In March, the prospect of a Saudi-led military coalition offensive on the rebel-held city of Hudaydah dominated Yemen-related policy discussions at the United Nations and in the United States.
Discussions among UN Security Council member states generally centered around how such an offensive would radically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis – given that Hudaydah is the main entry point for humanitarian and commercial goods, and that the country is already facing the world’s largest food security emergency.
In the US the debate centered around whether the offensive would serve American interests in countering Iranian influence in the region, and to what degree the US military should support a coalition assault on Hudaydah. There were strong indications in March that the nascent Trump Administration favored US military support of the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts.
Meanwhile, the World Food Program reported that 17 million people in Yemen were food insecure – three million more than in January – while the Yemeni rial faced the imminent threat of rapid depreciation, which would destroy per-capita purchasing power in the country and significantly accelerate the spread of famine.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also described to the Security Council the many attacks on civilians by all sides of the conflict during March, the worst of which was a Saudi-led coalition attack on a boat carrying Somali refugees off of the coast of Hudaydah that killed 43 civilians.
Yemen-related UN happenings in March
Following a request from the Russian mission, on March 10 the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Stephen O’Brien, briefed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) regarding several of the world’s humanitarian crises, chief among them Yemen.
O’Brien, who had visited Yemen from February 26 to March 2, said the country is in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and that the Yemeni people face the “spectre of famine.” Given Yemen’s heavy reliance on imports – with the country importing up to 90 percent of its nutritional needs – the OCHA head said that famine cannot be prevented without the active participation of the private sector, that commercial imports must be allowed to resume normally through all entry points and, in particular, Hudaydah port “must be kept open and expanded.” He added that “all parties to the conflict are arbitrarily denying sustained humanitarian access and are politicizing aid.”
Notable among the responses of the ambassadors in attendance was that of US representative Michele Sison, who said council members must use their influence over the warring parties involved in humanitarian crises to ensure “unfettered access” for aid, and with regard to Yemen in particular referred to Hudaydah Port and Sana’a Airport in stating that “obstructions to aid in Yemen must be lifted.” In an apparent deviation from the trajectory of the new US administration, Sison reaffirmed the necessity for a political peace process and said “there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen.”
On March 13, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova released a statement expressing Moscow’s concern regarding the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and calling for an “immediate cessation of all use of force.” Particularly worrying, said Zakharova, were plans by the Saudi-led coalition and forces fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government to launch an offensive against rebel-held Hudaydah, adding that such an assault would cause the mass displacement of civilians and cut Sana’a off from food and humanitarian aid, leading to “disastrous consequences.” The Russian spokesperson also said its embassy in Sana’a – one of only two foreign diplomatic missions operating in Yemen, along with Iran’s – had established a secretariat to facilitate cooperation between the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, and “the de-facto authorities in the capital.”
On March 14, the “Quint” multilateral group – until recently dubbed the “Quad”, which consisted of the US, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but now also including Oman – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in London. International observers noted that the lack of a press statement following the meeting likely implied that the talks were unproductive. The London meeting was part of a four-day European tour by Ould Cheikh Ahmed, during which he also visited Paris and Berlin, met with senior officials and Middle East experts, and publicly reiterated the need for a political settlement to the conflict and increased international humanitarian assistance.
Following another Russian request, on March 17 UNSC member states discussed the expected attack on Hudaydah, with Political Affairs Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman providing a briefing. At the talks many member states expressed concern that the attack would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, though none went as far as saying the assault should not take place. In an “elements to the press” – the weakest form of Security Council public statement – following the briefing, UNSC member states called for there to be access for humanitarian and commercial goods in Yemen, including through Hudaydah, and for the warring parties to abide by international humanitarian law.
On March 23 the Swedish mission organized a meeting of the UNSC’s Informal Experts Group on Women, Peace and Security, which included the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as well as the UN Special Envoy and the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. The discussions revolved around various issues arising from the past two years of conflict – including the rising rates of violence against women, child marriage, female-headed households, women enduring famine – as well as ways to address these issues and promote more equitable political engagement for women.
On March 29, both Special Envoy Ould Chiekh Ahmed and Ambassador Koro Bessho of Japan, Chair of the Yemen 2140 Sanctions Committee, briefed UNSC members. The Special Envoy reiterated his dismay at the deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation and the likelihood of intensified military operations. He urged UNSC members to pressure all sides in the conflict to engage constructively with his proposed framework for achieving peace, and emphasized that the impacts of the current situation threaten to undermine Yemen’s stability far into the future.
“It is my firm belief that further military escalation and humanitarian suffering will not bring the parties closer together,” said Ould Chiekh Ahmed, urging the UNSC to “use all of its diplomatic weight to push for the relevant parties to make the concessions required to reach a final agreement before more lives are lost. We must give peace another chance.”
The prospect of a Hudaydah offensive
Hudaydah city, situated along Yemen’s north-western Red Sea coast, contains an urban area of some one million people, with the wider governorate having a population of some 2.6 million. Being within close proximity of the country’s largest urban centers, the city is home to Yemen’s most active port facilities and is currently the entry point for 70-80 percent of the country’s current humanitarian deliveries, and an even greater share of commercial fuel and food imports.
At the beginning of the year, forces fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, backed by the Saudi-led regional military coalition, launched a renewed effort to retake the country’s west coast and cut off the Houthi rebels and allied forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from their access to the Red Sea. In early February pro-government forces succeeded in capturing the town of Mokha, less than 200 kilometers south of Hudaydah, and made public their intentions to push their offensive north to retake Hudaydah itself.
Through the rest of February and March, however, despite sustained support from coalition airstrikes and shelling from warships offshore, pro-government ground forces made little headway, held back by the Houthis’ heavy use of landmines and stiff armed resistance. This contributed to renewed calls by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their supporters in Washington, for increased US military support to pursue the Hudaydah offensive.
The debate in Washington
March witnessed intense debate among members of congress, current and former government officials and US agency representatives as to the implications of a Hudaydah offensive and whether, or to what degree, the American military should engage.
Those advocating for robust US military involvement – including mainly Republican senators, some White House officials and Pentagon staff, among others – argued that capturing Hudaydah was essential to protect American interests, given that it would help secure Red Sea commercial shipping and assist American allies in containing Iranian attempts to destabilize the region through proxy forces. Proponents also argued that denying the Houthi rebels their last major seaport and means of resupply would likely force them to re-engage in peace negotiations, that capturing Hudaydah would facilitate speedier access for humanitarian aid delivery in Yemen, and that support for the Saudi-led coalition is necessary to help counter Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Late last year the Obama administration rejected a request to aid Emirati forces in attacking Hudaydah, after it concluded that even with US support the assault was likely to be unsuccessful against rebels who were well entrenched and well armed, also noting that the assault would dramatically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which the UN shortly thereafter called the largest food security emergency in the world.
Vocal opponents of last month’s push in Washington for greater US involvement in an offensive against Hudaydah repeated the same concerns, while also warning that the US risked being drawn into a military quagmire with no clear exit, that the Houthis posed no direct threat to American interests, and indeed that “Al Qaeda in Yemen has emerged as a de facto ally of the Saudi-led militaries with whom your administration aims to partner more closely,” as noted in a letter addressed to the US president penned by a bipartisan group of senators. (For more on how Al Qaeda has benefited from US policy in Yemen, see this recent Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies report: The Limits of US Military Power in Yemen: Why Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to thrive.)
While the Trump administration itself is currently undertaking a review of its Yemen policy, with the results not expected until the end of April, many observers suggest their position will ultimately align with that of Saudi Arabia; indeed, following a White House meeting on March 13 between Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and President Trump, the two reaffirmed their commitment to “a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership based on a shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East region… [and] the importance of confronting Iran's destabilizing regional activities.”
In the first week of March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson approved measures to restart the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia, which the Obama White House had banned following a Saudi air strike on a funeral hall in Sana’a last October that killed well more than 100 people and wounded hundreds more. At the end of last month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis then issued a request for the White House to rescind another Obama-era restriction preventing the US military from supporting Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen. Both requests require presidential approval to go into effect, which President Trump had yet to give as of this writing.
In speaking with representatives from UNSC member state representatives and other UN sources through March 2017, the Sana’a Center found there was a general sense that the new US administration will erase all diplomatic efforts over the past two years aimed at ending the Yemeni conflict. Despite UN reports detailing only small-scale Iranian support for the Houthis to date, UNSC member states foresee the Trump White House embracing the Saudi-led coalition narrative that casts the Houthis in Yemen akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and thus as an existential threat to American interests. The internationally-recognized government of Yemen has also been seen as welcoming the prospective increase in US military support, with President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi concurrently showing decreased interest in engaging with the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in the peace process.
Faced with the shifting policies in Washington, through March it became apparent that neither the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, nor UNSC member states, had any practical suggestions regarding how to move forward the peace process, beyond the general idea that the framework for domestic negotiations and the international political process should be broadened.
Humanitarian and economic updates
On March 13, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Ertharin Cousin, following a three-day trip to Sana’a and Aden, urged the international community to help prevent famine in Yemen, given that 17 million Yemenis are food insecure – an increase of three million people since January this year – and seven million of these were “severely food insecure.”
A Famine Early Warning Systems Networks report at the end of March noted that: “Recent food import data suggest that food imports into Al Hudaydah port have recently declined sharply. As this port supplies many key markets in western Yemen, these declining imports raise concerns about future supply levels and food prices at markets that rely on this port as a source.” At the beginning of April the WFP then reported that increased tensions around the port had spurred commercial shipping lines to cease deliveries. The WFP noted that “as an immediate implication, a rise in transportation costs and an increase in delivery times are expected.” The agency then said it was working on a contingency plan, with one option to redirect humanitarian operations to Aden.
While the WFP was able to reach 4.9 million people with food aid in February, “because of inadequate funding WFP reduced the food ration to stretch assistance to more people.” As of March 10, the $2.1 billion international humanitarian appeal for Yemen for 2017 had only been 6 percent met. In an effort to raise funds the governments of Switzerland and Sweden are co-hosting a “High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen,” slated to take place at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on April 25. As of the end of March, however, no governments had made any public pledges for the event.
In a move that is certain to impact future Yemeni relief efforts – and indeed was described by one observer as possibly entailing “the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it” – the American administration instructed government staff last month to identify cuts of up to 50% in general US spending to the United Nations for 2018, with Foreign Policy reporting that this likely includes a 36% cut in US funding for humanitarian programs. The US is currently the largest financial contributor to the UN, with roughly $10 billion in annual spending. In an attempt to stave off the devastating funding cuts, the UN responded by appointing South Carolina governor David Beasley, a Trump loyalist, to head the WFP.
Widespread economic collapse is magnifying Yemen's humanitarian crisis: per capita GDP is estimated to have dropped 35 percent in two years; most civil servants – roughly a quarter of the country’s employed – have not been paid since August 2016; fishing and agricultural activity are down 65 and 50 percent, respectively, and “over 70 percent of small and medium enterprises have been forced to lay off half of their workforce,” according to March 18 OCHA bulletin. OCHA further highlighted the collapse of public services: roughly half of all healthcare facilities closed – and most of those remaining open suffering shortages of medicine, equipment and staff – leaving an estimated 14.8 million people without access to basic healthcare, while two million children are out of school.
Furthermore, immediately threatening to exacerbate the humanitarian situation is the likelihood of a rapid depreciation of the Yemeni rial, should there be no robust international financial intervention to provide the Yemeni market with access to foreign currency exchange. (For more on Yemeni rial depreciation, see this recent Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies report: Rapid currency depreciation and the decimation of Yemeni purchasing power). Given the country’s massive reliance on imports, such would devastate remaining per-capita purchasing power, undermine Yemenis’ ability to buy food and other necessities and significantly accelerate the spread of famine.
Among the only positive trends emerging in the humanitarian situation in Yemen last month was in regards to the cholera/Acute Watery Diarrhea (AWD) outbreak: in January this year there were 15,000 suspected cases in 156 Yemeni districts; thanks in large part to the efforts of the UN and partner organizations, OCHA reported last month that “the cholera/AWD epidemic curve shows a declining trend of incidences occurring in the most affected districts.”
Continuing evidence of war crimes
On March 24 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein released a statement detailing attacks over the previous month that had killed 106 civilians. These included helicopter gunships and warships from the Saudi-led military coalition firing on fishing boats off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, and air strikes on food trucks and markets. Al Hussein also noted the Houthi forces had shelled a market in Taiz and were laying siege to densely populated areas of the governorate, causing severe shortages of food, water and milk for infants for civilians trapped inside.
The human rights commissioner said the worst incident last month occurred on March 16 off of the coast of Hudaydah, when a boat carrying Somali refugees attempting to get to Europe was fired upon by coalition forces. A Reuters report, based on numerous eyewitness accounts, said that for half an hour an Apache helicopter had fanned back and forth over the vessel spraying it with bullets, killing a total of 43 people.
The human rights commissioner then reiterated his call for an independent international investigation into war crimes by all sides – a proposal that has been repeatedly put before the Human Rights Council during the Yemeni conflict and each time rejected by Saudi Arabia and its allies on the council, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
Following the incident the UAE issued a statement saying its forces had not targeted the Somali vessel, having “clearly recognised the non-military nature of the boat which was carrying a large number of civilians”; the UAE then called for an independent international investigation into the incident – an unprecedented move which observers say was an attempt to ensure that Riyadh bore responsibility.
Days later the Saudi-led coalition called on the UN to assume jurisdiction over the port and supervise its operations; the UN refused, with spokesperson Farhan Haq adding that "Parties to the conflict have a clear responsibility to protect civilian infrastructure and fundamentally to protect civilians. These are not obligations they can shift to others.”
Speaking later in the month about the incident and other attacks against civilians, Human Rights Watch warned that continued US arms sale to Saudi Arabia risked exposing American individuals involved in these transactions to criminal liability for aiding and abetting war crimes.
In related news, US Secretary of State Tillerson said the US would withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council if it did not undertake “considerable reform.” As reported by Foreign Policy, Tillerson said in a letter to various NGOs that “the United States ‘continues to evaluate the effectiveness’ of the Council, [and] remains skeptical about the virtues of membership in a human rights organization that includes states with troubled human rights records, such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.”
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of April 5, received 10% of the USD $2.1 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.
- In the month of March, 41 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 34 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 31 hours, an average of three hours less than the month before. A total of 636,810 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in March, consisting of 636,810 mt of food, 236,854 mt of fuel and 145,266 mt of general cargo. This is a increase by a total of 223,467 mt of cargo from the month before.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground. This month's Yemen at the UN report is in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert-Stifung Yemen.
A Track Two Initiative
The European Union and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Yemen are proud to announce the launch of a new initiative to identify the economic and development priorities in Yemen. The initiative is implemented through a partnership between DeepRoot Consulting, Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies (SCSS) and the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO). It aims to engage Yemeni development leaders from the private sector, academia, and economic experts in identifying Yemen’s economic and development priorities in Yemen during and after the conflict.
This 2-year initiative, which was launched in Bonn, Germany, on Friday, will provide a platform to reimagine the Yemeni economy through a series of research studies, economic forums, and public outreach activities to build a wide consensus on the economic and development priorities in Yemen.
27 March 2017
In February, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that “Yemen is facing the largest food security emergency in the world”, and estimated that the country’s domestic reserves of wheat would be completely exhausted by the end of March 2017.
The UN human rights commission raised credible reports that war crimes were committed by both the main warring sides during battles for the Red Sea port town of Mukha. These battles saw the forces backing Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi capture the town from the Houthi movement and its main ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The infighting that broke out in January between groups backing President Hadi continued through February in the cities of Taiz and Aden, while resource and revenue scarcities helped fuel tensions within the Houthi-Saleh alliance and between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and populations in areas they control.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continued to exploit the chaos brought on by the conflict, the humanitarian crisis and the country’s economic collapse to improve its domestic position, and throughout February stepped up attacks against both main warring sides.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in his second month on the job, visited the Gulf region and after meeting with regional governments publicly reiterated his support for the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and his efforts to mediate a peaceful resolution to the war.
At the UN
Continuing war crimes reports
On February 10, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement citing “extremely worrying reports” that over the preceding two weeks there had been numerous violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the battle for the port city of Mukha. This follows on the heels of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen’s report on January 27, which stated that over the past two years there has been clear evidence of widespread and systematic violations of international law by all sides in the conflict.
The human rights commission’s February statement noted that the warring sides had issued civilians in various areas of Mukha city contradictory commands – with forces loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi ordering them to evacuate as those allied with the Houthi movement demanding they remain – with credible reports then emerging from Mukha of fleeing civilians being shot by Houthi snipers and others who remained being killed in their homes by airstrikes from the Saudi-led military coalition backing Hadi.
In a statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said: “Civilians were trapped and targeted during the Al Mukha fighting. There are real fears that the situation will repeat itself in the port of Al Hudaidah, to the north of Al Mukha, where air strikes are already intensifying. The already catastrophic humanitarian situation in the country could spiral further downwards if Al Hudaidah port – a key entry point for imports into Yemen – is seriously damaged.”
Zeid noted the “alarming frequency” with which incidents of possible war crimes had been reported over the last two years of conflict, and to “break the climate of impunity in Yemen” he reiterated his call for an independent international investigation – a proposal that has been put before the Human Rights Council several times over the past two years and each time was rejected by Saudi Arabia and its allies on the council, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
At a press briefing on February 28, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN human rights commission, said the UN had verified almost 1,500 cases of children being recruited as soldiers since March 2015. She urged all sides in the conflict to refrain from such practices, which are strictly forbidden by international humanitarian and human rights law and may amount to war crimes in cases where the child is under 15 years old. Shamdasani added that “the numbers are likely to be much higher as most families are not willing to talk about the recruitment of their children, for fear of reprisals.” She said most of the cases they had uncovered related to recruitment by Houthi-affiliated “Popular Committees”.
On February 10, a high ranking Houthi official submitted a letter to the newly-minted UN Secretary-General António Guterres requesting that he not renew the term of the current UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who was appointed by former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in April 2015. The letter claimed Ould Cheikh Ahmed has shown a “lack of neutrality”, was biased toward the Saudi-led coalition and urged the UN to investigate a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a funeral gathering in Sana’a in October 2016 that resulted in hundreds of casualties.
In a direct rebuff to the Houthi request, two days later the Secretary-General, speaking at a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said: “Our envoy has my full support and I believe that he is doing an impartial work [sic], that he is doing it in a very professional way and independently of what other people may think.”
Guterres also noted during the press conference that Saudi Arabia was “an important pillar of stability in the region.” The Secretary-General was in Riyadh as part of his first major international tour in his new position, a trip which also took him to Oman, Qatar and Egypt. While also discussing the situations in Libya and Syria with regional leaders, Guterres noted that a specific priority on his trip was to support Ould Cheikh Ahmed in his attempts to restart peace negotiations in Yemen. In the nearly two years he has been Special Envoy, Ould Cheikh Ahmed and his small team of staff – relative to other comparable UN missions – have failed to secure a meaningful de-escalation of hostilities or even establish a framework the warring parties could agree upon by which further peace negotiations would proceed. Indeed, President Hadi rejected outright the last “roadmap” to peace the Special Envoy proposed in December 2016.
On February 17, the internationally recognized government of Yemen’s representative to the UN then submitted a request to the Security Council asking that the Houthis and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh be officially designated as “terrorists”, citing a Houthi attack in January on a Saudi vessel off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.
Also last month, foreign ministers from Oman and the “Quad” – the multilateral diplomatic initiative that includes the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen in Bonn, Germany, though no significant public statement was forthcoming following the mid-February meeting. It should be noted that during the latter half of 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry and the US were forcefully leading the Quad’s efforts to support the Special Envoy in bringing the warring parties to commit to a peace process. The new US administration inaugurated in January has yet to articulate a Yemen policy – something other western diplomats have said has effectively placed the peace process on hold – though indications are that going forward the White House will be more sympathetic towards Saudi Arabia and more aggressive toward Iran and the Houthis.
Meanwhile, representatives from several security council member states noted to the Sana’a Center last month that the lack of a diplomatic presence in Yemen – with only Iran and Russia maintaining functioning embassies in the country – is creating significant challenges for them to independently source information and analysis regarding evolving dynamics on the ground. This has created a situation in which many member state’s primary information sources are largely the UN’s own agencies. President Hadi’s calls for the UN and foreign governments to reopen their offices and embassies in Aden have gone unheeded, likely largely due to the general security vacuum that exists and the Yemeni government’s own tenuous presence in the city.
On the ground
Pro-Hadi forces capture Mukha, AQAP expands attacks
Fighting between the main warring parties occurred along frontlines across Yemen throughout February, as did Saudi-led coalition airstrikes within Houthi-Saleh held territory. Despite the warring parties’ frequent claims of grand victories in sympathetic media outlets, in most areas a relative stalemate and war of attrition prevailed. The major exception to this was along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, where Hadi-aligned forces, heavily supported by coalition airpower and naval bombardments, have succeeded since the beginning of 2017 in making progress in the western areas of Taiz province.
Intense battles in the later half of January and through February have resulted pro-Hadi fighters in the area seizing control of most of the port town of Mukha from the Houthi-Saleh alliance, with the apparent aim to continue northwards to Hudaidah, the most significant port the Houthis and Saleh still control. Following the loss of Mukha, Houthi allied fighters withdrew towards the town of Khokha, north of Mukha, and to areas around Khalid Bin Al-Walid military base to the east.
On February 22, Hadi Government appealed for international assistance to help in demining operations, notably around Mukha, where Houthi/Saleh forces heavily deployed landmines and the fighting has left untold numbers of unexploded ordnance. The same day, Houthi-Saleh rocket fire toward Mukha killed Deputy Chief of Staff General Ahmed Said al-Yafei, one of President Hadi’s most senior commanders and an architect of the Red Sea offensive. (His replacement had yet to be named by end-February.)
Later the same week the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that some 25,000 people – the vast majority of Mukha’s population – had fled the town due to the fighting, and that “the main hospital is functioning at minimum capacity and there are reports of scores of dead bodies in the street.”
Among the many military actions elsewhere in the country in February were the intermittent Saudi-led coalition airstrikes around Sana’a. Early in the month several of these struck ostensibly military targets, however on February 15, OCHA reported that airstrikes on a funeral gathering in the Arhab district killed six women, one child, and wounded at least 15 other civilians.
Zone of control in Yemen as of February 28, 2017
Meanwhile, AQAP stepped up its attacks against both pro-Hadi forces and the Houthi-Saleh alliance throughout February. In the first 10 days of the month AQAP fighters captured three towns in northern Abyan and briefly occupied several neighbourhoods in the city of Lowder, assassinated two Houthi-Saleh commanders in Ibb governorate and then clashed with Houthi-Saleh forces in the governorate’s al-Sayyani and Udayn districts.
Through mid-February AQAP was suspected of being behind a rocket attack against UAE-affiliated forces in the capital of Hadramaut governorate, Mukalla, and responsible for the assassination of a local official and three others in the city of Araq, Shabwa governorate.
In the last seven days of the month AQAP ambushed a government convoy in the Lawder district of Abyan governorate and captured military hardware, attacked a Houthi-Saleh convoy in Qayfa, al-Bayda’ governorate, with an improvised explosive device, ambushed other Houthi-Saleh units in the town of al-Zuqab, destroyed a police complex in Shabwa governorate and initiated an attack on the government-held Najda military base in Abyan governorate with a massive a suicide car bomb. On the last day of February Southern Movement leader Hassan Hanshal al-Awlaqi was then assassinated in Ataq, in what is also suspected to be an AQAP operation.
Infighting amongst pro-Hadi forces
In the last week of January, Salafist groups in Taiz seized control of the city’s main administrative institutions in areas outside of Houthi-Saleh control. This sparked intermittent street battles since between the Salafists and other groups, primarily Islah (the Muslim Brotherhood Party in Yemen). In the almost complete absence of government institutions capable of policing the city, areas of Taiz under government “control” have experienced severe insecurity and the rise of criminal gangs. Notable events last month included the February 13 assassination attempt against an Islah leader and the February 23 attack on the market in the al-Koba area – gunmen opened fire on civilians, killing four and wounding nine, in what was reportedly a dispute between competing extortion rackets operating in the market.
On February 25 dozens of residents took to the streets to protest the lack of security, with the relative decrease in security-related events in government-held areas towards the end of the month being attributed to AQAP, whose affiliates were able to mediate between the various anti-Houthi groups.
Meanwhile in the government-held southern city of Aden, soldiers protecting the airport, under the command of Saleh al-Omeri, shut down the facility for part of February 10 in protest of not having received their wages. The following day President Hadi sent presidential guard units to the airport to replace al-Omeri’s soldiers, resulting in a gun battle between the two when the latter refused to step down. The situation escalated when Salafist units in the area attempted to reinforce al-Omeri – both of whom receive substantial backing from the United Arab Emirates – after which an Emirati helicopter gunship opened fire on a Presidential Guard vehicle, killing multiple soldiers.
Negotiations followed, the fighting subsided and the airport officially reopened the next day with al-Omeri’s men still in control, though Yemenia Airlines continued to cancel or reroute flights to and from Aden. This incident is emblematic of the deep rifts that have developed within the military forces fighting against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, and specifically between President Hadi and the UAE. Shortly after the incident Hadi was in Riyadh, reportedly to discuss the airport battle with Saudi and Emirati government representatives.
Throughout February disputes within the Houthi-Saleh alliance continued to prevent the appointment of a successor to Ali al-Jaifi, the head of the Republican Guard who was killed in the Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a funeral gathering in Sana’a in October 2016.
Later in the month tension also arose between the two allies in the Ibb governorate when Houthi affiliates began issuing local building permits, directly contradicting and overstepping the authority of ministry officials in Sana’a loyal to Saleh. It is important to note that, as the severity of the economic crisis has continued to intensify, licensing and official permits have become an important source of cash, though Saleh’s long-standing patronage networks within the state bureaucracy are now competing with new, parallel Houthi networks for these revenues.
In Houthi-controlled Dhamar governorate, south of Sana’a, escalating local frustration and resentment against the Houthis led to armed clashes in the Utma district, with Houthis fighters being captured and killed in skirmishes in the latter half of the month. The Houthis responded to this resistance by kidnapping prominent locals who had been vocal in their opposition, and destroying the homes of others. Numerous reports suggested the Houthis were employing similar methods of repression against the local population in various areas of the Taiz governorate.
Continuing humanitarian crisis
UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization declared in February that “Yemen is facing the largest food security emergency in the world”, and that “[c]urrent estimates indicate that existing supplies of wheat in the country will last until the end of March 2017.” This followed the February 8 UN launch of an international appeal for aid amounting to $2.1 billion to “provide life-saving assistance to 12 million people in Yemen in 2017”. It is the largest ever consolidated humanitarian appeal for Yemen.
In announcing the appeal OCHA noted that the conflict has left 18.8 million people – more than two thirds of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance; some 10.3 million Yemenis are acutely affected and require “some form of immediate humanitarian assistance to save and sustain their lives.” This includes food, healthcare, clean water and protection. Some 3.3 million people, including 2.1 million children, are acutely malnourished.
A February 21 UN report stated that since 2015 the conflict has displaced some 3 million Yemenis, but that some one million have since returned. “It’s testament to how catastrophic the situation in Yemen has become, that those displaced by the conflict are now returning home because life in the areas to which they had fled for safety is just as abysmal as in the areas from which they fled,” said the UNHCR’s Country Representative for Yemen, Ayman Gharaibeh. “Those attempting to return face tremendous challenges… They often return to homes that have been damaged, in areas lacking essential services. They still need humanitarian aid and are often forced to flee their homes again. These returns cannot be viewed as sustainable.” (Among those most recently displaced are some 44,000 people who have fled their homes because of the surge of fight in Taiz province, including those from Mukha.)
On February 26, The Ministry of Public Health and Population in Yemen released figures showing that since the end of January 2017 there had been 1,610 new suspected cases of cholera reported, including 4 deaths. The report said there appeared to be a decline in the rate of new cases per week, with 80% of the new cases in this latest report located in 13 districts in the Al Hudaidah, Dhale, Hajjah and Taiz governorates. In a subsequent briefing spokesperson Christophe Boulierac from the UN Children’s Fund said every 10 minutes a Yemeni child under the age of five is dying from a preventable disease – such diarrhoea, pneumonia or measles – due to almost half the country’s medical facilities being out of service.
The dangers and difficulties aid agencies face while trying to operate in Yemen were also made apparent in two high profile incident in February. On February 14, six aid workers and a driver for the Norwegian Refugee Council were arrested by Houthi-Saleh forces while attempting to distribute aid in Hudaidah city; they were released again a week later “in good condition”, according to the NRC, which called the incident a “misunderstanding.” On February 28, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien – after having secured guarantees of safe passage from all parties – had his convoy turned back from entering besieged areas of Taiz at a Houthi-Saleh checkpoint. In a statement OCHA reported that: “O'Brien was extremely disappointed that humanitarian efforts to reach people in need were once again thwarted by parties to a conflict, especially at a time when millions of Yemenis are severely food insecure and face the risk of famine.”
Currency volatility and the loss of food reserves
Currency volatility was apparent last month, with the Yemeni rial falling as much as 20% in value against the US dollar in black market trading through the first half of February, before market interventions in both Sana’a and Aden helped the domestic currency to regain lost ground and stabilize. The interventions included the Houthi-Saleh authorities forbidding fuel and food importers from purchasing foreign exchange on the market for 30 days, and implement new measures against currency speculation. In parallel, the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) governor in Aden, Monasser Al Quaiti, met with exchange companies and banks to discuss currency stabilization, assuring them that the Aden-based Central Bank was soon to receive significant foreign exchange support.
Currency stability is a critical issue for Yemen, given that previous to the conflict the country imported 90% of its basic food stuffs. Worryingly, however, was that through February Yemen’s largest bulk wheat and rice importers reported their continued inability to access import guarantees from the CBY, a primary driver of the country’s food insecurity. In an effort to help make up for the loss of these commercial food imports and stave off famine, a World Food Program chartered cargo vessel was able to dock at Hudaidah port on March 1, where it planned to offload 14,000 metric tons (mt) of wheat, before heading to Aden to offload another 6,000 mt.
Imports are being further hampered, however, by the challenges facing Yemen’s ports. Hodeidah, along the Red Sea coast, was previously one of Yemen’s busiest ports but had its offloading capacity severely curtailed by damage from Saudi-led coalition airstrikes early in the conflict – despite this it and the smaller Saleef port to the north continue to import the majority of Yemen’s bulk food items such as wheat and rice. Hudaidah’s port facilities were also briefly forced to cease operations last month by the coalition, which demanded cargo ships offload in Aden instead; insecurity in the southern port city, and security and logistics challenges transporting goods around Yemen from Aden, however, continue to make it unattractive for importers.
In the later half of February, the Houthi-Saleh authorities imposed a customs duty on all commercial trucks entering Houthi-Saleh controlled governorates, effectively doubling the customs duty already paid by traders at the ports. Almost immediately there were reports from Sana’a that numerous pharmaceutical drugs had risen in price, some by as much as 35%. On February 22, the Yemeni Chamber of Commerce issued a letter protesting the new duty fee and threatening to redirect their business to markets in Hadi controlled areas.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Yemen’s public sector workers – who made up one-third of Yemen’s employed workers pre-conflict – continued to go without their wages in February, as they have since August 2016, perpetuating the collapse of public services and the slide into extreme poverty for millions of people.
In a sign that some economic relief may be on the horizon, President Hadi announced on February 20 that the Saudi government has agreed to deposit $2 billion as currency support at the CBY in Aden, and offered billions more in reconstruction aid to government-held areas.
As of March 2, 2017, this financial support had yet to materialize.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of March 2, received 2.3% of the USD $2.1 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.
- In the month of February, 38 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 27 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 34 hours, an average of six hours less than the month before. A total of 413,343 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in February, consisting of 207,906 mt of food, 73,782 mt of fuel and 131,655 mt of general cargo. This is a decrease by a total of 153,003 mt of cargo from the month before.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.
In January, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed entered a period of shuttle diplomacy in an attempt revive the same peace proposal he’d put forward in December 2016 – a proposal Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi had at that time flatly rejected. The UN 2140 Sanctions Committee’s Panel of Experts reported last month that neither side in the conflict has “demonstrated sustained interest in or commitment to a political settlement or peace talks”, while pro-Hadi forces appear poised to further capitalize on recent battlefield advances.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said the Yemeni conflict is driving the single largest food insecurity crisis in the world and warned of the likelihood of famine in 2017; simultaneously the UN and humanitarian partners launched the largest ever international humanitarian appeal for Yemen: US$2.1 billion to provide life-saving assistance to some 12 million people.
A continuing liquidity crisis has left most civil servants – approximately one-third of employed Yemenis – without salaries for a fifth month in a row, while disparate efforts by President Hadi’s government and the Houthi-Saleh alliance to address the liquidity crisis threaten to further undermine the rial’s value.
US President Donald Trump’s also took office in January and authorized his first foreign policy actions related to Yemen. These included a US Navy SEAL raid on a suspected Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula compound in the Al-Bayda governorate. The raid left 25 civilians dead, including 9 children under the age of 13. Also killed were 14 AQAP members and one SEAL commando, while four SEALs were injured and a $70 million US Navy aircraft destroy; the White House Press Secretary called the event a “successful operation by all standards.”
Continued shuttle diplomacy
In mid-January the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed began a new round of shuttle diplomacy. This was an attempt to revive a peace proposal he had put forward in December to bring the fighting to a halt, but which had been rejected by the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. After visiting Riyadh, Doha and Muscat for talks with various government officials, Ould Cheikh Ahmed travelled to Aden to again meet with President Hadi, before also traveling to Sana’a to meet representatives from the Houthi movement and the allied General People’s Congress (GPC), loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Following his meetings with the warring parties, the Special Envoy informed the Security Council during a January 26 briefing in New York that his office had completed preparations for a five-day planning meeting, which will include a workshop for the De-escalation and Coordination Committee (DCC), whose members include representatives from the main warring parties. The aim of the DCC is to develop a joint implementation plan to ensure the success and sustainability of a cessation of hostilities, with Ould Cheikh Ahmed noting that Jordan had expressed willingness to host the planning meeting.
During the briefing the Special Envoy emphasized the immense suffering the conflict has brought the Yemeni people, that with “political courage and will” a resolution is still within reach but that a military solution to the war is not possible.
The UN 2140 Sanctions Committee’s Panel of Experts then met on January 27 to discuss the panel’s report which, among other things, stated that neither side in the conflict has “demonstrated sustained interest in or commitment to a political settlement or peace talks.” The panel also noted that while there had possibly been small-scale weapons shipments from Iran to the Houthis, it had not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any large-scale Iranian weapons shipments.
January witnessed an intensification of fighting on multiple fronts. Pro-Hadi forces, heavily supported by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, launched attacks in the vicinity of Nehem, east of Sana’a, which, if it fell, would threaten Houthi-Saleh forces’ control of the capital and represent a major strategic and tactical victory for Hadi.
Along the south-western coast of Yemen fighting intensified as pro-Hadi forces launched operation "Golden Spear" to take control of Mocha and by January 30 they had had been successful in capturing large parts of the town and surrounding areas. Heavy fighting continued in central Mocha, where Houthi-Saleh forces withdrew after losing the port. Fighting in and around Mokha has resulted in a large number of civilians being displaced, with the UN estimating up to 30,000 had relocated to safer areas within Taiz or surrounding governorates. A large number of civilians were also trapped within Mokha itself, facing an increasingly dire humanitarian situation.
Given pro-Hadi forces’ military advances in January, and the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump taking office – which has expressed support for the Saudi-led military intervention backing Hadi – it seems highly likely that Hadi will seek to push the initiative for further military gains, seeking to placing his government in a more advantageous position in eventual negotiations.
Indeed, in an event that was perhaps telling of the UN Special Envoy’s chances of securing a cessation of hostilities in the near-term, on January 30 the building in Dhahran Al-Janoub, Saudi Arabia, from which UN officials and DCC members were meant to monitor ceasefire violations, was itself damaged by rocket fire. In a statement, Ould Cheikh Ahmed expressed regret over the incident while refraining from blaming any side; Saudi news agencies, however, reported that the building had been hit by Houthi Katyusha rockets.
New UN humanitarian appeal
Also in a January 26th briefing to the Security Council, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said the Yemeni conflict is driving the single largest food insecurity crisis in the world, and warned of the likelihood of famine in 2017 if immediate action is not taken. Twelve days later, the UN and humanitarian partners launched an international appeal for US$2.1 billion to provide life-saving assistance to some 12 million people in Yemen in 2017. It is the largest consolidated humanitarian appeal for Yemen ever.
An estimated 18.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection – including 10.3 million people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance, including life-saving access to food, drinking water and medical services. Nearly 3.3 million people – including 2.1 million children – are acutely malnourished while 2 million people remain internally displaced. The recorded death toll in Yemen has surpassed 10,000.
Continuing liquidity crisis, inflation fears
The UN response plan also warned that the country is in social, economic and institutional collapse. A major contributing factor is that most public sector workers – approximately a third of wage-earning Yemenis – have not received salaries since August 2016 due to a severe liquidity crisis; Yemen is overwhelming a cash economy, and there has been an acute shortage in physical banknotes to pay civil servants.
Early last month, it was reported that a significant shipment of Yemeni rial banknotes arrived from printers in Russia to the Central Bank of Yemen, whose headquarters was relocated to Aden in September 2016. However, it is not clear how quickly this currency would be distributed and to which areas of the country. On the January 24 the CBY in Aden made its first public sector wage payments to civil servants in Houthi-Saleh control areas, though these payments were limited to educational staff. It is important to note that the cash transfer was not completed through the CBY’s own facilities and staff in Sana’a, but rather through an agreement with the private microfinance bank Al-Kuraimi. Authorities in Sana’a have threatened to punish banks cooperating with the Aden based CBY. This, in combination with continued lack of communication between CBY facilities in Sana’a and Aden, presents significant challenges to any future efforts to pay government wages.
Meanwhile, in an effort the circumvent the liquidity crisis themselves, at the beginning of January the Houthi-Saleh authorities in Sana’a directed central bank staff at the former CBY headquarters in the capital to explore the possibility of implementing a cashless electronic payment system using mobile phones. Central bank staff have since been examining the successful rollout of a similar model that was implemented in Kenya.
Both efforts to address the liquidity crisis have raised concerns, however, regarding a further devaluation of the Yemeni rial, given that neither the Hadi government in Aden nor that Houthi-Saleh administration in Sana’a has secured significant foreign currency reserves to back an increased supply of domestic currency. The black market exchange rate for the rial at the end of January was roughly YR330 to the US dollar, compared to YR215 to the US dollar when the Saudi-led intervention began in March 2015.
Trump’s first moves in Yemen
On January 20, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, and between then and the end of the month his office authorized at least six US drone strikes aimed at suspected Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives in Yemen.
A week after his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order barring citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Yemen among them, from entering the United States; a US federal judge and appeals court later suspended the Trump’s immigration order. Two days later after the signing of the order, on January 29, US Navy SEALs conducted a raid on a village in the Al-Bayda governorate. Death tolls vary slightly, however villagers report 25 civilians killed, including 9 children under the age of 13; AQAP reported 14 members killed. A US Navy SEAL commando was also killed, four wounded and a $70 million US Navy Osprey aircraft was destroyed. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dubbed the event a “successful operation by all standards.”
The navy destroyer USS Cole was then ordered to patrol Yemen’s Red Sea coast to help protect shipping lanes in the Bab Al Mandeb strait, following a Houthi attack on a Saudi frigate using a “drone boat” at the end of January. On February 3, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn issued a statement on Iran through the White House press secretary in which he described the Houthis as one of Iran’s “proxy terrorist groups.”
This is the first time a US administration has called the Houthis a “terrorist” group. Should this shift in language, and perhaps policy, outlast Flynn’s time in office, it has the potential to complicate Washington’s future engagement in the conflict; the newly minted National Security Advisor was forced to resign amid controversy after just 24 days, the shortest tenure in the 63-year history of the office.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of February 9, received only 1.8% of the USD $2.1 billion it has called for to implement its humanitarian response plan in Yemen for 2017.
- In the month of January, 40 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM). Twenty-nine certificates of clearance were issued and the average time to issue clearance was 40 hours. A total of 566,346 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in January, consisting of 294,550 mt of food, 117,020 mt of fuel and 154,776 mt of general cargo. In January also, the UNVIM released the data for November and December, with a total cargo of 585,572 mt and 628,858 mt respectively.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.
A Track II Initiative
This two-year project is an initiative to identify Yemen’s economic, humanitarian, social and development priorities in light of the ongoing conflict in Yemen, and to prepare for the post-conflict recovery period. It aims to build consensus in crucial policy areas through engaging and promoting informed Yemeni voices in the public discourse. The aim is to ensure successful economic, humanitarian, social and development interventions in the conflict and post-conflict periods in Yemen, which will address the needs and rights of the Yemeni people and put the country on a path toward sustainable peace and development. The project is implemented by the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies (SCSS) in partnership with the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) and DeepRoot Consulting. It is funded by the European Union and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Yemen.
Project duration: March 2017 – February 2019
In December, the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi officially rejected the latest UN proposal to end the conflict in Yemen. The Hadi government then laid out new conditions for any future peace agreement that effectively preclude the possibility of a negotiated end to the war.
The Houthi movement and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sought out but failed to garner international recognition for their recently formed “Government of National Salvation” (GNS), following which the GNS was affirmed through a vote of confidence in the Houthi-Saleh controlled Parliament in Sana’a.
While there were no formal UN meetings regarding Yemen in December, the so-called “Quad” multilateral group – consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – met and later presented a united front calling for the implementation of the UN peace plan, while simultaneously the outgoing Obama administration canceled a $350 million arms deal for Saudi Arabia, citing Saudi bombings of Yemeni civilians.
Terrorist attacks in Aden underlined the Hadi government’s inability to enforce security in its zones of control, Yemeni government institutions continue to collapse, and a new Secretary General and five new non-permanent members usher in a new term for the UN Security Council.
Yemeni government rejects UN peace plan
On December 1, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, met with Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Aden. Hadi, and a portion of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, had arrived in Aden only a week earlier. This was the second time Hadi had visited Aden since he moved with most of his government to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March 2015.
Subsequently, on December 6, Hadi’s delegation to the UN submitted a letter to the UN Secretary General and the president of the Security Council stating the official position of the Yemeni government. The letter asserts that the Special Envoy’s current peace plan fundamentally contradicts various UN Security Council resolutions, statements and other international agreements, and that the Hadi government considers it a “free incentive to the Houthi-Saleh rebels, legitimizing their rebellion, their agenda, and the establishment of a new phase of the bloody conflict…[it also] creates a dangerous international precedent, encouraging coup trends against elected authorities and national consensus.”
The letter then states that for “any political solution” to be agreeable, former President Ali Saleh, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, “all those included in the Security Council sanctions regime, and all those with proven involvement in the coup or have committed crimes against civilians, must leave political life and leave the country with their families into self-imposed exile for a period of at least ten years, as well as the implementation of international sanctions against them.” These conditions effectively represent Hadi’s rejection of all current international efforts towards ending the Yemeni conflict, with the letter widely viewed in international circles as an attempt to dictate the outcome of any future negotiations before the negotiations have taken place.
This created obvious challenges for the Special Envoy’s efforts moving forward. Through the later half of last year there had been growing general consensus among UN Security Council member states that Hadi was incapable of heading any post-conflict government in Sana’a, given his government’s track record of corrupt and inept leadership, and that Hadi personally is widely despised in Yemen. Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s latest proposal to restart the peace process thus laid out steps by which Hadi would relinquish power following the formation of a new transition government.
Hadi’s official rejection of the Special Envoy’s plan last month clearly illustrated his ambitions to maintain power. The Yemeni president likely also felt his stance was bolstered by the renewed efforts his forces, and those of his Gulf allies, have recently undertaken to make advances on the battlefield in Yemen, with Hadi seeking more favourable circumstances on the ground before engaging in any future potential peace talks. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that December witnessed an intensification of the military conflict, including clashes along the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border areas, fighting in eastern areas of Taiz city, and a resumption of fighting in Asilan district in Shabwa province in the south.
Meanwhile, through December the Houthi movement, and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, continued attempts to legitimize the “Government of National Salvation” they had established in Sana’a the month before – a move the UN Special Envoy had described as “an obstacle” to peace efforts. These legitimization efforts included the Houthis sending a delegation to both Russia and China, though both states denied the official character of the visit and China later expressed “strong concern over the formation of a government by the Houthi group and its allies.” On December 10 the Houthi-Saleh Parliament of Yemen then granted the “Government of National Salvation” a vote of confidence.
Multilateral efforts to bolster the UN process
While there were no formal meetings at the UN regarding Yemen last month, on December 18, foreign ministers from the so-called “Quad” multilateral group – consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and the Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs. Oman has remained neutral in the Yemeni conflict and was the only Gulf Cooperation Council state not join the Saudi-led military coalition supporting the Hadi government. (It should be noted that a number of media outlets have recently reported that Oman joined the military coalition, but this information is inaccurate; Oman in fact joined a different Saudi-led effort focused on counterterrorism issues.) Both the international community and the warring parties in Yemen have regarded Oman’s role positively, making it increasingly likely that any negotiated settlement to the conflict will be facilitated through Muscat.
At the December 18 meeting discussions revolved around the peace proposal the UN Special Envoy put forward on October 23, 2016 – which had been endorsed by Quad members and, initially at least, rejected by all three of the main warring parties in Yemen. Through a US State Department communiqué on Yemen released following the meeting, attendees to the Quad meeting welcomed the decision by the Houthis and elements of the General People’s Congress (GPC), loyal to Saleh, to reverse course and endorse the Special Envoy’s roadmap on November 16. The communique then called on the Houthi-Saleh alliance to urgently engage with the Special Envoy’s security plan, which requires the Houthis and Saleh’s forces to withdraw from territory they have seized during the conflict and hand over their medium and heavy weapons.
The communique stated that “[t]he UN proposals, that include the sequencing of political and security steps, represent an outline for a comprehensive agreement whose details will be settled in negotiations” – effectively a rejection of the conditions the Hadi government had laid out in its December 6 letter to the UN Security Council. In what was presumably an effort to reassure President Hadi on the sequencing of elements in the Special Envoy’s plan however, the Quad communique also stated that “[t]he transfer of presidential authorities will not take place until the parties begin implementation of all political and security steps.”
The US Secretary of State and the Saudi foreign minister held a press conference following the Quad meeting to share the purposes and outcomes of the discussion and affirm their support for the UN Special Envoy’s peace plan, reiterating their calls for a cessation of hostilities and an end to the conflict in Yemen.
On December 13, the Obama Administration, with less than six weeks left in office, announced it had blocked a $350 million arms deal between American weapons manufacturer Raytheon and the Saudi government for the sale of “smart” munitions. Administration officials cited concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen that have resulted from Saudi coalition airstrikes, noting in particular the Saudi bombing of a funeral hall in Sana’a in October 2016 which killed well over 100 people and wounded more than 500. (Whether the incoming Trump administration will uphold Obama’s intervention in this arms deal is yet to be seen.)
Shortly afterward, it became public knowledge that UK Minister of Defence Michael Fallon had received evidence that the Saudi-led coalition had been using British-made cluster munitions in Yemen. On December 19th, the Saudi government then announced its military coalition would no longer use of cluster bombs in Yemen.
Widespread insecurity and collapsing government services
The persistent ineffectiveness of Hadi’s security forces has been fueling doubts amongst international stakeholders regarding the Hadi government’s ability to maintain peace and stability in the country following any successful peace negotiations.
The domestic military forces fighting on behalf of Hadi are largely disorganized and often improperly trained, with the internationally recognized government becoming ever more reliant on the Saudi-led coalition’s air power to keep it actively involved in the conflict. At the same time, in many areas supposedly under the control of the Hadi government, the lack of an organized and coordinated security force has resulted in a security vacuum that has allowed terrorist organizations, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, to proliferate.
On December 10, a suicide bombing near a military base in Aden killed 57 people. On December 18 a similar attack occurred in the same area – a suicide bomber disguised as a disabled police officer entered a crowd of security personnel outside the house of a Yemeni commander and detonated his explosive. The second attack killed 48 and wounded 84, with ISIS claiming responsibility for both attacks. This last attack was the fifth incident of its kind since pro-Hadi forces gained control of Aden in July 2015, and the two incidents last month happened while Hadi and members of his government were in Aden.
Meanwhile, as the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate – Yemen is already listed as a level three humanitarian crisis, the highest designation the UN has – government institutions that would otherwise be responding are witnessing a continuing deterioration of their capacity to do so, in large part due to the continuing non-payment of public servant wages since August 2016. Of particular importance is the devastating effect this has had on the healthcare sector, with hospitals increasingly being left without the staff, supplies and fuel necessary to provide medical services. Sanaa Center research in December identified the crippling challenges facing public health institutions at all levels, from the ministry offices down to local clinics.
Sana’a Center surveys last month found that the UN and other international humanitarian organizations operating in Yemen have, in many instances, resorted to providing financial incentives to key public sector employees to keep them at their posts and performing essential duties. The severe shortage of physical banknotes in circulation is, however, hampering the efforts of all international and local organizations, as is the interference of local powerbrokers, especially in Houthi/Saleh controlled areas, and the current difficulty in gathering accurate data on the health situation in the various governorates.
Importers have also reported that the persistent difficulty in accessing foreign exchange, as well as transportation and logistic challenges arising from the conflict, are hobbling their ability to restock the country’s reserves of basic foodstuffs. Yemen is almost entirely dependant on imports to meet the population’s food requirements and many areas of the country are already facing imminent famine; unless there is a rapid improvement in the quantity and distribution of food imports in the near term, widespread starvation is a likely.
New UN Secretary General, Security Council members
Antonio Guterres began his first term as UN Secretary General in January 2017, though it is unclear how Guterres will differ from Ban Ki Moon in his approach to the Yemeni crisis. However, the decade Guterres spent as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has given him a significant background with humanitarian crises, and he is familiar with Yemen: in January 2011, Guterres made a three-day visit to the country, during which he visited Yemen’s northern governorate of Sa’ada where he met with elected government officials and Houthi representatives.
The 15-member UN Security Council also saw changes in its non-permanent membership on January 1, 2017, with Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Italy, and Sweden joining the council for two-year terms, replacing Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, and Venezuela. It is not yet clear how this turnover will impact Security Council activity relating to the Yemeni crisis, however Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, and Venezuela were among the most vocal member states during their tenure in highlighting the humanitarian crisis, the war’s effects on children, and calling for a cessation of hostilities. They also repeatedly raised the Yemeni situation at closed-door council meetings, attempting to critically assess the work of the UN Special Envoy and push for greater efforts to resolve the conflict. In the upcoming Security Council session, it is likely that Sweden and Bolivia will be the strongest advocates for international action to stop the war in Yemen, due to both being relatively free from direct influence by Gulf countries and, especially in the case of Sweden, having strong human rights records.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of December 31, received only 60% of the USD $1.63 billion it has called for to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen. The $655 million shortfall rolled over into 2017.
- As of this writing, the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) had not reported the number of cargo vessels that had applied for or received permission to offload in Yemen in November and December, as it has for every other month since it started operating in May 2016.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.
In November, United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he had reached an agreement between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Houthi movement to end the fighting in Yemen. He did so, however, without obtaining the agreement of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, one of the war’s main belligerent parties. The ceasefire was almost immediately violated and quickly failed.
The opposition Houthis and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced the formation of a new government in Sana’a. The move was seen as an attempt to redress public outrage at the opposition’s brutal, corrupt and inept governance, as well as shore up the strained Houthi-Saleh alliance. The result is a government with a sprawling array of ministerial portfolios with vast overlaps of responsibility and authority. While the UN Special Envoy to Yemen called the move “a concerning obstacle to the peace process”, a position shared by various Security Council member states, the council as a whole was unable to agree to a statement in this regard.
Meanwhile, the country’s humanitarian crisis continues unabated. New and more precise UN data than previously available estimated 18.8 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance and 10.3 million are in acute need. The dramatic drop in food imports is accelerating the onset of catastrophic famine, there is spreading cholera outbreak, and 2016 looks set to end with the international community having committed only slightly more than half the money necessary to fund the UN’s emergency humanitarian response plan for Yemen.
A failed ceasefire
On November 15 in Abu Dhabi, the U.S. Secretary of State Kerry announced that the Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to a cessation of hostilities in Yemen beginning on November 17. Kerry had met with Houthi representatives the day before in Oman, following which, Kerry said, the Houthis had agreed to a ceasefire and to proceed with peace negotiations based on the new roadmap presented by the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
Among the primary tenets of Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s roadmap were that Houthi fighters and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh would withdraw from the cities of Sana’a, Taiz and Hodeidah and turn over their heavy and medium weapons; a new national unity government would then be formed and a new vice president appointed to whom the current transitional president, Abd Mansour Hadi, would transfer power, and the new government would then oversee the country’s political transition. It was generally understood that this peace plan would lead to Hadi’s removal from power and the political process.
Before announcing the ceasefire Kerry had, however, failed to secure the consent of Hadi himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Hadi-led government rejected the ceasefire and the new roadmap outright, claiming that it was never consulted on the cessation of hostilities and that the peace plan departs from UN Security Council resolution 2216 which, among other things, calls for the reinstatement of the Hadi government in Sana’a and the full implementation of the GCC Initiative.
Kerry’s announced ceasefire, and another subsequently announced by the UN Special Envoy to take effect November 19, were both heavily violated and quickly rendered obsolete.
The new Houthi-Saleh Government
On November 28, the Houthi movement and the General People’s Congress (GPC), loyal to former President Saleh, unilaterally formed a new “Government of National Salvation”, comprised exclusively of members from their own ranks. Houthi spokespeople stated that this decision in no way forestalls their commitment to the international peace process. Given previous directives from the UN and individual member states specifically against taking such action, however, the formation of the new government could not have occurred without the awareness that it would almost certainly not be recognized internationally, and indeed that forming this government would be widely perceived as a provocation and an obstacle to peace.
From the Houthi-Saleh point of view, however, the move can be seen as an attempt to strengthen both their authority over areas they control, and their mutual alliance. The Houthis’ rampant corruption, repressive tactics and ineffective governance, combined with the hardships imposed by the conflict, have inflamed popular frustration and local resistance against the current ruling body, the Supreme Political Council, which the Houthis and Saleh instated at the end of July this year. The newly announced government can be seen as an attempt to address these grievances.
Tensions during the recent peace negotiations and competition over limited financial and military resources have strained the Houthi-Saleh relationship, and thus the new government can also be seen as an attempt to reassert unity. The new Houthi-Saleh government includes 42 ministerial positions, with the distribution of positions laid out such that where a minister has been drawn from one side, that minister’s deputies were drawn from the other. In trying to obtain a balance, however, there has been significant duplication in responsibilities amongst the ministerial posts. For instance, in addition to there being an interior minister, there are also two deputy prime ministers – one for “security affairs” and the other for “internal affairs”. There is also a deputy prime minister for economic affairs in addition to ministers for finance and economy.
The makeup of the new government suggests that the GPC prioritized securing ministries associated with finance and revenue – such as oil and telecommunications – while the Houthis prioritized ministerial positions associated with defence, media and culture. The Houthis asserting control of the defense portfolio was likely an attempt to counterbalance the influence of the Republican Guard – a powerful, well trained and equipped military force, largely independent from the Ministry of Defence and loyal to Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh.
Following the formation of the new Houthi-Saleh government, the UN Envoy to Yemen stated that it represented “a concerning obstacle to the peace process…[and] contradict the recent commitments provided to the UN and to the United States Secretary of State John Kerry in Muscat.” Ould Cheikh Ahmed then asked the Houthis and the GPC to “re-think their approach and commitment to the peace process with concrete actions.”
On November 29, Egypt’s delegation to the UN circulated a draft statement to the Security Council condemning the so-called “Government of National Salvation.” The statement called the new government “null and void” and urged all UN member states to “withhold any support to, and official contact with, this entity.” As of this writing, however, council members were still debating whether or not to adopt or amend the statement.
Continuing humanitarian crisis
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a Yemen 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview. The report estimated 18.8 million Yemenis require some kind of humanitarian assistance or protection, including 10.3 million who are in acute need. The 2017 priority needs estimates are roughly 10 per cent lower than last year, though OCHA made it clear that “this decrease reflects better data collection only, and can in no way be interpreted as an ‘improvement’ in Yemen’s catastrophic humanitarian situation.”
OCHA also reported that over the last 10 months (January-October), national and international humanitarian partners have reached more than 5 million people with direct humanitarian assistance across Yemen's 22 governorates. This has been accomplished despite the access constraints imposed by the warring parties. To date, however, the 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan has received only 58 percent of its $1.6 billion funding appeal. The $684 million shortfall will be rolled over into 2017.
Last month Oxfam issued a press release stating that “Yemen's population is at risk of catastrophic hunger as food imports continue to plunge and on current trends the war torn country will effectively run out of things to eat in a few months.” A cholera outbreak also took on new urgency, with OCHA reporting 6,016 suspected cases in 86 districts, and 76 deaths.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of November 30, received 58% of the US$1.63 billion it has called for to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen.
- As of this writing, the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) had not reported the number of cargo vessel that had applied for or received permission to offload in Yemen in November.
- Food imports have declined drastically and from August to the start of December were on average, per month, less than half of Yemen’s needs.
In October, the Houthi forces’ use of anti-ship missiles targeting vessels in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait led to a brief but direct intervention in the Yemeni conflict by the United States navy.
Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on a funeral gathering in Sana’a caused massive casualties and brought widespread international condemnation, however the US and United Kingdom continued to oppose an international investigation into war crimes in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia was re-elected to a second term on the UN Human Rights council.
Meanwhile, a new peace plan put forward by the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, while initially rejected by the opposing Yemeni sides in the conflict, appeared to gain new momentum toward the end of the month and early November, due to increasing international consensus around the plan and new US impetus to end the conflict before President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2016.
Rising tensions in Yemeni waters
On October 1, Houthi forces on shore fired a missile at a ship in Bab al-Mandeb Strait and claimed that it destroyed a United Arab Emirates military transport vessel. The UAE responded that the ship was a humanitarian vessel with no military capacity and deemed the incident an “act of terror”. On October 4, the UN Security Council issued a press statement condemning the attack, while the United States sent several battleships to the area.
The following week, missiles fired on multiple occasions from Houthi-controlled territory unsuccessfully targeted a US destroyer. On October 12, US cruise missiles destroyed three coastal radars installations used by the Houthis, with Washington informing the Security Council of these retaliatory strikes three days later.
Although a similar incident between the US navy and Houthi forces occurred later the same week, senior administration officials said during a special briefing that further direct US intervention in the conflict is unlikely. On October 25, a gas tanker off the coast of Yemen was then unsuccessfully fired on by unknown assailants.
Further evidence of war crimes
On October 8, a Saudi coalition airstrike hit a crowded funeral ceremony in Sana’a, resulting in more than 150 deaths and over 500 wounded. Attending the funeral were a number of high level military and political leaders, as well as senior non-aligned figures. Notable were the deaths of officials from the UN Pacification Commission, as well as the head of the Yemeni Republican Guard Ali al-Jaifi, who as a non-aligned military figure palatable to both warring sides, had been expected to play a significant role in any post-conflict government. The mayor of Sana’a, Abdul Qader Hilal, was also killed in the attack.
The scale and profile of the airstrike – as well as the fact that a second strike on emergency responders took place minutes later – drew immediate condemnation from a wide range of local and international actors. The coalition quickly admitted it wrongfully targeted the funeral in a public statement and indicated that it would conduct an investigation into the incident.
At the end of October coalition airstrikes on a residential compound in Taiz city then killed 18 civilians, which was followed hours later by airstrikes on Houthi run prisons in the city of Hodeida that killed dozens of prisoners and guards, many of whom had been jailed for anti-Houthi activities.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights immediately renewed calls for an international investigation into possible war crimes committed by all parties to the Yemeni conflict. A host of Security Council member states, including the United States and United Kingdom also condemned the attacks. However, both nations continued to oppose to an international inquiry.
Importantly, on October 28 Saudi Arabia was re-elected to a second three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council, the United Nations' premier human rights body. During the previous term Saudi Arabia and allied countries, in particular the US and UK, have repeatedly used their positions on the Human Rights Council to blocked attempts to establish an independent international human rights inquiry into the war in Yemen.
Tensions on the UN Security Council
The UK, as the penholder on Yemen and thus tasked with drafting Security Council texts related to the country, failed to get council approval for a draft press statement last month regarding a cessation of hostilities and unhindered access for humanitarian assistance.
The Russian representative, speaking to the Security Council on October 31st, said the UK draft text was “openly weak” in how it addressed the airstrike on the funeral gathering in Sana’a: “It was not stated who made the strike, even though the [Saudi-led] coalition has already accepted the responsibility. There was not a call for an investigation to punish those responsible. We were not in a position to support that draft, considering that, given the atrocities committed, the toothless text would have been an insult for the Yemenis.”
Russia, which held the Security Council’s monthly presidency rotation in October, questioned the impartiality of the UK as the Yemen penholder – given London’s support for the Saudi-led coalition through billion-dollar arms sales – and called for a review of the penholdership.
A new UN peace plan
Last month the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, met separately with representatives from the main warring parties in Yemen – those being the internationally recognized government-in-exile of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the Houthi movement and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. These meetings were held in Riyadh and Sana’a, respectively, where the Special Envoy presented the parties with a new roadmap for ending the conflict.
The Special Envoy’s previous proposal had been rejected by both sides and led to a breakdown of negotiations in Kuwait in early August, following which there was a renewed surge in violence in Yemen. The new peace plan, which included elements of the previous plan, also included new recommendations put forward by “The Quad” – a multilateral group consisting of the US, UK, UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Both peace proposals envisioned the formation of specialized committees to oversee the Houthis and Saleh-aligned forces withdrawing from captured territory and disarming, as well as the formation of an interim “government of national unity” – inclusive of all major political factions in the country – which would be tasked with drafting a new constitution. However, where the failed plan would have required the Houthis and Saleh to cede territory and disarm before their place in the new government had been negotiated, the new peace plan laid out a process by which these security and political steps would be taken simultaneously.
Unlike the previous plan, the new proposal also called for the appointment of a new vice president mutually agreeable to both sides, to whom President Hadi would then handover his authority. If enacted, this a process would likely see Hadi sidelined in any future political arrangement, and that the Special Envoy brought forward such a proposal is indicative of the growing consensus, both within and outside of Yemen, that Hadi’s leadership is weak, his administration mismanaged, and that he has become an obstacle to achieving a peace deal.
Hadi’s political isolation intensified following his administration’s unilateral decision in September to relocate the headquarters of the Central Bank of Yemen from the capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden and to sack the bank’s governor. This decision was taken without first securing the institutional expertise, information archives and financial reserves necessary for the new central bank location to become operational. The country was thus left without a functioning central bank, which in turn has accelerated the onset of famine and exacerbated the country’s already-catastrophic humanitarian crisis.
Hadi’s decision was widely seen – by the international financial community and diplomats from UN member states – as an attempt to make up for the limited military progress of government forces through weaponizing the economy. As such it has led many in the international community, including some of Hadi’s supporters, to regard his administration as reckless and shortsighted. There is also a growing international unease that Hadi and his government’s Yemeni allies are motivated by a desire to develop the country’s south while isolating the north, which would empower the southern separatist movement and threaten the country’s continuity as one nation.
Within days of receiving the UN Special Envoy’s plan, both of the opposing Yemeni sides formally rejected it. Ould Cheikh Ahmed acknowledged these rejections in his briefing to the Security Council on October 31, saying that “this demonstrates that the political elite in Yemen remains unable to overcome their differences and prioritize national, public interest over personal interests.”
Also meeting with the UN Security Council on October 31 was Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. O’Brien drew attention to the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation, noting “Yemen is one step away from famine”; he urged that the Hudaydah port, largely destroyed by coalition airstrikes in August 2015, be repaired to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies, and also asked for the Hadi administration and the Saudi-led coalition – which controls the airspace over Yemen – to allow for the resumption of commercial flights from Sana’a; this, according to O’Brien, could help the thousands of Yemenis, such as the victims of coalition airstrikes who require specialized medical care outside the country, and “students who need to pursue their studies abroad.”
Renewed efforts to end the conflict
Despite setbacks in October, there continued to be potential for the UN Special Envoy's’ new peace plan, given that there appeared to be greater international agreement over its details than previously seen. While the United Arab Emirates has supported both of the peace plans, an important development in early November was that the Saudis were also expressing support for the new plan in closed-door meetings. Saudi Arabia and Oman had also reportedly agreed to cooperate in pressuring the opposing sides in the Yemeni conflict to accept the peace plan, with Saleh and the Houthis, following their rejection of the plan, then expressing conditional support for its framework.
A major breakthrough appeared to come in mid-November when US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition had agreed to a ceasefire and the framework for renewed peace negotiations. This move bypassed Hadi’s objections and appeared to be a new push by Washington to resolve the conflict before President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of October 31, received 51% of the US$1.63 billion it has called for to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen.
- In the month of October, 31 Vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) – launched in May 2016 to speed the flow of commercial goods to Yemen through the Saudi-led coalition blockade. Forty-six certificates of clearance were issued and the average time to issue clearance was 43 hours. A total of 770,417 metric tons (mt) of cargo was offloaded through the UNVIM in October, consisting of 346,404 mt of food, 82,804 mt of fuel and 341,209 mt of general cargo.
(Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that the UK, as penholder for the Yemen file at the UN Security Council, failed to get a draft resolution passed last month regarding a cessation of hostilities and unhindered access for humanitarian assistance. It was in fact a draft press statement for which the UK failed to get Security Council approval. The Sana'a Center regrets the error.)
United Nations efforts to end the conflict in Yemen made no effective headway in September, while political developments both at the UN and on the ground in Yemen will likely complicate future UN peace efforts.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ recommendation to establish an independent international commission to investigate war crimes by all sides to the Yemeni conflict was turned down by the UN’s Human Rights Council, which instead adopted a resolution to increase assistance to a controversial Yemeni committee investigating war crimes.
In addition, the internationally-recognized government’s decision in mid-September to relocate the Central Bank of Yemen from the capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden, is expected to exacerbate the country’s humanitarian catastrophe, which is already one of the worst in the world.
International peace efforts
There were no UN Security Council meetings regarding Yemen in September, and since the collapse of UN-mediated peace talks in Kuwait on August 6, no official negotiations between the main belligerents involved the conflict. The opposing sides are constituted by forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government - operating mainly from exile in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Aden, in southern Yemen - led by President Abdu Mansur Hadi with the backing of a Saudi-led international military coalition. The opposing side is made up of the rebel Houthi movement, allied with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his People’s General Congress (GPC) party, who control the capital, Sana’a, and much of Yemen’s north.
The most notable recent effort to bring the parties back to the negotiating table has come from a multilateral group external to the UN process, dubbed the “Quad”, consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Quad’s September 21 meeting, hosted by the UK mission to the UN in New York, included a briefing by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, on the challenges to achieving peace. Following this the UK Foreign office issued a statement reaffirming the Quad’s commitment to finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict and its “full support for the Special Envoy and his proposed roadmap to reach a comprehensive agreement.”
While many aspects of the peace plan put forward by the Quad at the end of August are similar to the ones the Special Envoy tried to advance at the failed Kuwaiti talks, a key distinguishing factor is the sequencing of the steps: Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s plan would have required that the Houthis and Saleh’s forces withdraw from captured territory and disarm before negotiations began to decide their place in a new national unity government, while the Quad’s plan would see these initiatives implemented simultaneously. The UK statement also noted the Quad’s concern over Yemen’s struggling economy, and specifically recent developments regarding the Central Bank of Yemen (discussed below). It then called for another cessation of hostilities, beginning with an immediate 72-hour ceasefire that would allow the UN Special Envoy an opportunity to consult with the warring parties and restart negotiations.
Given that the Quad’s peace plan suggests the parallel implementation of the political and security arrangements, rather than having the Houthis and Saleh’s forces surrender their strategic and military leverage first, it may offer enough of an enticement for them to reengage negotiations. Even so, a number of political developments during the summer will complicate future UN peace initiatives: in recent months various UN security council member states have privately, and at times publicly, begun to voice concerns regarding the Special Envoy’s ability to broker an agreement, bringing into question the support his future efforts will receive within the UN’s highest chamber. That the US, UK, UAE and Saudi Arabia saw it necessary to form the Quad is also telling of these states’ perception of the ability of UN mediation to independently bring about the results they prefer.
A second major political complication to future UN efforts is that, in the absence of a negotiated settlement to determine the contours of the future state, the Houthis and Saleh’s GPC have been unilaterally creating “new realities” on the ground in violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions. These moves have included reconvening the Parliament earlier this summer to ratify the formation of a Supreme Political Council to manage Yemen’s political, economic, military and security affairs, and a move at the beginning of October to appoint a new Prime Minister to form a “National Salvation Government”, which excludes members of Hadi’s internationally-recognized government.
No international war crimes investigation
On September 22, a coalition of human rights groups issued a joint letter to the 47 member states of the UN Human Rights Council urging the council to establish an independent, international investigation into alleged war crimes committed by all sides in the Yemeni conflict, as recommended by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein in a report in August.
Al Hussein had previously called for an international investigation into war crimes in a report issued last year, following which the Netherlands submitted a draft resolution to the Human Rights Council in September 2015 for its establishment. However, under intense pressure from Saudi Arabia and other members of the Saudi-led coalition, and lacking crucial support from the US, UK and France – Amsterdam withdrew the proposal. In its place, the Human Rights Council adopted a Saudi-backed resolution to provide “technical assistance” to a domestic committee of inquiry, established by and reporting to President Hadi.
In the year since, this national commission has been widely criticized by human rights groups and UN officials as unproductive and biased. While war crimes by all sides have been well-documented by human rights groups, the national commission’s limited output has focused exclusively on the actions of Houthi-Saleh forces and ignored Hadi’s allies; in particular, overlooking the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes on hospitals, schools, markets, densely populated residential neighborhoods and other civilian infrastructure, as well as the use of cluster munitions in civilian areas. This was exemplified on October 8, 2016, by the Saudi-led coalition’s most deadly airstrikes thus far, which killed more than 140 people and injured hundreds who were attending a funeral ceremony in Sana’a.
Following the human rights groups’ joint letter to the UN Human Rights Council last month, the council adopted a resolution on September 27 calling for the UN Human Rights Commissioner to provide additional international human rights experts to work with the national commission of inquiry, “to enable it to establish the facts and circumstances of any violations and abuses.” Notably absent was any mention of a formal independent international investigation.
Relocating Yemen’s Central Bank
On September 18th, President Hadi issued a decree, from his exile Riyadh, to replace the Governor of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY), Mohammed Awad bin Hammam, and to move the CBY from Sana’a to the southern city of Aden. In an address to the UN General Assembly on September 23rd, Hadi said the move would escalate pressure on the Houthi rebels controlling the capital, while also acknowledging that it would bring hardship to millions of Yemenis, stating that: “We might fail to pay the salaries of people working in public service.” (Yemen has some 1.25 million government employees for whom the CBY has been paying salaries.)
Hadi’s decision to move the CBY follows his government’s August request for international financial institutions to deny the CBY access to the foreign currency reserves it holds abroad. Given that the CBY had by then expended much of the foreign currency reserves it held domestically, Hadi’s attempt to sever the CBY from currency reserves abroad would disable the central bank from carrying out many of its primary functions.
Hadi and his allies have justified the moves against the CBY and bin Hammam’s staff in Sana’a by claiming that the CBY has been unduly aiding the Houthis and associated forces during the conflict, and that the Houthis have plundered a total of $4 billion from the CBY’s reserves to fund their war effort since 2014. Bin Hamman has refuted this claim as “baseless.”
International diplomats and political figures on both sides of the conflict have generally considered the CBY as the last effective bastion of the Yemeni state and, crucially, bin Hammam had maintained the trust of financial markets and international financial institutions with his efforts to guide the economy and currency through the war and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
In a comment to Reuters, a Western diplomat stated: "The concern is that the Yemeni government, and implicitly the Saudi-led coalition behind them, are trying to weaponize the economy.”
Importantly, while Hadi and his foreign allies have been disempowering bin Hammam and the CBY in Sana’a, at the end of September the new central bank in Aden, led by Hadi’s former finance minister Monasser Al Quaiti, was yet to secure the human resources and financial reserves necessary to operate and was thus effectively non-functional. The result is that by the end of last month, no authority in the country had the capacity to meaningfully execute essential central bank functions, such as paying public servants, stabilizing the value of the Yemeni rial and facilitating imports – crucial tasks in a country that imports 90 percent of its nutritional needs.
Various UN officials had reported that more than 12 million Yemenis were in need of life-saving assistance in September, while basic service were in near total collapse. The rapid erosion of a functioning central bank will exacerbate this humanitarian catastrophe.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of October 10, received only 47% of the US$1.63 billion it needs to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen.
- The UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) – launched in May 2016 to speed the flow of commercial goods to Yemen through the Saudi-led coalition blockade – granted certificates of clearance to 27 of 40 vessels requesting to offload cargo in Yemen during the month of September. In reference to increased efforts to bring relief aid into Yemen, however, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien said on October 5: "the real issue is the restriction of unloading capacity at the port because the cranes are smashed.”
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.
August 2016 in Review
United Nations-mediated peace talks aimed at resolving the conflict in Yemen stalled during the month of August, while divisions regarding Yemen became increasingly apparent at the UN Security Council and violence escalated around the country.
The negotiations between the warring parties, held in Kuwait, ended in early August over an impasse regarding so-called “sequencing concerns” related to the UN-sponsored peace plan; these were essentially a disagreement over whether the Houthi rebels and allied forces should be required to cede capture territory and disarm before, or after, their place in a new unity government was established.
In an effort to break the impasse, in late August a multilateral group consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia put forward a new peace proposal drafted by the US Secretary of State to address the sequencing concerns.
Stalled peace talks
On August 6th, UN mediated negotiations in Kuwait ended without a peace agreement between the main warring parties to the Yemeni conflict, which are constituted on the one side by the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and on the other by the Houthi rebels and the allied General Popular Congress (GPC) party, loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. These groups continued to disagree over the sequencing of the steps in the peace plan presented by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
Among the plan’s requirements were that the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh disarm and withdraw from territories currently under their control, including the capital, Sana’a, and the cities of Taiz and Hodeidah. The proposal would involve warring parties declaring a permanent end to the conflict, then through presidential decree Hadi would establish a National Military and Security Committee (NMSC), as well as Governorate Military and Security Committees (GMSCS) for each of Yemen’s governorates. These committees would exercise temporary executive responsibility for security throughout the country and facilitate the handover of the opposition’s heavy and medium weapons. Following the completion of these interim security arrangements and the handover and restoration of state institutions, slated to take 45 days, a national unity government inclusive of all sides in the conflict would be formed and assume power.
While President Hadi nominally supported the UN special envoy’s peace plan, the Houthis and the GPC viewed it as being overly favourable to Hadi and his government-in-exile, and insisted that they would only hand over their weapons and withdraw from areas they now occupy after their position in the new unity government was agreed. This disagreement over the order in which the elements of the peace plan were to be implemented then deadlocked the negotiations. It should be noted that intense mistrust between the opposing sides in the conflict also played a significant role in the failure of the talks.
Tensions at the UN Security Council
The UN Special Envoy to Yemen briefed the UN Security Council (UNSC) twice during the month of August. The first closed-door briefing took place on August 3, upon a request from permanent member Russia for clarification regarding details of the negotiations process in Kuwait. The Russian delegation had expressed skepticism regarding whether Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s peace plan could resolve the conflict, with the Russian representative to the UNSC, Vitaly Churkin, publicly stating that the plan seemed to be “dealing only with the military aspect of the situation, which emphasizes the need for the Houthis and the Saleh people to lay down arms, to withdraw from the cities…and the political aspect was missing.”
Ould Cheikh Ahmed reassured council members at the briefing that the proposed plan dealt with both the security and political dimensions of the conflict. Various council members, however, remained concerned regarding the warring parties’ disagreement over how the various steps of the plan were sequenced.
While it is customary for the UNSC to issue a coordinated press statement after such briefings, following this August 3 briefing the UNSC failed to do so, after Russia opposed an Egyptian amendment. The Egyptian delegation had wanted to include language condemning the Houthis and Saleh for announcing the unilateral formation of a Supreme Political Council to govern Yemen at the end of July.
Such disagreements at the UNSC mark an increasingly apparent deviation from the traditional consensus regarding Yemen within the council (for more regarding the council’s previous unanimity and recent divisions over Yemen, see here). Some Security Council member states – most prominently Russia – are increasingly unhappy with non-permanent member Egypt, primarily due to its overt support for President Hadi and the Saudi-led military coalition currently intervening in Yemen on Hadi’s behalf. The Egyptian delegation has consistently pressured the UNSC to focus criticism on the Houthis and Saleh, while also trying to silence criticisms of Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition.
Against this backdrop, Russia has tried to “highlight the perspective of the Houthis and to promote what it considers more balanced Council positions”, according to a Security Council Report briefing. This is a new approach by Moscow and appears to be part of a Russian assessment that the current UN peace process is ineffective, that Hadi’s leadership is weak, and that Hadi is ill-equipped to actualize the requirements of any potential peace agreement.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed second briefing to the UNSC last month took place August 31. During a closed-door portion of the briefing various member states affirmed their support for the special envoy’s efforts, while others – in particular the US, Russia, Japan, and Venezuela – raised criticisms and concerns regarding Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s plans to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict. A number of participants in the discussions privately commented afterwards that the UN special envoy was being deliberately vague in his responses to questions from UNSC representatives.
Another draft press statement was circulated following the August 31 briefing, but was only released to the public nine days later, again due to disagreement between member states over an Egyptian-backed amendment to include a reference denouncing the Houthi-Saleh Supreme Political Council.
Concerns remain amongst various UNSC member states regarding Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s ability to mediate an effective peace agreement. Although Russia has been the most public in this regard, various other member states have privately said they want to see a clearer, more substantive framework for a peace process, one that outlines specifically how the UN envoy will move forward with the negotiations, before endorsing his continued efforts.
New multilateral diplomacy and foreign involvement
Following the failure of the peace talks in Kuwait, a new multilateral effort by the US, UK, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia met in Jeddah on August 24. The group – dubbed “The Quad” – aims to bring renewed diplomatic pressure to bear on the warring parties in Yemen, and to back Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s efforts to mediate a political solution to the conflict.
US Secretary of State John Kerry privately presented a proposal to Quad members for resolving the impasse. During a press conference following his August 31 briefing to the Security Council, Ould Cheikh Ahmed welcomed Kerry’s proposal and described it as similar to the peace plan he presented in Kuwait. Kerry’s proposal, however, advances the idea that political and security measures in the peace plan – in particular the disarmament and ceding of occupied areas by the opposition, as well as the formation of a new unity government – be implemented simultaneously. This contrasts with Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s plan that envisions a 45-day window between the implementation of security measures and the formation a new unity government, with the initiation of the latter dependent upon the success of the former.
Notably, the UK has recently taken a more active role regarding Yemen – such as co-facilitating the Quad meeting with the US and organizing a UN General Assembly discussion on Yemen – which has been described in closed door meetings as part of London’s “Brexit” vision for a more proactive and globally engaged UK foreign policy. The UK’s credibility as an impartial arbiter of the Yemeni file is somewhat compromised, however, given that the UK supports the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen through billion-dollar arms sales contracts.
The role of Oman also became a central discussion point within UN and diplomatic circles in August, with Muscat seen as an actor that could potentially pressure the Houthis to concede to UN peace proposals. Muscat is also seen as a potential host of the next round of UN-led peace negotiations. The UK and US in particular are pressuring on Oman to play a more active role in mediation.
To date, however, Oman appears to have limited coercive power over the warring sides in Yemen and has tended to avoid trying to assume such a direct role in the conflict. For instance, Oman was the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council that did not join the Saudi-led military coalition.
The Houthi-Saleh Supreme Political Council
As reported in the Sana’a Center’s Yemen at the UN review for the month of July, on July 28 the Houthis and Saleh-allied forces unilaterally established a Supreme Political Council (SPC) to manage the state’s political, economic, military, and security affairs. The SPC exclude any representation by the internationally recognized government of President Hadi, which has been operating largely from exile in Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh since 2014, albeit with a limited official presence in the Southern Yemeni city of Aden. The SPC’s establishment was designed to emphasize the Houthi-Saleh alliance’s ability to govern the country, in stark contrast to the chaos currently being witnessed in areas controlled by Hadi’s government.
Despite UN condemnation of the Houthi-Saleh action – which the UN described as obstructive to the peace talks, illegitimate, and in violation of Yemen’s transitional agreements and UN resolutions – the two allies requested that the Parliament of Yemen sit to authorize the SPC. On August 13, the Parliament convened its first session since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2015. The session was attended, according to the Parliamentary records, by 142 out of 275 living members of Parliament, with the 26 remaining seats declared vacated the MPs’ demise.
This attendance met the parliamentary quorum, and during the session the Houthi-Saleh alliance’s decision to create the SPC was unanimously approved.
The Yemeni government-in-exile disputed the attendance, however, stating that only 120 MPs were present. President Hadi claimed the parliamentary session violated the Yemeni constitution and warned that MPs attending the session could be prosecuted as criminals. The next day, the chairman and members of the SPC took the constitutional oath in Parliament.
Russia in particular has been watching these developments in Sana’a to assess the capacity of the Houthi-Saleh alliance to govern. While Moscow did not explicitly endorse the SPC, Russia objected to the Egyptian proposal to condemn the SPC in the August 3 UNSC press statement. Moreover, Russia’s acting ambassador to Yemen in Sana’a attended the inauguration of the SPC, and told the press in an interview that Russia welcomes all efforts that could lead to national unity.
Following the failure of the Kuwait-based peace talks, fighting on the ground and Saudi-led coalition airstrikes increased. On August 18, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that it would evacuate its staff from six hospitals in northern Yemen after a coalition airstrike hit their hospital in the Hajjah governorate, killing 19 people and injured 24. In a statement, MSF noted that this is the fourth time their facilitates have been hit by coalition airstrikes, “despite the fact that MSF has systematically shared the GPS coordinates of hospitals in which the organization works with the parties involved in the conflict.”
On August 25, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein issued a report that, according to his office, “laid out a number of serious allegations of violations and abuses committed by all sides to the conflict in Yemen, highlighting in particular their impact on civilian lives, health and infrastructure.” The report’s key recommendation reiterates the High Commissioner’s previous call for an international, independent body to investigate all alleged violations.
At the end of August, the UN issued a new casualty estimate, stating that at least 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen's 18-month-old civil war.
The month ahead
For the rest of the month of September 2016, further UN actions regarding Yemen will likely include:
- A UK-sponsored discussion on Yemen at the UN General Assembly.
- More aggressive fundraising by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which to date has received only 40% of the US$1.63 billionit needs to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen.
- The UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen(UNVIM) will issue a report for the month of September 2016. In August, the UNVIM gave clearance to 51 out of 53 cargo ships to offload food, fuel, construction material, and other non-military supplies in Yemen.
*Correction made Oct. 6, 2016: a previous version of this report stated that the first meeting of "The Quad" took place in Riyadh on Aug. 24; this meeting actually took place in Jeddah.
*Correction made Oct. 7, 2016: a previous version of this report stated that "The Quad" effort was launched in August 2016; the first formal meeting the Quad occurred the month before, in July.
 This is according to a letter written by the Parliament of Yemen to the US House of Representatives, a copy of which was obtained by the Sana’a Center.