What's In Blue

Posted Mon 15 Jan 2024

Yemen: Closed Consultations

Tomorrow morning (16 January), Security Council members will hold closed consultations on Yemen. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Joyce Msuya, and Head of the UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) Major General Michael Beary are expected to brief.

In response to the Houthi rebel group’s continued attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, on 12 January (2:30 am Sana’a time), the UK and the US conducted air and naval missile strikes on over 60 targets across Yemen. The Houthis first launched missile and drone attacks at Israel after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on 7 October 2023, which they said would continue until Israel ended its military campaign in Gaza. Their attacks expanded to target Israeli-affiliated ships in November 2023, and since December 2023, the attacks on commercial vessels appeared to become indiscriminate after the Houthis warned all carriers to avoid Israeli ports. On 18 December 2023, the US announced the formation of a naval coalition to deter and counter the attacks. By 11 January, the Houthis had attempted to attack and harass 27 ships, according to the US military. They reportedly conducted their “largest attack” on 9 January, when UK and US forces intercepted 21 drones and missiles targeting numerous vessels in the Red Sea. The Council has met on the crisis three times since the start of the year, and the situation, particularly its impact on Yemen’s peace process, is likely to be a prominent issue during tomorrow’s consultations.

On 10 January, a day before the UK-US strikes, the Council adopted resolution 2722, demanding that the Houthis immediately cease their attacks on vessels and release the cargo ship the Galaxy Leader and its crew, which the group seized on 19 November 2023. Resolution 2722 “affirms the exercise of navigational rights and freedoms by merchant and commercial vessels, in accordance with international law, must be respected”. It also “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”.

The Council adopted resolution 2722, which the US and Japan co-authored, with 11 votes in favour and four abstentions (Algeria, China, Mozambique, and Russia). Before the vote on the resolution, the Council voted on three amendments to the text that Russia introduced during Security Council consultations held just prior to the vote, none of which were adopted. In all three votes, four members voted in favour (Algeria, China, Russia, and Sierra Leone), two members voted against (the UK and the US), and nine members abstained. A particular issue of contention was the resolution’s language on the right of states to defend their vessels, which Russia argued in its explanation of vote was not based on any international law. (For more information about the resolution, see our 10 January What’s in Blue story.) In a televised speech on the day after the resolution’s adoption (11 January), Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi threatened a “big” response if the US and its allies take military action against his group.

The strikes on 12 January by the UK and US—conducted with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands—targeted at least 28 locations, including in Sana’a, Taiz, Hodeidah, Hajja, Sa’ada, and Dhamar governorates. According to the Houthis, five people were killed and six wounded. Russia requested an emergency Council meeting on the matter, which was held on 12 January. During the session, US Permanent Representative to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield detailed the developments that led to the US decision to undertake military action, including repeated calls and warnings to the Houthis to stop the attacks. Addressing Russia’s criticism over the legal basis for the military response, Thomas-Greenfield stressed that the strikes were consistent with states’ inherent right to self-defence as reflected in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Russia countered that such strikes on Yemen’s territory were not an exercise of self-defence and that Article 51 cannot be invoked to ensure freedom of navigation.

Ahead of the Council meeting, Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement on the strikes. Guterres underscored that resolution 2722 must be fully respected and reiterated that attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea area are not acceptable. He called on all parties involved to not escalate the situation and stressed the need to avoid acts that “could worsen the situation in Yemen itself”.

In a 13 January statement, Grundberg reiterated the Secretary-General’s call “for all involved to avoid actions that would worsen the situation in Yemen, escalate the threat to maritime trade routes, or further fuel regional tensions at this critical time”. Grundberg further highlighted the need to protect Yemeni civilians and to safeguard the gains of the peace efforts since the truce of April 2022.

At tomorrow’s meeting, when addressing the crisis, Grundberg may focus on how the situation is affecting the political process. Shortly before the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, there had been rising expectations that year-long talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which supports Yemen’s internationally recognised government, were close to concluding a comprehensive peace agreement, which would then lead to an inter-Yemeni peace process. On 12 January, Saudi Arabia issued a statement saying that it was closely monitoring the situation with “great concern” and calling for “restraint and avoiding escalation in light of the events the region is witnessing”. The foreign ministry of Oman, which has facilitated the Houthi-Saudi talks, condemned the UK-US strikes and reiterated warnings about the risk of conflict expanding in the region as a result of Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip.

Grundberg is likely to speak about his efforts to develop a UN roadmap for an inter-Yemeni political process. On 23 December 2023, he announced that the parties had committed to a set of measures to implement a nationwide ceasefire, improve living conditions in Yemen, and engage in preparations for the resumption of an inclusive political process under UN auspices. According to the envoy, the roadmap will operationalise these commitments, which also entail paying all public sector salaries, resuming oil exports, opening roads in Taiz and other parts of Yemen, and further easing restrictions on Sana’a Airport and the Hodeidah port.

Earlier this month, Grundberg held a new round of meetings in Riyadh with the President of the Yemeni government’s Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad Al-Alimi, and in Muscat with Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam to discuss the roadmap. In an 11 January interview, Reuters reported Abdulsalam as claiming that the situation in the Red Sea does not threaten the peace process underway with Saudi Arabia and with the mediation of Oman and the UN. Council members are still likely to raise their concerns about the risks to the process tomorrow.

At the 12 January Council emergency briefing, Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari warned that in addition to the dangers to the political process, “recent humanitarian improvements in the country are fragile and could easily be reversed if there are further incidents”. In this regard, Msuya could raise at tomorrow’s meeting concerns about the humanitarian impact of the crisis on Yemen—a country dependent on food and other critical imports—as commercial ships are avoiding the area. Resolution 2722 indicated this problem, observing that the “increased cost of transportation of essential goods will have a negative impact on the economic and humanitarian situation worldwide, including of the Yemeni civilian population”.

Since the 12 January strikes, the US announced that it had conducted a strike on 13 January targeting a Houthi radar site in Yemen. On 14 January, the Houthis claimed that the UK and US had also hit Jadaa mountain in the Al-Lahayah district in Hodeidah governorate. That same day, the Houthis fired an anti-ship cruise missile towards a US naval vessel in the southern Red Sea, which the US reported that it intercepted. Today (15 January), the US military announced that a US-owned and operated container ship was struck by an anti-ship ballistic missile from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. The strike reportedly occurred in the Gulf of Aden. Council members may also be interested in other developments on the ground, including reports that the Houthis over recent months have been reinforcing their forces on front lines in Marib governorate, the oil and natural gas-rich province that the Houthis failed to take during a two-year offensive from January 2020 to February 2022.

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