Yemen at the UN - October 2016 Review

Summary

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.

 

In brief

  • 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.) 

 

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.