Yemen: Sanctions Resolution*
On Monday (28 February), the Security Council is expected to vote on a draft resolution that renews the Yemen financial and travel ban sanctions until 28 February 2023, reaffirms the provisions of the targeted arms embargo established in resolution 2216 of April 2015 (which is open-ended), and extends the mandate of the Yemen Panel of Experts until 28 March 2023.
Council members held one expert-level meeting on the text on 16 February. Revised versions of the draft resolution were circulated later that evening (16 February) and on 19 February. On 23 February, the UK, which is the penholder on Yemen, circulated a third updated text, which it placed under silence procedure. China and Russia broke the silence, and Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, and Norway collectively did so as well. Following additional discussions—including during closed consultations under “any other business” with UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg—the UK placed a further revised version of the draft resolution in blue at the end of the day on Friday (25 February).
In addition to renewing the sanctions, the draft resolution strongly condemns the cross-border attacks by the “Houthi terrorist group”, including those on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It also designates the Houthis as an entity that is subject to the measures imposed in paragraph 14 of resolution 2216, which refers to the targeted arms embargo. The Houthis have been subject to the arms embargo since resolution 2216: not as an “entity”, but through language in the resolution that prohibits arms transfers, related technical assistance, and training to forces that are under the control or acting on behalf of the individuals on the Yemen sanctions list, which includes Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi and six other Houthi officials.
This year’s draft sanctions resolution contains a new emphasis on enforcing the targeted arms embargo based on Emirati proposals, although it does not include a new section proposed by the UAE on maritime interdictions. It calls on member states to increase efforts to combat the smuggling of weapons and components via land and sea routes (language that the Panel of Experts recommended adding to the resolution in its final report), condemns the continued supply of weapons and components in violation of the embargo, and urges all member states to respect and implement their obligations to prevent such transfers.
Also notable is new language supporting Grundberg’s approach to setting up a more inclusive political process. The draft resolution calls on “all the stakeholders and all the varied and multiple parties, including and not limited to the Government of Yemen and the Houthis” to engage constructively with the Special Envoy in his “ongoing framework consultations”, and highlights the need for “a political process that includes and meets the legitimate aspirations of all Yemen’s multiple and varied parties”. The Yemeni government reportedly lobbied Council members against including this language, but it remains in the draft resolution in blue.
Negotiations on the draft resolution were intensive, largely revolving around paragraphs and amendments the UAE proposed. One highly sensitive issue was over UAE proposals describing Houthi “terrorist” attacks and calling the Houthis a terrorist group. It seems that Russia sought to remove the terrorist label, apparently concerned that using this description about one of the conflict parties could undermine political efforts. Several other members also appeared to have particular reservations about describing the Houthis as a terrorist group for a number of reasons, including how this could affect the UN Envoy’s efforts, the lack of an agreed definition of a terrorist group, and the possible legal implications of calling the Houthis a terrorist group in a Council resolution. According to the P3 (France, the UK and the US), there would be no practical legal effect. It seems that members also contemplated different formulations for describing the Houthis as a terrorist group, which was important for the UAE following the Houthi missile and drone attacks it suffered last month.
At the 24 February consultations, which Russia and the UAE requested, Russia sought Grundberg’s views on how the resolution would affect his mandate. Grundberg, however, focused his remarks on his efforts to develop a framework for a political process.
The draft in blue contains one reference to the “Houthi terrorist group”. There is also a description of Houthi terrorist attacks in a paragraph in the preambular section of the draft resolution that draws from Council members’ 21 January press statement that “condemned in the strongest terms the heinous terrorist attack” by the Houthis on 17 January in Abu Dhabi, which killed three civilians in an industrial district and a construction zone at the international airport. Ahead of placing the draft resolution in blue, two references to terrorist attacks used to describe Houthi cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE were removed from the previous version of the text.
Another sensitive issue was over the designation of the Houthis. Members again had concerns that this might undermine the political process. But their main concern was the negative impact this could have on the humanitarian situation, in particular, the chilling effect on private sector actors, such as banks and food importers that might cease operations in Yemen to avoid violating the sanctions designation. In proposing the designation, the UAE included several paragraphs drawn from resolution 2615 of December 2021 that set out exemptions for humanitarian actors in Afghanistan, so that they would not be in violation of the sanctions on the Taliban after it came to power in the country. Still, for many members, these “humanitarian carveouts” were not considered sufficient, especially for the private sector.
Due to these humanitarian concerns, it seems that a number of members preferred to remove the designation. As negotiations proceeded, the text was amended so that the designation does not include subjecting the Houthis to the financial sanctions established by resolution 2140 that set up the Yemen sanctions regime. This thereby narrowed the scope of the designation to the arms embargo. With this narrower focus, the humanitarian exemptions drawn from resolution 2615 were deleted.
Some, including the US, were satisfied that this change would be sufficient to avoid adverse humanitarian effects. But others still worried that humanitarian or commercial actors might not understand this distinction (that is, that the designation would only subject the Houthis to an arms embargo, and not financial sanctions) in part due to the technical language of the designation. This was a key concern of Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, and Norway when they broke silence last week. The updated draft resolution in blue now emphasises the importance of facilitating humanitarian assistance “and facilitating commercial imports” in the paragraph that follows the designation’s announcement, and there is also new language to stress that sanctions measures are not meant to adversely impact “civilian access to humanitarian assistance, commercial imports or remittances”.
China’s breaking of silence centred largely around a series of paragraphs on maritime interdictions, introduced by the UAE, to enforce the arms embargo. Much of this proposal echoed language in resolution 2216 that authorises member states to conduct inspections of cargos in their territories, if they have information providing reasonable grounds to believe these are in violation of the arms embargo, and requests member states to report on such inspections to the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee. More controversial was the proposal authorising inspections in the Yemeni territorial sea and high seas off the coast of Yemen extending to the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, and the use of all necessary measures to conduct these inspections in full compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law.
While the P3 apparently supported the Emirati initiative, it seems that several members had concerns about not having sufficient time to assess the proposal’s implications. For China, the proposal proved a red line, as it was apparently not comfortable with the Council authorising inspections across the high seas in a region which is a busy shipping route, nor with endorsing the use of all necessary measures, which can include using force. This section has been removed from the draft resolution in blue. Getting China’s agreement on the text also led to deletion of a paragraph that the US had apparently introduced requesting the Panel of Experts to investigate the export of items that are not banned by the targeted arms embargo—commercial components with dual-use such as engines that the Panel has identified—that the Houthis have been using in weapons systems.
Other new elements in this year’s draft sanctions include new language regarding the designation criteria. Based on an amendment proposed by the UAE, the text affirms that the designation criteria may include cross-border launches from Yemen using ballistic and cruise missile technology. Based on India’s proposal, it also affirms that the designation criteria may include attacks on merchant vessels in the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden by parties to the conflict.
Also notable is new language, apparently introduced by the penholder and Ireland, regarding women’s issues. The draft resolution demands the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women in the peace process, recalling with satisfaction the 30 percent minimum target for women in Yemen’s 2013-2014 National Dialogue Conference. It also, among other points, stresses the need for protecting women and girls in refugee camps, highlighting the importance of providing sex-separated facilities for women, such as latrines, and remedy and assistance for survivors of sexual violence in conflict.
Council dynamics during the Yemen sanctions negotiations may have been complicated by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Notably, the UAE abstained at the 25 February Council vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as at the vote to request the General Assembly to take up the Ukraine issue on 27 February. On 25 February, ahead of the vote, Russia announced that Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan would be visiting Moscow on 28 February for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In addition, a US decision on whether to unilaterally designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation remains in abeyance. In a separate sanctions-related action, on 23 February, the US announced that it was designating in coordination with Gulf partners, an international network funding Houthi military forces that operates under the leadership of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force and Houthi financier Sa’id al-Jamal.
*Post-script: The draft resolution was adopted as resolution 2624. Eleven members voted in favour and four abstained (Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, and Norway). In their explanations of vote, these four members highlighted their concerns about the lack of an agreed definition of a terrorist group and the impact of applying the terrorism label on the Houthis and the designation on political efforts. They further expressed concerns about the possible unintended consequences of the use of the terrorism term on the humanitarian situation.