Houthi Red Sea Attacks: Vote on a Draft Resolution*
Today (10 January), the Security Council is expected to vote on a draft resolution on recent Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, which was authored by Japan and the US.*
The co-penholders formally circulated an initial draft of the resolution on 4 January. The text was based on a draft presidential statement proposed on 26 December 2023 by Japan and the US, on which members were unable to agree. China and Russia broke silence on a revised version of the draft resolution on Monday morning (8 January). The co-penholders subsequently placed a second revised version of the text under silence later that night, until yesterday morning (9 January). Algeria and Russia broke silence, after which the co-penholders placed a further revised text in blue later in the day.
In response to the Israel-Hamas war that broke out on 7 October 2023, the Houthi rebel group in Yemen has conducted repeated attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea since mid-November 2023, severely disrupting international shipping. These attacks followed the group’s initial missile and drone attacks in October 2023 against Israel, which the Houthis threatened to continue until Israel ended its military campaign in Gaza. The Houthis first targeted Israeli ships, capturing on 19 November 2023 the Galaxy Leader, a Japanese-operated cargo ship with links to an Israeli businessman, and its 25 crew members. Such attacks in the Red Sea became almost daily events, and subsequently more indiscriminate: Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Sare’e announced on 9 December 2023 that the group would target ships from any nationality heading to Israel, if “the food and medicine keep not accessing the Gaza Strip”. On 18 December 2023, the US announced the establishment of a multinational task force, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, to operate in the Red Sea to deter and counter the attacks. The assaults have nonetheless continued, including an attempted hijacking of a commercial vessel on 31 December 2023, which led to a confrontation with US helicopters that resulted in the sinking of three small Houthi boats and the deaths of ten Houthi fighters.
Council members condemned the Houthi attacks and demanded the release of the Galaxy Leader and its crew in a 1 December 2023 press statement. Having been unable to agree on the draft presidential statement in late December and as the attacks continued, the Council held a briefing and consultations last week (3 January) on the situation, at the request of Ecuador, France, Guyana, Japan, Malta, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the UK, and the US. During the consultations, Japan and the US announced their intention to propose a resolution. (For more information, see our 2 January What’s in Blue story.)
The draft resolution in blue condemns in the strongest terms the at least 24 Houthi attacks on merchant and commercial vessels since 19 November 2023, demanding that the group immediately cease all such attacks, as well as release the Galaxy Leader and its crew. The draft text in blue affirms that the exercise of navigational rights and freedoms by merchant and commercial vessels, in accordance with international law, must be respected. It further takes note of the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to defend their vessels from attacks, including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms.
Although Council members appear to be united in their concern about the Houthi attacks and their impact on global maritime shipping, several members had reservations about the proposed text. An overarching issue since members first considered the draft presidential statement has been the link between the Houthi attacks and the conflict in Gaza. Several members raised this point at the 3 January briefing. China, for example, highlighted that only by achieving a ceasefire in Gaza and easing the humanitarian crisis on the ground could a further escalation in the Red Sea and other parts of the Middle East be averted. During the consultations, when the discussion focused more on the co-penholders’ plan for a resolution, members apparently raised such questions as how a product condemning the Houthi attacks would be perceived in parts of the world when the Council cannot call for a ceasefire in Gaza.
The draft resolution in blue reflects several members’ proposals aimed at indicating the link with the broader regional context. While language specifically referencing Gaza that Algeria and Russia apparently proposed was not accommodated, the draft resolution was updated to emphasise the need to address “the root causes, including the conflicts contributing to regional tensions and the disruption of maritime security”. Slovenia also apparently proposed language acknowledging the “regional” context. Along with a suggestion by Switzerland, which sought to strengthen the text’s call to avoid an escalation of the situation, these proposals are reflected in the draft resolution in blue, which urges “caution and restraint to avoid further escalation in the Red Sea and the broader region”. Based on proposals by Algeria and China, the draft text in blue also includes language encouraging enhanced diplomatic efforts by all parties to avoid escalation, including continued support for dialogue and Yemen’s peace process under UN auspices.
It seems that Russia initially pushed back against the need for a Council product, in part by contending that Council members already issued the 1 December 2023 press statement which contained several of the key messages first set out in the presidential statement and later incorporated in the draft resolution. The co-penholders countered that there was a need, given that attacks had continued since the press statement was issued.
One matter that seemed to be of particular concern for Russia was language on the right of states to defend their merchant and naval vessels and the apparent endorsement that this provides for Operation Prosperity Guardian. Other members also voiced concerns about this paragraph, including its ambiguous language. Over the course of the negotiations, the contested paragraph was revised, first to highlight the navigational rights and freedoms of merchant and commercial vessels. It was also amended, among other changes, to “take note of”, instead of “recognizing”, the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to take appropriate measures to defend their vessels from attacks. But requests by Russia, as well as China, to delete completely the language about states’ right to defend their vessels has not been accommodated.
Another issue for Russia was language in the text related to the origins of Houthi arms. The US appeared keen to indicate Iran’s responsibility in supplying arms to the Houthis, which violates resolution 2216 of 14 April 2015 that established a targeted arms embargo against the group. Identifying Iran in Council products on Yemen, however, has been a longstanding red line for Russia. The draft resolution in blue reiterates the need for all member states to adhere to their obligations, including the arms embargo on the Houthis; condemns the provision of arms and related material of all types to the Houthis in violation of resolution 2216; and calls for additional practical cooperation to prevent the Houthis from acquiring material necessary for further attacks. An explicit reference to Iran is not included, however. The text recalls indirectly that the Yemen Panel of Experts latest report, dated 2 November 2023, noted large-scale violations of the arms embargo. (The most recent Panel of Experts report is among several panel reports which since 2018 have regularly reported on the Houthis’ use of arms of Iranian origin or of interdictions of arms that appear to have come from Iran.)
To address China’s concerns related to a paragraph on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the draft resolution was revised to state that the UNCLOS sets out the legal framework applicable to activities in the oceans, including countering illicit activities at sea. This is instead of stating that the UNCLOS sets out the legal framework applicable to “all” activities in the oceans. Language in Council products on the UNCLOS has proven contentious for China in recent years, presumably stemming from its claims in the South China Sea. Ultimately, the co-penholders settled on language from an August 2021 presidential statement on maritime security.
Among other points, the draft resolution in blue requests the Secretary-General to provide, through 1 July 2024, written monthly reports to the Security Council on any further Houthi attacks on merchant and commercial vessels in the Red Sea. In addition to informing future Council discussions on the issue, another apparent aim of such reports is to separate Council discussions on the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea from developments in Yemen, including its peace process, which has been a concern of the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and Council members.
*Post-script (10 January, 12:40 pm): An earlier version of this story indicated that the vote is set to take place after this morning’s briefing on Ukraine. After the story’s publication, the vote was postponed, and was expected to be held later in the day. The story was amended to reflect the change in the timing of the vote.
**Post-script (10 January, 7 pm): The Council reconvened to vote on the draft resolution authored by Japan and the US following the consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” held in the afternoon. Prior to voting on the draft resolution, Council members voted on three amendments to the text that Russia had proposed (S/PV.9527), none of which were adopted. In all three votes, four members voted in favor (Algeria, China, Russia, and Sierra Leone), two members voted against (the UK and the US), and nine members abstained.
The Council then voted on the Japan-US draft text, without any of the Russian amendments, which received 11 votes in favor and four abstentions (Algeria, China, Mozambique, and Russia). The draft text was adopted as resolution 2722.