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The UNSC: From Participant to Passive Observer in Yemen

The United Nations Security Councils hears a briefing from the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, on September 11, 2018 // UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Commentary by Nickolas Ask

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been the gatekeeper for UN efforts in Yemen for almost a decade.[1] With a tortuous process where progress seems to come and go, some diplomats from member states of the UNSC have privately expressed disappointment that the Council is always “reacting” rather than “acting” when it comes to Yemen.[2] The Security Council’s ability to be effective has been called into question by diplomats and analysts.[3] As the past six years show, the UNSC has taken the backseat in Yemen, worried that tangible action would interfere with the UN Special Envoy’s efforts to broker a peace accord, and negatively impact the UN’s humanitarian offices working on the ground in Yemen.[4]

The UN Security Council’s hard power comes from its ability to enact sanctions. On the heels of the National Dialogue Conference in 2014, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2140, creating a Sanctions Committee specific to Yemen. The Sanctions Committee was a key tool for the Security Council to aid the political and reconciliation processes and prevent potential spoilers of the political transition in Yemen.[5] It subsequently designated three individuals on November 7: former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, along with two Houthi military commanders, Abd al-Khaliq al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim.

The Sanctions Committee was also part of the Security Council’s swift response to the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014 and the March 2015 launch of Operation Decisive Storm by the Saudi-led coalition. The Security Council adopted Resolution 2216, demanding the Houthis surrender, fully disarm and allow President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government to resume its responsibilities. In April 2015 the Sanctions Committee designated two further individuals – Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi and Ahmed Saleh, son of the former president – and broadened the sanctions regime by adding an arms embargo.

Five years later, not much has come out of the Sanctions Committee, with the list of sanctioned individuals remaining the same since 2015. While the efforts of the UN’s Special Envoy have increased in prominence, the Security Council’s role, and that of the Sanctions Committee, diminished over time. As Sana’a Center Non-Resident Fellow Gregory Johnsen pointed out earlier this year, the Panel of Experts highlighted several perpetrators who would fall within the Sanction Committee’s designation criteria, with no reaction from the Security Council.[6] The Security Council has reacted to the developments of the war and expanded to some areas that merit designation, such as the use of sexual violence and child recruitment during the conflict[7] and starvation tactics of warfare.[8]

With five new members entering the UN Security Council in 2021 — Kenya, India, Ireland, Mexico and Norway — there is an opportunity to reassess the UN Security Council’s role in Yemen.[9] New member states should be asking how the UNSC can play a more active role on the Yemen file, and how it might revitalize its Sanctions Committee. While there are only five individuals on the Sanctions List for Yemen, the UNSC has designated 36 individuals in the DRC,[10] 80 in North Korea[11] and 28 in Libya.[12] With regard to non-state actors, for almost a decade the UNSC has had a specific sanctions regime for the Taliban, to whom the Houthis have been compared,[13] under Resolution 1988 with 135 listed individuals.[14] When faced with Houthi transgressions and unwillingness to take part in the special envoy’s initiatives, including the ongoing ceasefire negotiations, the UNSC should consider whether a tougher approach, and examining the original intent behind the Yemen Sanctions Committee, might reactivate the Council’s role in pushing for a political solution.

Seeking a More Engaging UNSC Debate

Another way to re-engage the Security Council would be to involve more voices, which would allow for a more nuanced and dynamic discussion at the council’s monthly meetings on Yemen. Currently, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths provides a monthly briefing to the Security Council on his efforts, followed by a representative from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Subsequently, every month the 15 UNSC members express their concern regarding the current situation and most of them urge a political solution. Diplomats have expressed frustration with how repetitive these meetings can be.[15]

Although not a frequent occurrence, there is precedent for broader participation from a range of stakeholders in the monthly meetings on Yemen. Since 2017, one briefing each year has included a civil society representative. In April 2019, under the German presidency of the council, Mona Luqman, from Food for Humanity and a co-founding member of the Women Solidarity Network, described by Griffiths as one of Yemen’s leading peace activists, provided an inspiring call for the UN Security Council to use its powers to ensure safe humanitarian access in Yemen.[16] In November 2018, China invited Founder and Director of the Peace Track Initiative Rasha Jarhum to brief the Council.[17] Human rights organizations have also spoken before the Security Council in the past, including Radhya al-Mutawakel, from the Mwatana Organization For Human Rights, who briefed the UNSC under Uruguay’s presidency in May 2017.

The rotating president of the Security Council wields the power to invite outside speakers. This is also why the Yemeni government’s permanent representative at the UN is able to address the Council each month despite Yemen not holding a place on the Council.[18] The presidency is used as an opportunity for the serving member state to bring its priorities to the Council and craft the Council’s agenda for the month.

There are a plethora of Yemeni voices that could contribute to a more useful discussion surrounding the conflict, and the Security Council should make it a priority to include diverse speakers more than once a year. Logistical issues are no longer an excuse; as the pandemic has shown, the Council is fully able to conduct meetings virtually when travel is an issue. By adopting this policy, the UN Security Council would become a more engaging forum and better serve its mandate of playing an instrumental role in shaping Yemen’s future.

Nickolas Ask is research fellow at the New York Office of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, focusing on engagement with permanent missions to the United Nations and NGOs in New York.

This commentary appeared in Struggle for the South – The Yemen Review, June 2020

The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.


  1. Resolution 2014 (2011) was adopted on October 21, 2011 linking its mandate of maintaining international peace and security to the situation in Yemen.
  2. Conversations with two diplomats from UN Security Council member states, New York, February 25, 2020.
  3. Richard Gowan, “Three Troubling Trends at the UN Security Council,” International Crisis Group, November 6, 2019,
  4. “Humanitarian Agencies as Prisoners of War,” Sana’a Center For Strategic Studies, February 29, 2020,
  5. “Briefing by the Chair of the Committee established pursuant to resolution 2140 (2014),” UN Security Council, May 14, 2014,
  6. Gregory Johnsen, “UN Experts Detail Abuses in Yemen, Security Council Shrugs,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, March 18, 2020, Page 5.
  7. Paragraph 6 of resolution 2511 (2020), February 25, 2020,
  8. “Adopting Resolution 2417 (2018), Security Council Strongly Condemns Starving of Civilians, Unlawfully Denying Humanitarian Access as Warfare Tactics,” UN Security Council, May 24, 2018,
  9. “Kenya wins final contested seat on Security Council,” UN News, June 18, 2020,
  10. “Sanctions List Materials, 1533 Sanctions List,” UN Security Council, February 25, 2020,,
  11. “Sanctions List Materials, 1718 Sanctions List,” UN Security Council , May 11, 2020,
  12. “Sanctions List Materials, 1979 Sanctions List,” UN Security Council, February 25, 2020,
  13. “Mimicking the Mullahs, The Houthi model of government,” The Economist, February 6, 2020.
  14. “Sanctions List Materials, 1988 Sanctions List” UN Security Council, January 30, 2019,
  15. Discussion with diplomatic sources, February 25, 2020.
  16. “Parties to Conflict in Yemen Have Accepted Plan for Redeployment of Forces from Hodeidah Port, Special Envoy Tells Security Council,” UN Security Council, April 15, 2019,
  17. Charlotte Hooij, “Rasha Jarhum, Founder and Director of the Peace Track Initiative, briefs the UN Security Council on the Situation in Yemen,” Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, November 19, 2018,
  18. “Provisional Rules of Procedure (S/96/Rev.7),” ChapterVI: Conduct of Business, Rule 39, United Nations Security Council, accessed July 1, 2020,