Yemen at the UN – October 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – October 2017 Review

Summary:

In October, the annual United Nations Children and Armed Conflict report stated that Saudi Arabia was guilty of grave violations of the rights of children for its military actions in Yemen. This placed Saudi Arabia on the report’s so-called “child killer” list. Other belligerent parties to the Yemeni conflict named to the list were Houthi militants and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemeni government forces, pro-government militias and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Proposed legislation in the United States House of Representatives to end American support for the Saudi-led military coalition intervention in Yemen gained bipartisan backing through October. By month’s end, however, both Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to strip the legislation of its primary clause and change the text to call on “all responsible countries to take appropriate and necessary measures against the government of Iran.”

The Yemeni rial lost some 10 percent of its value relative to the US dollar through October. This is the rial’s second period of rapid depreciation in 2017 and it sparked fears that Yemen’s domestic currency is on the cusp of further steep deterioration. Sana’a Center sources confirmed that the governing authorities in Sana’a, in an effort to halt the rial’s collapse, are preparing to impose a fixed currency exchange rate in the country’s north – a monetary policy differing from the floating exchange rate in Yemen’s south.

Houthi Minister for Youth and Sports Hassan Zaid suggested suspending schools and sending pupils and teachers alike to the frontlines as reinforcements last month. He countered angry social media responses by referring to the teachers strike in northern Yemen that delayed the start of the school year: “People close the schools under the pretext of a strike and when we think about how to take advantage of this situation, they take offence,” said Zaid.

The southern city of Aden was rocked by a slew of assassinations, assassination attempts and public protests. Meanwhile, the Southern Transitional Council seemed to build further momentum toward its goal of southern separation from northern Yemen, with mass demonstrations, the announcement of a referendum, and the inauguration of new council branches in various governorates.        

Diplomatic developments

At the United Nations

On October 10, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed gave an open briefing to the Security Council. The special envoy expressed concern over the sharp increase in civilian casualties and urged all parties to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law. On the new cash assistance disbursal from World Bank and UNICEF, Ould Cheikh Ahmed noted that the $400 million promised to the most vulnerable households will be fully dispersed in “the coming weeks and months.”

The special envoy also mentioned to the council that he is “currently in the process of discussing a proposal that includes humanitarian initiatives to rebuild trust and steps to bring the parties back to the negotiations table.” This was in regards to the UN-led proposal regarding Hudaydah port, which Ould Cheikh Ahmed has been pushing for since late May without success. The special envoy mentioned in his statement, “The people are getting poorer while influential leaders get richer. They are not interested in finding solutions, as they will lose their power and control in a settlement.”

On October 12, Secretary-General António Guterres briefed the Security Council on countries at a risk of famine. On Yemen, he noted that 700,000 people at risk of famine in Sa’ada, Hajjah, Hudaydah, and Taiz governorates are “hard to reach” because of bureaucratic obstacles, airstrikes, shelling and ground clashes. Both the Houthi militants and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the internationally recognized government of Yemen and the Saudi-led military coalition supporting it, have imposed restrictions on the movement and transportation of commercial goods as well as humanitarian personnel and aid into and within Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition also continues to impose severe vetting measures for all cargo entering Yemen that many have called a blockade.

In the latter half of October the special envoy travelled to Riyadh where he met with both Yemeni and Saudi officials, including Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Acting Assistant United States Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, as well as Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayyani. Nevertheless, there was no reported progress toward renewed peace negotiations.

Children and Armed Conflict report

On October 31 the UN Security Council also received the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict. Each year the report lists state and non-state actors alike that have perpetrated grave violations of the rights of children in conflict zones – the UN’s so-called “child killer” list. While Saudi Arabia was initially named to the list last year, then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon removed the kingdom from the list after Riyadh threatened to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for UN aid programs.

In this year’s report Saudi Arabia was again named to the list for its bombing campaign in Yemen that has led to “the killing and maiming of children with 683 child casualties.” This year’s report included a revision, however, that distinguishes between those actors that have not put in place measures to improve the protection of children in the past year, and those that have; Saudi Arabia was placed in the latter category. This was due to the Saudi military  revising its rules of engagement, operationalizing the Joint Incidents Assessment Team to review air strikes and issue recommendations for improved targeting, and establishing a Child Protection Unit.

In response to being blacklisted in the 2017 Children and Armed Conflict report, Saudi Arabia’s UN representative Abdallah al-Mouallimi challenged its accuracy at a press conference on October 6.

Other actors in the Yemeni conflict named to the child killer list – all of whom were also named last year – include Houthi-Saleh forces, Yemen government forces, pro-government militias and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

In the United States

On September 27, resolution H. Con. Res. 81 was introduced in the United States House of Representatives by a bipartisan group of legislators, led by congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA). The resolution aimed to end US military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen and remove any US armed forces involved in the conflict – though this excluded those engaged in counter-terrorism against AQAP. The bill invoked a provision of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which determines the authority and conditions for the deployment and involvement of US military forces in foreign hostilities. By invoking an existent law, it became a ‘privileged resolution’,  guaranteeing it a full vote on the house floor within 15 days from its inception; otherwise the bill would have needed the blessing of the Foreign Affairs Committee leadership or the Rules Committee at the House.

During the week of October 9, Yemen briefly became a major topic for advocates and organizations, with articles in major news outlets and a surge in social media activism in support of the legislation. This period marked the most active awareness campaign on Yemen in the US since the start of the war. Among these actions were a letter in support of the resolutions published in the Huffington Post on October 9, signed by a long list of prominent members of American society – from Nobel Peace Laureates, distinguished academics, former public servants and members of congress to celebrities, actors and musicians.

The following day Rep. Ro Khanna published an op-ed in The New York Times to rally public support; in it he stated “imagine that the entire population of Washington State – 7.3 million people – were on the brink of starvation, with the port city of Seattle under naval and aerial blockade… now more than ever, the House of Representatives must serve as a counterweight to an executive branch that has long run roughshod over the Constitution.” Congressmen Khanna compared the current situation to 1973, when congress overruled President Richard Nixon’s veto to implement the War Powers Resolution and curtail Nixon from continuing the US military campaign in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  

The bill was initially co-sponsored by Thomas Massie (R-KY), Mark Pocan (D-WI), and Walter Jones (R-NC), but had, by end-October, gained an additional 40 cosponsors. On October 30, however, media reports surfaced that House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, (D-Md) – the number 2 Democratic lawmaker in the House – and Republican caucus leaders were, from behind the scenes, pressuring members not to sponsor the resolution. Then on November 2 it emerged that House leaders in both parties had agreed to strip the resolution of the clause requiring the withdrawal of US military forces from the war, effectively neutering the bill of its original intent.

The revised legislation now calls for the US to support “the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s commitments to abide by their no-strike list and restricted target list and improve targeting capabilities.” It also calls on “all responsible countries to take appropriate and necessary measures against the government of Iran, including the interdiction of Iranian weapons to the Houthis.”

Other diplomatic developments

At a ceremony for newly-appointed foreign ambassadors in Moscow on October 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his government would be willing to facilitate a Yemen peace process, saying that “We are certain that the road to peace and accord [in Yemen] lies through a wide national dialogue accommodating the opinion of all political forces.”

On October 5, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz became the first Saudi ruler to travel to Moscow, where he met with the Russian President. The Saudi leader stressed the need to bring the Yemen war to an end through a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative, Yemeni national dialogue, as well as UN Security Council Resolution 2216.

Later in the month former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared on the Yemen Today television show to say that he had undergone cataract surgery, performed by a team of Russian doctors who had flown to Sana’a on October 11. The arrival of the doctors entailed a rare pause in the Saudi-led coalition’s air blockade of northern Yemen. According to AFP, quoting a high-level US government source, the US had facilitated their entry; American government officials apparently want Saleh to be “in good health” in order to facilitate negotiations with the Houthis.

Notably, Russia is the only UNSC member state to have maintained a diplomatic presence in Sana’a throughout the conflict.

In Yemen

Rapid rial depreciation

Through October Yemen’s domestic currency, the Yemeni rial (YR), lost almost 10 percent of its value relative to the United States dollar (USD) in market trading, dropping from YR 375 to the USD to YR 412. This drop was roughly equivalent to the loss in value over the previous six months and the second time in 2017 that the rial has experienced rapid devaluation.

The authorities in Sana’a and Aden both implemented stop-gap measures to slow the rial’s decline. However, the latest currency instability highlights the continuing deterioration of the rial in the face of more than two-and-a-half years of civil war and regional military intervention, and has sparked widespread fears that the Yemeni currency is on the cusp of further steep depreciation.

One currency, two monetary policies?

Sana’a Center sources have confirmed that the authorities in Sana’a, in an effort to halt the rial’s depreciation, are preparing to impose a fixed currency exchange rate in areas of the country’s north which they control, while in the south the rial will continue to float.

The Sana’a Center foresees significant difficulties in operating one currency with differing monetary policies between the north and south. Separate monetary policies would likely precipitate a significant shift in remittances from Sana’a to Aden, incentivize massive currency smuggling between the areas, and shift ever greater financial flows away from the official economy.

Sana’a fuel imports from Dubai

In October, Sana’a Center sources also indicated that “very large” transactions took place between importing companies based in Sana’a, and those operating between Jeddah and Dubai. Notable were transactions made by the Black Gold Company, a fuel importing company owned by a Houthi leader in Sana’a, and which operates in cooperation with companies in Dubai. Black Gold is one of the largest fuel distributors in Houthi-Saleh areas.

Having private companies control fuel importation – where previously the publically-owned Yemen Petroleum Company was the sole importer – has increased downward pressure on the Yemeni currency. In addition, the connections between political authorities, importing companies, and businesses in Dubai highlight the complex nature of the war economy in Yemen today.

Financial meetings with global institutions

In first half of October a meeting took place in Berlin between representatives of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY), Yemeni businesses and private Yemeni banks, the International Monetary Fund, the UN and the World Bank. Discussion involved the economic challenges currently facing the country. According to Sana’a Center sources, CBY Governor Monasser al-Quaiti promised private banks that the CBY would pay interest on the current accounts and treasury bonds private sector holds at the CBY.

If this occurs, it would likely help boost confidence in Yemen’s heavily constricted banking sector by allowing private banks to provide clients with a small measure of liquidity on held accounts. Reportedly, significant doubts remain in the private sector that the Governor will hold true to his word.  

Beijing forgives debt

Also last month, on October 18, the Yemeni and Chinese governments signed a memorandum of understanding in which the Chinese committed to forgiving some $111 million in Yemeni debt.

Unrest in government controlled areas

Aden saw a spree of assassinations, attempted assassinations and mass protest last month. In just the 10 days between October 18 and 28, Salafi Imam and director of the Al-Bunyan school, Sheikh Fahd Mohammed Qasim al-Younsi, was assassinated in the early morning in Aden’s Mansoura district; a bomb was found and defused under the vehicle of Imam Ali al-Nishiri, of Aden’s al-Rahman Mosque; gunmen fired on the convoy of Nabil al-Mashoushi, a commander in the UAE-backed Security Belt brigades, in the Bir Ahmed area (, though al-Mashoushi was uninjured); and, Sheikh Adel Al-Shehri was assassinated in front of Saad bin Waqas mosque in the Enma district. On October 30 protesters then blocked roads in Aden with burning tires, angry at the constant power outages and fuel shortages, with hospitals in the city warning they may be forced to shut down due to lack of electricity.

Elsewhere in areas nominally controlled by the Yemeni government, Governor of Taiz Ali al-Mamari resigned over the lack of government funding for public sector workers in Taiz; al-Mamari resumed his position later the same week after President Hadi promised the salaries would be forthcoming.

On October 1, government security forces opened fire on demonstrators protesting the visit of Prime Minister Ahmad Abid bin Daghir in Zinjibar city, Abyan governorate. At least three demonstrators were reported injured. Bin Dagher had been visiting Zinjibar to speak at the commemoration of the 1962 revolution. The protest was organized by the Southern Movement, commonly referred to as al-Hirak, which is increasingly calling for independence for southern Yemen.

In Marib on October 16, Islah-affiliated security forces fired on demonstrators protesting Abdul Malik al-Madani’s appointment as Marib security director, killing two and injuring five. The following day two protesters and a policeman were killed outside government buildings in Marib, after a protest by tribesmen demanding better employment opportunities turned violent.

Meanwhile, across the south AQAP continued to carry out small-scale attacks almost daily against government and UAE-backed security forces, while government and Saudi-led coalition operations against both AQAP and the Yemeni affiliate of ISIS remained ongoing. Notably, the US military reported on October 26 that in the 10 days prior it had killed 69 suspected ISIS militants; the identities of all those killed could not be confirmed as of this writing.

Southern Transitional Council rallies support

On October 14th, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – formed earlier this year by prominent figures seeking autonomy for South Yemen – staged demonstrations in Aden, during which council President Aiderous al-Zubaidi announced the establishment of a 303-seat National Assembly to represent South Yemen and an upcoming independence referendum; he did not specify the date the referendum would be held.

On October 17, French Ambassador Christian Testot and his deputy met with the STC’s Adel al-Shabahi; discussions reportedly focused on the council’s role in fighting terrorism. Between October 24 and 28, the STC held rallies to inaugurate new branches in Azzan in Shabwa governorate, Mukalla in Hadramawt, and al-Ghaydah, in Mahra.

Tensions within the Houthi-Saleh alliance

From the end of September through October tensions and political rivalries continued between the Houthis and former President Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party. On September 30, media reports described how Houthi militants stormed the Ministry of Health in Sana’a and removed the minister, GPC-allied Mohammed Salem bin Hafez, at gunpoint, attempting to replace him with a Houthi partisan. On October 7 Houthi forces then barred the foreign minister and his staff from entering the ministry, under what they said was direct orders from the President of the Supreme Political Council, Saleh al-Samad.

On October 19, Houthi and GPC leaders traded public allegations, with the GPC accusing the Houthis of conducting an “orchestrated campaign” against Saleh, and the Houthis claiming that the GPC was accepting money from the Hadi government.

Houthi forces down aircraft

On October 1 Houthi-Saleh forces claimed to have shot down a US surveillance drone in the Jader area of Sana’a governorate with a surface-to-air missile. Footage of the downed aircraft was broadcasted on local news. Four weeks later, on October 27, the Houthis announced that they had shot down a Saudi warplane in Sana’a. The pilot has not been found and debate remains whether the plane was shot down or simply found by Houthi fighters.

Houthi-Saleh ballistic missile strikes into Saudi Arabia continued unabated through October. Saudi-led coalition spokesperson Colonel Turki al-Maliki stated on October 30 that there had been 77 such attacks on Saudi Arabia since the conflict began in March 2015. The colonel said Iran was smuggling these missiles to the Houthis through Hudaydah port.  

Houthis address teacher salaries

On October 11, the al-Houthi-Saleh Supreme Political Council (SPC) announced that teachers would have half their salaries paid in cash and half in the form of a commodity card. Just days earlier, Houthi forces broke up the teacher strike in Sana’a city, Northern Yemen. The northern Yemen’s teacher’s union had been on strike for two weeks, delaying the start of the school year until September 30. Nearly 4.5 million students attended schools in northern Yemen, according to UNICEF.

Cholera epidemic continues

From the beginning of the current cholera outbreak at the end of April 2017, until the end of October, the World Health Organization recorded a total of 884 000 suspected cases of the disease and almost 2,200 deaths, making it the largest and fastest spreading cholera epidemic in recorded history. The case-fatality rate (CFR) generally remains low at 0.25%, with the highest CFR recorded in Raymah governorate at 0.86%. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Save the Children assumed that the number of suspected cholera cases will reach one million by the end of 2017, including at least 600,000 children who are particularly affected by Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Food insecurity

As of November 1, 2017, the United Nations was reported that 17 million Yemenis are food insecure, of which 6.8 million are severely food insecure and areas of the country are experiencing famine. These numbers are relatively consistent with the month previous.

Meanwhile, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of end-October, received 57% of the USD $2.3 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.

Human rights and war crimes

On October 26 – just prior a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the UN’s so-called “child killer” list (noted above) – the Yemeni government became the 70th country to sign the Safe Schools Declaration. This commits the internationally recognized government to protecting students, teachers, schools, and universities from attack and to stop the militarisation of education facilities in times of armed conflict. It remains a test case for Yemen to translate the declared commitment into actual enforcement.

In spite of these developments, apparent war crimes and human rights violations continued regularly in October. The Saudi-led coalition airstrikes throughout the month led to at least 35 civilian deaths in Sa’ada governorate and six civilian casualties in al-Jawf, respectively, according to local media. On October 4, for instance, a coalition airstrike hit a family house, killing 12 civilians in Baqim district, Sa’ada governorate, according to Houthi-Saleh allied media. There were four children among the dead. On October 17, a coalition airstrike hit a house in the Bart al-Anan district of al-Jawf governorate, killing six and leaving a child orphaned.

Throughout October, internationally prohibited weapons continued to be used. According to Houthi-Saleh media, Saudi-led coalition forces deployed cluster bombs on several occasions, notably on October 20 in Qahza area, north of Sa’ada city, injuring five children.

Since October 21, dozens of detainees have been on hunger strike in Aden city, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The detainees, who are being held at the Bir Ahmed military camp, run by UAE-backed Security Belt forces, went on hunger strike in protest of continued violations against prisoners’ rights. On the first day, detainees’ families issued an announcement in which they said the hunger strike would not end until “legal and humanitarian rights” were granted. HRW supported this call, demanding that parties to the armed conflict “treat detainees humanely, free those arbitrarily held, and ensure that they have access to lawyers and family members”. The prison’s director reportedly threatened its detainees be transferred to another informal detention facility if they did not end the hunger strike. According to one detainee’s relatives, four other detainees had lost consciousness three days after the beginning of the hunger strike.

Meanwhile, in Sana’a the Houthi Minister for Youth and Sports Hassan Zaid suggested suspending school classes for a year in order to send pupils and teachers to battle fronts, to “reinforce the ranks with hundreds of thousands [of fighters] and win the battle”. He countered angry social media responses by referring to the teachers strike in northern Yemen that delayed the start of the school year: “People close the schools under the pretext of a strike and when we think about how to take advantage of this situation, they take offence,” said Zaid.

(*Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Yemeni government signed the ‘Safe Schools Declaration‘ just prior to being named in the UN’s Children and Armed Conflict Report. The Yemeni government in fact signed the Declaration after being named in the Report, but just prior to the UNSC session a which the council was officially briefed on the Report.)   

This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Spencer Osberg, Ziad al-Eryani, Victoria K. Sauer, Nickolas Ask, Anthony Biswell and Michael McCall.

Yemen at the UN Yemen is a monthly series produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. It aims to identify UN-led efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen and contextualize these efforts relative to political, security, economic and humanitarian developments on the ground.