In August, a confidential draft of the United Nation’s “Children and Armed Conflict” report recommended that the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in the Yemen war be named to the so-called “child killer” list. This annual UN list names government forces, terrorist organizations and armed groups that perpetrate wanton acts of violence against children in conflicts around the world. Through the latter half of August, the Saudi-led coalition staged various UN-affiliated events at which it emphasized the breadth and depth of its humanitarian assistance to Yemen.
A Yemen Sanctions Committee report last month said that the Saudi-led coalition was causing significant obstacles to humanitarian aid deliveries in Yemen and undermining safeguards meant to prevent it from abusing the UN-sanctioned arms embargo. While all belligerent parties to the conflict regularly commit violations of human rights and humanitarian law, the report noted that coalition member states are using the umbrella of the coalition to shield themselves from individual implication.
The Yemen Protection Cluster – a coordination body for humanitarian organizations led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – reported that through the first half of 2017 the frequency of coalition airstrikes per month in Yemen had tripled, and the frequency of frontline battles has increased roughly 56 percent relative to 2016.
In the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, tensions between the Houthi leadership and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh became apparent, with the former president publicly blaming the Houthis for widespread government dysfunction. Saleh’s General People’s Congress party also staged massive rallies in Sana’a in an apparent show-of-force.
Tensions in the southern city of Aden between the internationally recognized government of Yemen and its backers in the Saudi-led coalition also spilled out in public. The Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) publicly accused the coalition of blocking the delivery of urgently needed financial resources for the government, saying that the coalition had denied landing permits to aircraft carrying shipments of cash funds on 13 different occasions without explanation.
The CBY also floated the Yemen’s domestic currency last month, a move which Sana’a Center sources said came after pressure from the World Bank. The floating currency will prevent Yemeni banks that exchange money for foreign aid organizations from profiteering from currency arbitrage at the expense of intended aid recipients in Yemen.
The United States upped its military involvement in Yemen in August, deploying special forces to support UAE military units in an operation that sought to rout Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters from the Shabwa governorate.
In the ongoing cholera epidemic, the World Health Organizations reported almost 600,000 suspected cases of the disease by the end of August, with the actual number of cases almost certainly much higher.
Also last month, human smugglers forced hundreds of Somali and Ethiopian migrants overboard into the waters of the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Shabwa governorate. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 41 people were found dead, while 12 were still missing.
At the United Nations
In August, a confidential UN report recommended that the Saudi-led coalition be added to the UN black list of countries that kill and maim children in armed conflict. The report – a draft of the UN’s annual “Children and Armed Conflict” publication obtained by Foreign Policy magazine – stated the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi forces were together responsible for killing 502 children and injuring 838 in the past year. Of these, coalition airstrikes had killed 349 children and injured 333. [In total, the report said the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for 683 child killings in Yemen and the Houthis 414.]
While the Houthis were already named to the list previously, whether or not the coalition is included on the list that is eventually released to the public – expected this month – is up to UN Secretary General António Guterres. According to Foreign Policy, both Saudi and US officials have lobbied the UN against such a move.
Last year, the UN had officially listed Saudi Arabia among the world’s child killers – along with various government forces, terrorist organizations and armed groups in more than a dozen conflicts globally – until Riyadh, reacting furiously, threatening to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollar in funding for UN anti-poverty programs. Then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had subsequently removed Saudi Arabia from the list. This year, whether or not Guterres will uphold the UN’s foundational principles regarding human rights, or bow to pressure from powerful UN member states, is seen as precedent-setting for his tenure as the new UN Secretary-General.
Sanctions committee report
At the turn of the month the Yemen Sanctions Committee received its midterm annual report from the Yemen Panel of Experts. Although the 185-page report was not published, a briefing was provided by panel coordinator Ahmed Himmiche. Among the report’s findings were that Saudi-led coalition forces have not reported cargo ship inspections since Resolution 2216 was adopted more than two years ago, which is contrary to the coalition’s obligations under the sanctions regime. The report adds that this lack of reporting impairs safeguards included in the sanctions regime that are meant to prevent the coalition from leveraging sanctions to achieve other objectives, and that this has impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Other findings of the reports are: all belligerent parties to the conflict regularly violate international humanitarian and human rights law; individual coalition member states are using the umbrella of the coalition to protect themselves from being directly implicated in war crimes; the main outcome of the coalition air campaign has been civilian suffering, with little tactical military successes; coalition support for armed groups operating outside the purview of the internationally recognized Yemeni government increasingly threaten the ability of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to govern in South Yemen; Houthi-Saleh forces, the Yemeni government and the United Arab Emirates are all participating in illegal detention practices.
The report included three main recommendations: that the UNSC engage with regional stakeholders to ensure the implementation of various sanctions against actors in the Yemeni conflict, engage with Saudi Arabia to request that it comply with its reporting obligations under Resolution 2216, and engage with the combined international maritime forces operating off the Yemeni coast to request they share information on arms seizures.
Also in August, Egypt – a member of the Saudi-led military coalition – took over the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council.
On August 18, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi addressed the UNSC, following which the council was briefed by the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed, via video teleconference from Jordan, and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien. Both UN participants highlighted the severity of the humanitarian situation and criticized the warring sides’ continued and persistent obstruction of aid delivery and distribution.
Three days later, on August 21, the UNSC held an Arria-formula meeting entitled, “The Vital Role of the UN’s Humanitarian Assistance Partners in the Crisis in Yemen”. Arria formula meetings – named after Ambassador Diego Arria of Venezuela who represented his country in the council from 1992-93 – are designed as less formal consultation sessions, not heavily regulated by procedure and where non-security council members can be invited to participate. Following the Arria-formula meeting, the Yemen and Saudi UN missions organized a ministerial level working lunch at the UN entitled, “Partners for Sustainable Peace in Yemen”. Speakers included the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Saudi Ambassador to the UN, Yemeni Ambassador to Washington D.C., and the Yemeni foreign minister.
These events reflected a renewed campaign by members of the Saudi-led coalition to showcase how much money and aid they are contributing to address Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Participants also repeatedly mentioned that Houthi fighters and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh were obstructing aid deliveries in areas under their control.
On August 9, the Yemen Protection Cluster – a coordination body for humanitarian organizations led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – issued a report detailing developments in the country through the first six months of 2017. Over this time, the report noted that the rate of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes per month almost tripled relative to 2016: there were some 5,700 strikes in the first six months of this year, compared to some 3,900 in all of 2016, with Sa’ada among the governorates most targeted.
The report also noted a 56 percent increase in the frequency of ground battles; in 2016 there had been an average of roughly 300 armed clashes per month in Yemen, while thus far in 2017 there has been roughly 470 armed clashes per month. The Taiz governorate has been the most affected by frontline clashes, with more than 500,000 of Yemen’s 2 million internally displaced people originating from this one governorate. Along with Taiz and Sa’ada, the report noted that Hajjah, Sana’a, Al Jawf and Marib amongst the other governorates most affected by military operations, clashes, air strikes and attacks against civilians.
Hostile rhetoric between the General People’s Congress (GPC) party, led by former President Saleh, and the Houthi leadership ratcheted up over the course of August, particularly in the statements by Saleh himself. In a speech on August 22, for instance, Saleh blamed the widespread dysfunction of government ministries on the Houthis and threatened to withdraw from their alliance if the Houthis continued to impede state functions.
The Houthis and the GPC had formed the so-called “Government of National Salvation” (GNS) last November in an attempt to address public grievances regarding the rampant corruption, repressive policies and ineffective governance emanating from the authorities in Sana’a. However, the GNS’ sprawling array of ministerial portfolios with vast overlaps of responsibility and authority – combined with the hardships imposed by the conflict – have meant it has widely been seen to fail in its objectives (for more see Yemen at the UN – November 2016 report).
Saleh further slighted the Houthis by referring to the group as a “militia” in his August 22nd speech. On August 24, the GPC then staged massive rallies in Sana’a to ostensibly mark the party’s 35th anniversary, but to observers on the ground were clearly intended as a display of Saleh’s popular clout and support.
Following an incident in which Houthi forces harassed Saleh’s son at a checkpoint – leading to armed clashes and the deaths of three security personnel – both the Houthis and Saleh took steps to deescalate tensions. As August ended, the partnership appeared functionally intact, although trust and goodwill appeared weakened.
Tensions between the government of Yemen and its backers in the Saudi-led military coalition were also on display last month. The Central Bank of Yemen’s Aden headquarters issued a statement on August 12 complaining that the coalition was impeding the delivery of urgently needed financial reserves to the government in Aden. The statement claimed that the coalition had denied landing permits to aircraft carrying cash funds a total of 13 times.
“The (bank) faces extreme difficulties… because of the hindrance in delivering these funds by air to Aden airport by the coalition for unknown reasons,” the bank said. “This creates dangerous strangulation for the Yemeni economy in providing liquidity for the crisis.”
Also last month, on August 14, the CBY in Aden issued a circular stating that it would float the value of the rial, with the official exchange rate to be set according to the rate in the market. Sana’a Center financial sources report there had been significant pressure from the World Bank on the CBY in this regards, and that negotiations had also been underway for several months between UNICEF and banks in Sana’a regarding the exchange rate, in preparation for the arrival of almost $400 million in new humanitarian aid funding. Previous to this banks in Yemen exchanging foreign funds for humanitarian organizations active in the country had been profiting significantly through currency arbitrage – selling rials to the aid agencies at the official exchange rate (YR 250 to US$1), and then reselling those dollars on the market where the rial was valued some 47 percent lower as of the end of July 2017 (YR 367 to US$1).
The new $400 million in humanitarian funding – provided by the World Bank to UNICEF and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – is intended to initiate cash-for-work programs and reactivate Yemen’s Social Welfare Fund (SWF). The SWF had been the primary state mechanism for aiding the poorest segments of the population until the lack of funding forced it to cease operations in December 2014.
Distribution of the first $50 million installment of the new UNICEF and UNDP funds began on August 21. With this money exchanged at the market rate, it is estimated it will reach 1.5 million beneficiaries in six Yemeni governorates.
The Houthi authorities controlling the country’s north have claimed that they do not recognize the authority of the new CBY governor in Aden and have refused to adopt the floating currency. As of the end of August the Houthis were continuing to charge tariffs on imported goods – coming mainly through the port of Hudaydah on the country’s northwest coast – at the rate of YR 250 to the USD.
AQAP and Counterterrorism Operations
August saw an escalation of US military involvement in Yemen in support of UAE forces and UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces; the large-scale operation was intended to oust al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) from Shabwa governorate.
The start of the operation was announced on August 3 by UAE state media. The following day, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis confirmed the involvement of a “small number” of US special forces as part of on-going efforts to “degrade the group’s ability to coordinate external terrorist operations and to use Yemen territory as a safe place for terror plotting.”
Shabwa is home to much of Yemen’s natural gas reserves and facilities including Belhaf port, the main gateway for Yemen’s liquified natural gas (LNG) exports. LNG production was halted in 2014 due to security concerns and absence of the specialized engineers needed to run the facility.
By August 9, reports were emerging that the bulk of AQAP fighters had retreated from Shabwah to neighboring Abyan.
Attacks by AQAP, however, continued throughout August, with Abyan witnessing the largest number. These mainly targeted the Yemeni army’s 115th Brigade in the northern Lawdar district. A number of high-profile assassinations in the area occurred, including the killing of the deputy governor of al-Bayda, Ahmed Salim al-Assaily on August 23 in Abyan. Additionally, toward the end of the month, AQAP coordinated operations with local tribal groups in al-Bayda governorate against Houthi-Saleh forces.
The media wing of AQAP witnessed a revival with the publication of a new issue of its English-language magazine, Inspire, on August 13 – its first edition since November 2016. The new issue contained articles from the organization’s chief bomb manufacturer, calling for the sabotage of transportation infrastructure, as well as guest pieces from members of other regional al-Qaeda affiliate organizations. Specifically in regards to Yemen, AQAP printed a defiant response to the botched US commando raid in January in the Qaifa district, claiming it was proof that US forces and the Houthis are working in cooperation with one another.
The humanitarian crisis and cholera epidemic
The cholera crisis in Yemen became in July the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded in one country in a single year, and continued to spread last month, reaching half a million suspected cases by August 13. As of August 30, the World Health Organization had recorded 591,100 suspected cases and 2,035 related deaths. After a decline in the number of newly reported cases per week there was again a spike in mid-August; the last three weeks of August averaged 35,000 new cases of the disease. Except for the Island of Socotra, all of Yemen’s governorates have been affected, including 300 out of 333 districts.
While the case fatality rate has been kept under one per cent in all but one governorate – Houthi-Saleh controlled Raymah – available data should to be interpreted cautiously, as it is based only on those Yemenis who have accessed health services. Given that nearly 15 million Yemenis are unable to get basic healthcare and 49 districts are left without a single doctor, the number of suspected cases, as well as death toll and fatality rate, are likely to be much higher than official data indicate. Among the most affected are vulnerable groups, such some two million malnourished children with weakened immune systems, as well as the 2 million IDPs. As a result, 53 per cent of all suspected cases of cholera / acute watery diarrhea (AWD) are children and 24 per cent are under the age of five.
To confront the increasingly complex humanitarian situation, with multiple and interlinked overlapping crises, national and international efforts increasingly pool resources and coordinate their humanitarian efforts. As the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros told WHO member states in a briefing on August 4 after having visited Yemen himself: “The Yemeni health authorities have told us that this new way of working, and of coordinating the efforts of international and national humanitarian and health partners, is making a real difference: they can now sense the presence, not of individual agencies working on their own, but of a unified humanitarian response effort.“
Nevertheless, throughout August frustration has been repeatedly expressed about a lack of humanitarian access and efficiency due to obstruction by the belligerent parties. In a statement on this issue on August 17, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen Jamie McGoldrick reported “delays by authorities in Sana’a to facilitate the entry of aid workers into Yemen, interference in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the choice of implementing partners, and obstructions in the conduct of assessments” as well as “increased incidents of aid diversion away from intended beneficiaries in areas under the control of the Sana’a authorities”.
Also last month, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) revised and increased its Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan for 2017 by 13 percent, mainly to integrate cholera related funding requirements. The current UN appeal for Yemen calls for international donations worth US$2.3 billion, with the World Bank announcing an emergency grant of US$200 million for cholera response measures on August 25. Yet, only US$968.3 million have been donated, as of August 31, leaving a remaining funding gap of 58.6 per cent.
Human rights and war crimes
Compared to preceding months, this August saw a peak in civilian casualties, caused by attacks from all conflict sides. In the week from August 17 to 24, at least 58 civilians have been killed, which exceeds the monthly death tolls of both June and July.
An airstrike launched by the Saudi-led coalition on August 23 near Sana’a city reportedly targeted a Houthi-Saleh controlled checkpoint, but hit a hotel in Arhab district instead, killing at least 41 civilians, including women and children, with at least 13 people missing. Two days later, another coalition airstrike in the southern district of Faj Attan, Sana’a governorate, killed 14 and injured 16 civilians, with at least five children between three and ten years old among the dead.
In a Saudi Press Agency statement, the spokesman of the coalition forces Colonel Turki al-Maliki called “the planned military objective […] a legitimate military objective of a Command and Control Center, or Etisalat, which belongs to the Houthi armed militias, developed to take nearby residential areas and civilians as human shields.” He called the event an “unintentional and accidental incident” caused by a “technical mistake”.
On August 9 and 10, 120 and 160 Somali and Ethiopian migrants, intending to return to their respective home countries, were forced overboard by smugglers carrying them in different vessels off the coast of Shabwa governorate. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 41 people were found dead, while 12 were still missing.
The IOM recently reported that 50,529 migrants entered Yemen between January and July 2017, the majority of whom are Somali and Ethiopian nationals. Predominantly entering Yemen as transit country in order to reach other Gulf states, most of these migrants find themselves unable to reach their target given the ongoing conflict in Yemen, therefore often deciding to return home.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of September 5, received 41.8% of the USD $2.3 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017. The UN updated the appeal for 2017 from $2.1 billion to $2.3 billion in mid-August.
- In the month of August, 42 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 33 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 34 hours, an average of 7 hours more than the month before. A total of 573,868 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in August, consisting of 363,890 mt of food, 189,702 mt of fuel and 20,275 mt of general cargo. This is a total decrease of 136,730 mt of cargo from the month before.
*Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the joint US/UAE/Hadrami Elite Forces operation against AQAP in Shabwa governorate as “Operation Inherent Resolve”; that is actually the name of the US-led coalition operation against Daesh/ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Sana’a Center regrets the error.
This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Spencer Osberg, Ziad al-Eryani, Adam Baron, Tawfeek al-Ganad, Victoria K. Sauer, Mansor Rajeh and Michael McCall.
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.