Yemen at the UN – February 2018 Review

Yemen at the UN – February 2018 Review

Executive Summary:

In February, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) formally adopted a highly politicized UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen. The report – one aspect of which asserts Iran is in non-compliance with the UN arms embargo on Yemen – was seized upon by the United States and its allies at the UNSC as an opportunity to push for council action against Iran (see ‘UN Panel of Experts Report’).

Russia led the opposition to this push at the Security Council, eventually exercising its veto power to quash a United Kingdom draft resolution that Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said would have “dangerous, destabilising ramifications, not only for Yemen but the region as a whole” (see ‘Russia’s Veto’).

Last month also saw UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres officially appointed Martin Griffiths of the UK as the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen. The three-year tenure of the outgoing Special Envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, saw three rounds of failed UN-led peace negotiations and numerous failed ceasefire agreements; in 2017 Ould Cheikh Ahmed was unable to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table at all (see ‘A New UN Special Envoy for Yemen’).

In Yemen, following widespread clashes in the southern city of Aden at the end of January, relative calm prevailed over the city in February. Aiderous al-Zubaidi, leader of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), made moves to allay concerns within the Saudi-led military coalition that conflict in Aden between the STC fighters and Yemeni government troops had weakened the larger military efforts against the Houthis (see ‘Military Developments’).

In February, Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi also sacked the governor of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) in Aden, Monasser al-Quaiti. His replacement, former finance Minister Mohammad Zammam, subsequently met with Saudi officials to finalize terms for the CBY to access the US$2 billion deposit Riyadh made at the CBY in January 2018 (see ‘Economic Developments’).

Also last month, the Director of Operations and Advocacy at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, highlighted that as a result of an escalation of fighting since November, a further 100,000 Yemenis have been displaced from their homes (see ‘Humanitarian Developments’).

International Diplomatic Developments

At the United Nations

UN Panel of Experts Report

On February 15, a United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen report was formally adopted. The report had been circulated and discussed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) in January, with aspects of the document, which was not then public, also being obtained by the press. Media reports at the time focused almost exclusively on the section of the report that indicated Iran was in non-compliance with UNSC Resolution 2216 for failing to take precautions to prevent Iranian-manufactured military equipment from being transferred to Houthi fighters in Yemen.

Since the inauguration of United States President Donald Trump, the US administration has advanced a characterisation of the Houthis as agents of Iran and a policy that aims to “hit Iran in Yemen.” Since late 2017, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has been the central public figure of this campaign. Haley has regularly alleged illegal Iranian involvement in the Yemen conflict and used such allegations as a basis from which to cast Iran as a threat to international peace and security, and push for more assertive international action against Tehran.

The day after the release of the UN Panel of Experts report Haley issued a statement saying it “was time for the Security Council to act” against Iran for its involvement in Yemen. In a February 17 New York Times op-ed she reiterated this point. In regards to the Panel’s findings, Haley wrote in her op-ed that “some members of the United Nations don’t want to hear it because it is further proof that Iran is defying Security Council resolutions, and the pressure will be on the UN to do something about it.”

Through the first half of February, the United Kingdom consulted with UNSC members regarding a resolution to renew the mandate of the Panel of Experts – normally a routine procedure. On February 16, the UK submitted a draft resolution including non-routine passages condemning Iran for violating the arms embargo on Yemen and asserting that these violations required the UNSC to take further measures. China and Russia subsequently objected to the language against Iran, saying that the Panel of Experts had not met the necessary standard of evidence necessary to deem that Iran was in non-compliance, pointing out that the Experts had offered no clear determination regarding how the weapons arrived in the Houthi arsenal.  

On February 21, the Permanent Representative of Iran to the UN, Gholamali Khoshroo, addressed the UN Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council in an official letter (S/2018/145). The letter stated that Iran “categorically rejects all allegations” against it contained in the Panel of Experts report, and that the Panel’s findings regarding Iran being in non-compliance with resolution 2216 “fail to render an impartial and objective assessment of the issues at hand.” Khoshroo asserted that, “My Government re-emphasizes that it neither has a policy nor seeks to transfer arms or military equipment in Yemen or manufacture them therein.”

On February 22, the UK circulated a revised resolution in which the wording on Iran was altered, stating that Iran was in “non-compliance” rather than in “violation” of UN resolution 2216. The following day Russia, China and Bolivia opposed this draft. The UK again revised the wording and circulated another new proposal, moderating the language such that it no longer condemned Iran for violating the sanctions regime. The new proposal also stipulated that the UNSC intended to address Iran’s violations, rather than saying that the UNSC was required to take action.

On February 24, Russia then tabled its own resolution devoid of any UK additions regarding Iran. The proposed Russian resolution was effectively a routine extension of the sanctions measures until February 26, 2019, and the mandate of the Panel of Experts to March 28, 2019. The UK then tabled a further revision of its draft resolution, containing language that “expressed particular concern” regarding Iranian non-compliance with the arms embargo and making no mention of further UNSC action.

Russia’s Veto

Speaking before the February 26 UNSC vote on the UK resolution, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said that: “The wording advanced in the British draft is liable to have dangerous, destabilising ramifications, not only for Yemen but the region as a whole. This will inevitably escalate regional tensions and lead to conflict amongst key regional players.”

In voting Russia, as a permanent UNSC member state, exercised its veto power; Bolivia also voted against the draft, China and Kazakhstan abstained, while the remaining eleven council members voted in favor. The UNSC then voted unanimously to adopt the Russian draft resolution (S/Red/2402), given that, with the failure of the UK draft, the Russian resolution was necessary for the sanctions committee and the Panel of Experts to continue operating for the upcoming year.

The Russian veto was the first time that any UNSC permanent member state had exercised their veto power in relation to the Yemen conflict and the first time the council has been so publicly at odds regarding the war. There have been divisions among UNSC members in the past that stemmed from member states advancing and protecting the position of the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in the Yemen conflict, those highlighting the viewpoints of the coalition’s rivals in Yemen, and other member states that were primarily concerned with the humanitarian situation; however, prior to the February 26 vote, accommodations had been successfully made between member states to find mutually acceptable language in council texts adopted regarding Yemen.  

Following the vote, Ambassador Kelley Currie, Representative for Economic and Social Affairs for the US mission to the UN, said in her statement to the UNSC: “Russia’s veto today serves only to protect Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and spread its malign influence… We will not stop until Tehran is stopped and peace is once more possible for the people of the Middle East.”

Ambassador Currie followed up on this during the February 27 UNSC meeting on Yemen, stating that: “This Council must hold those violating sanctions – like Iran – accountable.” She also noted that “in addition to addressing Yemen’s humanitarian concerns however, we must also recognize the very real security concerns of Saudi Arabia.”

On February 27, France, Germany, the UK, and the US then issued a joint statement saying: “We condemn Iran’s non-compliance, as described by the Panel, which poses serious risks to peace and stability in the region. We call upon Iran to immediately cease all activities that are inconsistent with or would violate the terms of Security Council resolution 2216.”

Other Aspects of the Panel of Experts Report

It should be noted that the Panel of Experts report is an expansive document, of which Iran’s non-compliance with the arms embargo made up only a portion. Among the other aspects of the report are its documentation of “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights by all parties to the conflict.”

These include Saudi-led military coalition air strikes on civilians and civilian targets, as well as the “indiscriminate use of explosive ordnance by Houthi-Saleh forces.” The Panel stressed that it has “seen no evidence to suggest that appropriate measures were taken by any side to mitigate the devastating impact of these attacks on the civilian population.” It then called on all belligerent parties to “comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law.”  

None of the UNSC draft resolutions tabled last month, nor any of the statements by UN member states following the adoption of the Russian draft, explicitly mentioned these other aspects of the the Panel of Experts report.

A New UN Special Envoy for Yemen

On February 9, the outgoing UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, stated that his successor would prepare a new round of UN-sponsored peace negotiations to take place in Oman; the Saudi-led military coalition subsequently stated its willingness to join these negotiations in support of the internationally recognized Government of Yemen.

On February 16, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres officially appointed Martin Griffiths of the UK as the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen. Until his appointment Griffiths had been the executive director of the European Institute of Peace in Brussels. Previously, he was also a mediation adviser for UN envoys to Syria and deputy head of the UN Observer Mission there.

On February 27, the outgoing Special Envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, gave his final 60-day briefing to the UNSC. In his statement to the council, Ould Cheikh Ahmed said: “Those who follow the Yemen file closely will acknowledge that the United Nations has spared no effort to help the Yemeni parties reach a peaceful solution.”

The outgoing Special Envoy said he had been on the cusp of securing a peace agreement between the warring parties, “but they refused to sign in the last minute. In the end of the consultations, it became clear that the Houthis were not prepared to make concessions on the proposed security arrangements. This has been a major stumbling block towards reaching a negotiated solution.” At a press briefing following his UNSC briefing, Ould Cheikh Ahmed clarified that his statement regarding the Houthis was in reference to UN-led negotiations in Kuwait in 2016.

Over the first two years of his tenure, 2015 and 2016, Ould Cheikh Ahmed presided over three rounds of failed UN-led peace negotiations and various ceasefire agreements that the warring parties broke almost immediately; in 2017 he was unable to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table at all.

In December 2016, Ould Cheikh Ahmed put forward a peace proposal that Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi had immediately and outright rejected. In February 2017, a high-ranking Houthi official submitted a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres requesting that he not renew the Special Envoy’s term, claiming that Ould Cheikh Ahmed had shown a “lack of neutrality” and was biased toward the Saudi-led military coalition. In June 2017, Houthi senior leader Saleh Ali al-Samad declared that the Special Envoy was “not desirable for future peace negotiations,” and barred Ould Cheikh Ahmed from future entry into areas controlled by the Houthis and then-allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Other International Developments in Brief

  • February 17: Meetings took place in Germany between EU member states and Iran on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, where Yemen is a main focus of discussion.
  • February 26: Saudi King Salman fired the joint chiefs of staff for the Saudi military. This cleanout saw the chairman of the joint chiefs, the army commander, air defense chief, and royal Saudi Air forces boss replaced. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman explained that the changes were made to install “high energy” people capable of reaching the Kingdom’s modernization goals. “We want to work with believers,” he told The Washington Post. With the replacement of the head of the National Guard in November 2017, the entire top echelon of the Saudi military has been replaced in recent months.
  • February 28: In the US, a bipartisan group of senators – Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) – put forward legislation that, if passed, would end US support for the Saudi-led military coalition intervention in Yemen. Under Senate rules the sponsors can force a vote after 10 days. A similar measure launched in the House of Representatives last fall was effectively quashed by leaders in both parties.
  • March 4: A new coalition government was approved to take office in Berlin after both Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats voted in favour of a coalition agreement between the parties. A clause in this agreement bars arms sales to countries participating in the Yemen conflict, such as member states of the Saudi-led military coalition.  


Developments in Yemen

Military Developments

Tensions in the southern city of Aden appeared to subside somewhat through February, with a notable absence of armed conflict. This followed widespread violence there at the end of January between ostensible allies in the coalition of forces fighting on behalf of the country’s internationally recognized government; these clashes involved the Southern Transition Council (STC), a secessionist group backed by the United Arab Emirates, and troops loyal to Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

After Abu Dhabi and Riyadh sent a military and security delegation to intervene and stop the fighting in early February, STC leader Aiderous al-Zubaidi visited frontlines against the Houthis in the north of al-Dhalea governorate, north of Aden. Al-Zubaidi’s move was widely interpreted as an attempt to allay concerns within the Saudi-led military coalition that conflict in Aden between the STC and Hadi troops had weakened the larger military efforts against the Houthis.

The movements of Tariq Saleh, the nephew of the late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, continued to be fodder for speculation in Yemen through February after his public appearance in Shabwa governorate in January. According to Sana’a Center sources, the Saudi-led military coalition, and the UAE in particular, is looking to utilise Tariq as part of its anti-Houthi military strategy in north Yemen. Media reports from February reported that Saleh’s nephew had visited the Mokha district of Taiz governorate mid-month in order to assess the current state of anti-Houthi operations being conducted along Yemen’s Red Sea coastline. According to the same report, pro-Hadi, Salafi military commanders from the “Giants Brigade” stationed in western Taiz were reluctant to meet Tariq and opposed to his potential involvement in the Red Sea offensive.  

Throughout February, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) conducted a series of asymmetric attacks against multiple opponents that included Houthi fighters, members of the UAE-backed Security Belt forces, and counterterrorism officials. During the month of February, the UAE launched two separate anti-AQAP operations in Hadramawt and Shabwa governorates. The UAE first launched “Operation Faisal” on February 16, which saw the mobilisation of UAE-backed Hadramawt Elite Forces against AQAP militants in the al-Masini valley that is located approximately 100 km west of al-Mukalla, Hadramawt. The UAE then launched “Operation Decisive Sword” on February 26, which is being led by UAE-backed Shabwa Elite Forces and aims to clear Wadi Yeshbum of al-Said district, Shabwa, of AQAP militants.

Military Developments in Brief

  • Early February: Major General Gameel al-Mamari, who previously fought with Houthi-Saleh forces, defected to the Hadi government after fleeing Sana’a for Aden.
  • February 11: The US military announced a drone strike in al-Bayda governorate that it says killed six suspected AQAP militants.
  • February 20: President Hadi appointed Hashim Abdullah al-Ahmar and Yahya Hussein Salah as head of the sixth and fifth military districts, respectively, which cover the areas of Amran and Hudaydah. Yahya Salah is a figure close to Hadi’s Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
  • February 24: The Yemeni government’s Minister of Transportation Saleh al-Jabwani accused the UAE of fragmenting Yemen, stating that “There are tribal and regional armies set up by the Emiratis… We as a state can’t accept continuation of this situation.” His comments came after UAE-backed Shabwa Elite Forces blocked him from visiting the Balhaf Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Shabwa governorate. Reports from the area indicated that the Yemeni army 13th infantry brigade, loyal to President Hadi, subsequently redeployed nearby.  
  • February 24: ISIS carried out a coordinated attack against a counterterrorism headquarters in Aden. Two attackers driving vehicles rigged with explosives blew themselves up at the entrance of the building. ISIS gunmen then followed up this initial attack with an armed assault. Local security and medical sources told Reuters new agency that at least 14 people were killed and 40 injured.
  • February 26: In an apparent ‘friendly fire’ incident, a Saudi-led military coalition airstrike hit a Yemeni government troop position in the Nihm region east of Sana’a, killing three prominent officers, four soldiers and wounding at least 15 others.


Economic Developments

On February 12, President Hadi replaced the Governor of the Central Bank of Yemen in Aden, Monasser al-Quaiti, with former finance Minister Mohammad Zammam. Sana’a Center sources indicate that the decision was largely undertaken in response to al-Quaiti’s inability to establish a fully functioning CBY headquarters in Aden in the face of continuing logistical and security challenges there. A meeting then took place between the new governor of the CBY and the head of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority to discuss the terms of the US$2 billion deposit Saudi Arabia made to the CBY in Aden in January. According to Sana’a Center sources, although the CBY in Aden had yet to sign the necessary agreement that would allow it to access the funds at to the time of this writing, such is likely to be formalized in March.

In northern areas of Yemen under Houthi control, February saw cooking gas shortages and price hikes, sparking public protests. The crisis has been exacerbated by the Sana’a authorities’ significant taxation of cooking gas, as well as rising demand; due to high fuel prices, many vehicle owners have converted from fuel to gas combustion engines.

The Yemeni Rial

Through February the Yemeni rial (YR) continued to witness a steady depreciation, going from YR 458 to the US$ to more than YR 492 in market trading. However, following news of an impending agreement over the US$2 billion Saudi deposit, the YR appreciated again to approximately YR 480 at the time of writing.

In late February the CBY in Aden began to distribute the new YR 1000 banknotes on the local market. These notes, like the YR 500 notes released in 2017, are of a different size to older Yemeni notes and their distribution and circulation has been quite political. In Houthi-controlled areas, the authorities have banned financial actors and the private sector from using the new banknotes, in an effort to reduce the value of the new bills to the Hadi government, which is attempting to use them to pay public sector salaries and increase liquidity. As such, many people in the north of the country are hesitant to trade with the new currency, limiting its distribution and effectiveness.


Humanitarian Developments

In his briefing to the UNSC on February 27, the Director of Operations and Advocacy at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, expressed concern over recent humanitarian developments: “People’s lives have continued unravelling. Conflict has escalated significantly since November, driving an estimated 100,000 people from their homes, according to UNHCR [UN High Commission for Refugees]. More people are going hungry, and famine remains a real threat. Although cholera cases are in decline, the disease is not yet beaten and is likely to rebound in the upcoming rainy season.”

Ging described how humanitarian access within the country has deteriorated, notably in territories controlled by Houthi forces. Even though access into the country has improved since December 2017, when the coalition eased its blockade of Yemen’s Red Sea ports, Ging raised concerns over “the Coalition policy to divert containerized cargo to Aden” and the continued closure of Sana’a airport for commercial traffic. The number of vessels seeking clearances from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism to enter Hudaydah and Saleef ports has halved since the blockade, given delays imposed on ships even after they have been issued clearances.

“Vessels cleared by this mechanism should be able to proceed directly to port without additional delays,” said Ging. “For that to happen, Hudaydah and Saleef ports must remain open without time limits or other restrictions that may discourage commercial shipping companies from serving them.” Ging also called the full funding of the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP), tallied at US$2.96 billion, a top priority. He stated that about one third of the YHRP had already been pledged by donors, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (as part of the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations initiative announced in January), and that Sweden and Switzerland would host a pledging conference in Geneva on April 3.

Other Humanitarian Developments in Brief


Human Rights and War Crimes Developments in Brief

  • February 1-8: The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that in the first week of February 27 civilians were killed and 76 injured by violence in Yemen. These incidents included three Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes that hit the Ministry of Interior in Sana’a’s Bani al-Harith district on February 4, killing eight civilians and injuring 32. OHCHR reported that there were no military objects in close proximity. On February 6 Houthi forces also shelled Usayfrah in al-Qahirah district, northern Taiz, killing three children.
  • February 8: 25 Ethiopian migrants are presumed dead, after being forced from one of four boats taking more than 600 Ethiopians to Shabwa governorate, according to the UN Migration Agency (IOM). In 2017, IOM documented more than 87,000 migrants heading to Yemen despite the ongoing war.
  • February 8: A field monitor for the Yemen National Commission of Inquiry, Reeham Badr Al Dhubhani, was killed in shelling by Houthi forces on al-Lasb area in Salh district, Taiz governorate.
  • February 11: For the first time in nearly three years, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was able to visit a major detention facility in Aden, after similar visits resumed in Sana’a in November 2017.
  • February 15: Amnesty International reported that a “woman and two men were forcibly disappeared, ill-treated and given a patently unfair trial before being sentenced to death” by the Houthi-aligned Specialized Criminal Court in Sana’a in January “for allegedly aiding an enemy country.” Amnesty’s Senior Crisis Advisor Rawya Rageh describes the trial as “part of a wider pattern of the Houthis using the judiciary to settle political scores,” calling it “a clear violation of international law.”
  • February 16: Amnesty International released its statement for the 37th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), slated to run from February 26 to March 23 in Geneva. In it, Amnesty lays out that all warring parties in Yemen have continued to violate international humanitarian and human rights law, following the establishment of an expert group, mandated by the HRC to investigate such violations. Amnesty documented indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks as well as attacks against civilians and civilian objects, the use of banned weapons, arbitrary and incommunicado detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, death sentences after unlawful trials, the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, and restrictions on humanitarian and commercial imports as well as on the movement of humanitarian aid.
  • February 20: Alexandre Faite, the head of the ICRC’s delegation in Yemen, warned that the Red Sea frontline is moving closer to the historic city of Zabid, a World Heritage Site with “the highest concentration of mosques in Yemen… International humanitarian law makes it clear that special care must be taken in military operations to avoid damaging this outstanding archaeological and historical site,” he stated.
  • February 21: A coalition airstrike hit three vehicles near a checkpoint south of Sa’ada city, killing at least 15 civilians and injuring several others.

This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Spencer Osberg, Alex J. Harper, Taima Al-Iriani, Victoria K. Sauer and Ali Abdullah.  

Yemen at the UN 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, humanitarian, and human rights developments on the ground.

This month’s report was developed with the support of the Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.