What's In Blue

Posted Wed 12 Jun 2024

Yemen: Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow morning (13 June), the Security Council will hold an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on Yemen. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg and Director of OCHA’s Operations and Advocacy Division Edem Wosornu are expected to brief in the public session. The head of the UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), Major General Michael Beary, will brief in consultations. Before the meeting, several Council members may hold a joint stakeout on last week’s arrest by the Houthi rebel group of 13 UN Yemeni national staff.

The Council’s monthly meeting on Yemen also comes as hostilities appear to have escalated between the Houthis and the US, and as the Houthis and the internationally recognised Yemeni government have intensified economic measures against one another. The US has led international forces in combatting Houthi attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea, which the rebel group has carried out since November 2023 demanding that Israel end the war that it launched in the Gaza strip after the 7 October 2023 attacks led by the Palestinian armed group Hamas.

On 30 May, joint UK and US strikes in Hodeidah governorate killed at least 16 people and wounded 42, according to the Houthis. This is the highest publicly acknowledged death toll in the US-led operations since they started in January. The Houthis reportedly conducted retaliatory attacks against a US aircraft carrier, the Eisenhower.

On 7 June, the UN said that the Houthis had detained 11 of its Yemeni national staff, as well as personnel of other aid organisations, in four governorates: Amran, Hodeidah, Saada, and Sana’a. Six of the UN personnel are affiliated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The group includes one staff member from each of the following: the Office of the Special Envoy for Yemen, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP); and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The UN has since updated the figure, reporting that in total 13 of its personnel had been detained.

The head of the Houthis’ intelligence agency, Major General Abdulhakim al-Khayewani, announced yesterday that the Houthis had arrested the UN and other humanitarian personnel because they allegedly belonged to a US-Israeli spy ring. Al-Khayewani claimed that the spy network has existed for years, operating out of the US embassy in Sana’a. He alleged that since suspending its operations in 2015, the embassy had continued its “subversive agenda under the cover of international and UN organizations”. Although the Houthis previously detained four other UN staffers from OHCHR and UNESCO—two in 2021 and another two in 2023—whom the rebel group continues to hold, the scale of last week’s arrests of UN staff is unprecedented. In October 2021, the Houthis also arrested dozens of Yemeni national staff employed by the US embassy, of whom 11 remain detained, according to reports.

Yesterday (11 June), UN Secretary-General António Guterres met with Grundberg in Amman, Jordan, and demanded the “immediate and unconditional release of all detained UN personnel”. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk made a similar call yesterday, while categorically rejecting “the outrageous allegations against UN staff” and expressing concern about the conditions in which they are being held.

The briefers and Council members are likely to speak about the detentions in their statements tomorrow. Members are expected to condemn the arrests and echo the calls for the detainees’ immediate, unconditional release. Council members have been considering a draft press statement on the arrests, which the UK (the penholder on Yemen) proposed on 7 June. Russia has apparently been uncomfortable with language in the draft statement condemning the arrests and calling for the detainees’ release, instead preferring to call for access to the arrested staff. China and Russia broke silence on the draft statement yesterday and today (12 June), apparently saying that there was a need for more information about the situation. After today’s silence break, the UK decided to stop its pursuit of a draft press statement, and is expected to organise a stakeout with other Council members supportive of the draft statement placed under silence on 10 June. They might be joined by regional member states and donors to Yemen.

At tomorrow’s meeting, in addition to discussing the detained UN staff, the briefers and Council members might raise alarm more broadly about the human rights situation in Houthi-controlled areas. On 1 June, a Houthi-run court sentenced 44 people to death—16 in absentia—over spying charges, according to news reports. Among those sentenced to death was the CEO of a Sana’a-based company that developed systems to help humanitarian groups register and verify the distribution of aid.

Economic issues are also likely to feature prominently during tomorrow’s meeting. In reaction to the Houthis issuing a new 100 Yemeni rial coin on 30 March, intended to replace old bank notes, the Yemeni government decreed, among a series of measures, that all banks in Sana’a must relocate their headquarters to Aden within 60 days. Yemen’s six Sana’a-based banks have not done so, and the UN is apparently concerned that punitive measures against the banks for their non-compliance could make it very difficult to transfer money into Houthi held-areas, affecting the commercial sector—which plays a key role in importing basic staples—and humanitarian operations. Grundberg may report on his office’s efforts to get the sides to de-escalate and avoid Yemen’s further economic fracturing. Council members might repeat their calls for the parties to coordinate on economic policies and to avoid unilateral economic actions, given the overall fragility of Yemen’s economy and humanitarian situation.

Additionally, Council members are likely to reiterate the need for a political process to comprehensively resolve Yemen’s war. Mediation efforts to develop a UN roadmap for an inter-Yemeni peace process have been frozen for months amid the war in Gaza and Houthi attacks on shipping and the US-led retaliatory strikes. A Bloomberg article last week reported that the US is opposing elements of a peace agreement—that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis had been negotiating before the Israel-Hamas war and which would be part of a UN roadmap, including the transfer of $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia to pay civil servants in Houthi-controlled areas—as long as the Houthi maritime attacks continue. In January, the US named the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group. The designation, which became effective on 17 February, establishes sanctions that are meant to financially pressure the group.

Council members are likely to reiterate demands for the Houthis to stop the attacks on commercial shipping. These attacks have appeared more effective over the past month. The rebel group struck two commercial vessels in May, and also downed three US drones. This past weekend, Houthi missiles hit two additional vessels. On 9 June, an anti-ship ballistic missile struck the M/V Tavvishi, a Liberian-flagged, Swiss-owned and operated container ship about 70 nautical miles southwest of Aden, while two missiles struck the M/V Norderney, an Antigua and Barbuda-flagged, German-owned and operated cargo ship, also southwest of Aden. According to the US military, both vessels reported damage but continued on their way.

The Houthis also recently unveiled a new, solid-fuel missile that media reports said resembles aspects of a missile displayed by Iran, which Tehran claims flies at hypersonic speeds. Solid-fuel missiles can be set up and fired faster than those containing liquid fuel, which is important for the Houthis as the US and allied forces have repeatedly struck missile launch sites. The Houthis claimed that they fired the missile, which they called the “Palestine”, at the southern Israeli port city of Eilat on 3 June. The Israeli military said that it shot down the missile, which set off sirens but caused no reported damage or injuries.

Beary, who usually briefs Council members via videoconference (VTC), will participate at tomorrow’s consultations in person, as he is in New York this week ahead of next month’s renewal of UNMHA’s mandate, which expires on 14 July. The Secretary-General is expected to send Council members his annual review of UNMHA ahead of tomorrow’s session. It is expected that the review will suggest maintaining the mission’s current mandate, which includes monitoring the December 2018 ceasefire agreement in Hodeidah governorate. Tomorrow’s consultations may serve as an opportunity for members to hear Beary elaborate on the review and on issues facing the mission.

For more information, see the brief on Yemen in our June 2024 Monthly Forecast.

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