What's In Blue

Yemen: Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow morning (14 March), the Security Council is expected to hold an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on Yemen. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg and OCHA Director of Operations and Advocacy Edem Wosornu are expected to brief. Head of the UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) Major General Michael Beary and Executive Director of the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) Jorge Moreira da Silva will brief during the consultations.

In recent months, attacks by the Houthi rebel group on commercial shipping following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in October 2023 have continued, significantly disrupting trade routes in the Red Sea. These attacks and the retaliatory military strikes by the UK and the US have also stalled–and risk upending–peace talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia and deliberations on a UN roadmap for an inter-Yemeni political process. The crisis has raised concerns that the Houthis could harden their positions in the talks or even make a fresh bid to seize Yemen’s oil and gas fields in Marib and Shabwah governorates. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government has publicly called for the international community to support it in taking back territory under Houthi control to effectively stop the Red Sea attacks.

Recent weeks have demonstrated the continued threat that Houthi attacks pose to commercial vessels. The Belize-flagged and UK-owned cargo ship Rubymar, which was struck by a Houthi anti-ship ballistic missile on 18 February, sank on 2 March in the Red Sea, 16 miles west of the Yemeni port of Mokha. The ship’s sinking has triggered environmental concerns as the vessel was carrying approximately 21 thousand metric tonnes of fertilisers that could cause ecological damage to the Red Sea and its coral reefs and marine life. On 6 March, three crew members (two Filipino nationals and one Vietnamese citizen) of a Barbados-flagged merchant vessel were killed when the ship was hit by a missile in the Gulf of Aden, marking the first deaths caused by the Houthi attacks on maritime traffic since they began in November 2023.

In addition, last week three telecom cables in the Red Sea were damaged. This followed warnings from the Yemeni government and telecom companies last month that the Houthis might sabotage telecom cables under the Red Sea, which reportedly transmit 17 percent of all international internet data traffic. The Houthis have denied responsibility, and there is speculation that the cables may have been cut by the anchor of the Rubymar as it drifted in the Red Sea during the two weeks before it sank. Tomorrow, Council members may reiterate their condemnation of the Houthi attacks and express concerns that the crisis is escalating.

Grundberg will brief from New York, which has allowed him to meet this week bilaterally with Council members. He may report, as he did at the Council’s most recent briefing on Yemen, held on 14 February, that his efforts to develop a UN roadmap are stalled. He might also indicate that the impasse is likely to continue until the conflict in Gaza and the crisis in the Red Sea ends. The UN Envoy may reiterate his call for the Yemeni parties to safeguard the progress that has been made to date in the peace talks. Council members are likely to urge the Houthis and the Yemeni government to engage with the Special Envoy and are expected to stress their continued support for Grundberg’s efforts and his crucial mediation role.

Wosornu is expected to provide an update on the humanitarian situation and share takeaways from her 4 to 9 March visit to Yemen. She might recall that the hostilities in the Red Sea risk exacerbating humanitarian needs in the country and that OCHA continues to monitor their effects. Wosornu is likely to highlight reports of rising food insecurity in Yemen. Distribution of general food assistance by the World Food Programme (WFP) has remained paused in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen since December 2023, as talks continue with Houthi authorities and key donors on the distribution of aid. More recently, funding shortfalls forced the WFP to completely suspend in January its malnutrition prevention programme across Yemen, affecting 2.4 million people, according to a 29 February WFP situation report.

Worsornu may urge member states to contribute to OCHA’s 2024 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP). Last year, donors funded less than 40 percent of the Yemen HRP, which forced UN agencies to scale back programmes by the second half of 2023. This year’s HRP projects that 18.2 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection services in Yemen and seeks $2.7 billion. This represents a decline from the 21.6 million people who needed assistance in 2023 and the $4.3 billion budget required for the 2023 HRP.

Moreira da Silva’s participation during tomorrow’s consultations will be an opportunity for Council members to hear more about the operations of the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM), which is managed and operated by UNOPS. Since 2016, the UNVIM has provided clearance for commercial ships to Yemeni ports not under government control and reported on vessel inspections that it conducts to the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee. There have been concerns in recent months that several ships have not received UNVIM clearance before travelling to the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah. Members may reiterate the need for vessels to comply with this requirement at tomorrow’s session. They may also underscore that UNVIM’s role has become even more important during the current Red Sea crisis and could stress the importance of donor funding to ensure UNVIM’s continued operation.

Council members have remained generally united on Yemen, particularly in their support for the various mediation efforts. The Red Sea crisis, however, has created some divisions on the file. Russia and China have criticised the UK and US strikes in Yemen as violating international law because they did not receive Council authorisation. On the other hand, the UK and the US have stressed that their strikes are undertaken in self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Japan and the US co-authored resolution 2722 of 10 January, which demanded that the Houthis immediately cease all attacks on merchant and commercial vessels and took note of the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to defend their vessels from attacks.

Since last Friday (8 March), Council members have been negotiating a press statement on Yemen, which Japan and the US have proposed, that would condemn the continuing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and express concern about escalation. During his briefing tomorrow, Grundberg may note the importance of the Council preserving its unity in support of his mediation role. One sticking point has apparently been several members’ call for the draft press statement to recognise the connection between the ongoing war in Gaza and the Houthi attacks. The Houthis claim that they will continue carrying out attacks until Israel ends its military campaign in Gaza, which began following the 7 October 2023 Hamas-led attacks against Israel.

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