC as undermining the Yemeni government in violation of resolution 2216.

In their interventions, Council members may welcome the new push for a ceasefire and the restart of peace talks, including the US engagement. They will be interested in hearing an update from Griffiths on his visits to Tehran and Riyadh. Members are likely to call for the Houthis to cease all military advances and cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, and to demonstrate their seriousness in a negotiated resolution to the conflict. They share concerns about the potential of the Houthis’ Marib offensive to trigger new mass displacement of Yemenis, and the overall humanitarian crisis. Members are also likely to express disappointment about the delays once again in deploying the UN-led mission to the FSO Safer.

Later this month, the Council is expected to adopt a resolution that renews Yemen’s financial and travel ban sanctions and the mandate of the Panel of Experts. (The arms embargo on the Houthis is open-ended).