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Yemen at the UN – June 2017 Review

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية


In June, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted a presidential statement regarding the Yemeni crisis – the first council outcome on Yemen in almost 14 months. A UNSC presidential statement, while important as a statement of council policy, is considered less weighty than a UNSC resolution and lacks the mandatory enforcement power of a Chapter 7 resolution.

In the United States, a bipartisan effort in Congress to block the sale of precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia – due to concerns they would be used against civilian targets in Yemen – narrowly failed to pass in a US Senate vote. By month’s end, however, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations announced that it was blocking all new arms sales to Gulf Cooperation Council countries until the dispute between Qatar and a block of Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, was resolved.

That dispute erupted in early June when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya’s eastern-based government and the Maldives all suspended diplomatic ties with Doha and imposed a blockade on air, sea and land traffic with Doha, accusing Qatar’s rulers of sponsoring terrorism and attempting to destabilize the region. In Yemen, the move had various implications, from Qatar being expelled from the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in the conflict, to changes in the frontlines in Al Bayda governorate when tribal forces fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized Yemeni government left their positions after Saudi Arabia listed their leader as a Qatari-sponsored terrorist.

Continued infighting was apparent amongst forces ostensibly backing the Yemeni government, with Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi firing the heads of three southern governorates for their participation in the Transitional Political Council for the South, a group that seeks independence for Southern Yemen.

Through June there was a rapid uptick in the spread of cholera in Yemen; by July 1 the World Health Organization was reporting almost 250,000 suspected case, with 5,000 new infections appearing daily and some 1,500 associated deaths – half of which are children – since the second wave of the epidemic began at the end of April.

Last month both Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press published investigative reports revealing the use of secret detention facilities, torture and forced disappearances by Emirati-backed forces in Aden and Hadramawt governorates. US legislators began calling for an official investigation after it was revealed that American military personnel had, among other things, provided questions for interrogators at the prisons and been present for various interrogations, though Pentagon officials denied any awareness of, or involvement in, torture.

International diplomatic developments

At the UN

On June 15, the United Nations Security Council adopted a wide-ranging presidential statement highlighting key aspects of the Yemeni crisis. A UNSC presidential statement is a document adopted by council consensus as UNSC policy and publicly presented by the council president, in this case Bolivia’s Sacha Llorenti. The June presidential statement on Yemen was the the first council decision regarding Yemen in almost 14 months, aside from the routine annual renewal of the sanctions regime.

In the presidential statement the UNSC expressed its grave concern about “the devastating humanitarian impact of the conflict on civilians”, the threat of famine, the recent cholera outbreak, and the growing strength of jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the so-called “Islamic State” group.

The Security Council expressed its continued support for the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, while condemning and calling for an investigation into the apparent attack on his convoy in Sana’a in May. The UNSC then called for the warring parties to immediately seek a cessation of hostilities and engage in negotiations regarding the Special Envoy’s peace proposal in “a flexible and constructive manner without preconditions, and in good faith.” The Security Council specifically called on the Houthis and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to cease attacks over the border into Saudi Arabia and to “uphold” safe shipping passage through the Bab Al Mandeb Strait.

The presidential statement included what various diplomatic observers described as strong language in calling for all warring parties to abide by international humanitarian law, “including to at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, and between civilian objects and military objectives, and by taking all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects,” as well as end the recruitment of child soldiers.

The Security Council called for the parties to allow “the safe, rapid and unhindered access for humanitarian supplies and personnel” in Yemen and to “facilitate access for essential imports of food, fuel and, medical supplies into the country.” In this regard, the presidential statement specifically stated that Sana’a airport must be reopened for “lifesaving humanitarian supplies and movement of urgent humanitarian cases,” and that Hudaydah port must remain open and new cranes be installed. (Offloading infrastructure at the port has been damaged in Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes during the conflict, while the UN’s replacement cranes have been sequestered in Dubai for the past five months awaiting coalition approval for delivery and installation.) In an apparent effort to head off the prospect of a Saudi-led coalition attack on Hudaydah, and to address coalition concerns that Houthi-Saleh forces have been using the port to smuggle arms and fund their war efforts, the UNSC called on the warring parties to adopt the Special Envoy’s new management plan for the port, which involves turning control of the port over to neutral third-party financial and security committees.

Additionally, the presidential statement called upon the warring parties to ensure at least 30 percent representation of women in peace negotiations, and to work with the Special Envoy to arrange the resumption of public sector salaries, which have largely been suspended since September 2016. The UNSC also called on the international community to immediately fulfil pledges for Yemen made at the Geneva Pledging Conference in April, and in what seemed like a rebuff to recent political maneuverings in South Yemen toward seceding from the north, the Security Council reaffirmed “its strong commitment to the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen.”

Speaking to the Sana’a Center, UNSC member states and security council observers said the council’s almost 14 months of silence regarding Yemen – the world’s largest humanitarian crisis – had become untenable in the face of the country’s continued deterioration, as well intensified lobbying by non-governmental organizations, UN agencies and some UNSC member states. While the United Kingdom, as council penholder for Yemen, was ultimately responsible for drafting the presidential statement, the process of shaping the language and content of the text elicited ministerial level involvement from various UNSC member states.

Among other deliberations and negotiations in the drafting of the statement, the Swedish delegation lobbied for the inclusion of the clauses insisting the warring parties distinguish between military and civilian targets; the Italian mission pushed for language regarding allowing humanitarian access through Hudaydah port; the Russian delegation forced language to be cut from the document that condemned the Houthis for not meeting with the Special Envoy while he had been in Sana’a in May, while Egypt had attempted to scrap language specifically referring to the installation of cranes at Hudaydah port and the opening of Sana’a Airport to commercial flights, though in the end accepted the inclusion of language referring to the cranes. UNSC member states also told the Sana’a Center that Saudi officials, including the foreign minister, heavily scrutinized and weighed in on the language of the statement through the Egyptian mission to the UNSC.

It is important to note, however, that a presidential statement is seen as holding less weight than a UNSC resolution and lacks the mandatory enforcement power of a Chapter 7 resolution. Thus, while important as a public statement asserting Security Council policy, the impact of a presidential statement is determined by further council actions, or lack thereof, to follow up on the text.

The feasibility of various aspects of the presidential statement were also in doubt even before it was adopted. On June 5, Saleh Ali al-Samad, the President of the Houthi-Saleh Supreme Political Council, made public comments against the UN Special Envoy, stating he was “not desirable for future peace negotiations,” and barring Ould Cheikh Ahmed from entering Houthi-Saleh controlled areas in the future. (Notably, the next day the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi reiterated its support for the Special Envoy’s peace proposal.) As well, within two days of the UNSC having called for the warring parties to distinguish between military and civilian targets, the Saudi-led coalition, for the second time this year, bombed a market in northern Yemen, killing 23 civilians (see below).

In the United States

On June 7 in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), along with five other Democratic colleagues, introduced the “Yemen Security and Humanity Act” to boost coordination among various federal departments and agencies to help address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The bill was referred to the committees on foreign affairs and armed services, though it is generally not expected to move forward through the Republican-controlled Congress.

On June 13, a joint Senate resolution to block the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia over concerns they would be used against Yemeni civilians was narrowly defeated by a vote of 53 to 47. This bipartisan motion was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Democratic Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Al Franken (D-MN). The 100 members who voted split mostly across party lines, with the exception of four Republicans who voted in favor of the measure and five democrats who opposed it. The vote marked a significant increase in support for such a shift in US policy, with a similar measure to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in September 2016 failing to pass by a vote of 71 to 27.

On June 26, however, Republican Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, announced that he would halt future arms sales to GCC countries until there is “a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify the GCC” – a reference to the dispute between Qatar and various other regional states that erupted in early June (details below). The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations provides the preliminarily approval to any major arms sales before it can be moved to Congress, which would then have 30 days to approve or deny the sale.

It is important to note that, despite more than two years of the American military providing major logistics and intelligence support to the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in the Yemeni conflict, and vastly increased US counterterrorism operations in Yemen since the new administration took over the White House, American policy regarding Yemen has rarely been a feature of debate among US legislators. Yemen, as a policy concern, has failed to gain American public interest or traction in the media, being vastly overshadowed by domestic issues and other regional conflicts such as Syria and Iraq. The various branches of the US government have generally deferred to Saudi Arabia regarding their approach to Yemen, with the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates lobbying forcefully and successfully for American support, with limited restrictions, for their military intervention in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their supporters in the US Congress assert that America has a duty to support its Gulf allies in containing a resurgent Iran, which they purport is using the Houthi rebels in Yemen as its proxy for a war against the Gulf kingdoms.

Generally, the members of Congress that have expressed reservations related to the Yemeni conflict have emphasized the humanitarian crisis – such as Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Edward Markey (D-MA) – or US national security, intelligence and counterterrorism interests. The latter group of legislators have raised concerns that US involvement in the Saudi-led military coalition is increasing anti-American sentiment, empowering radical groups, and therefore damaging US national security interests; this group is bipartisan, with prominent members including Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), Republican Senator Todd Young (R-IN), and all current members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Implications of the Qatar crisis

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya’s eastern-based government and the Maldives all suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar, and suspended air, sea and land traffic with Doha. The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said the sanctions were imposed due to Doha’s efforts to destabilize the region through interference in the internal affairs of other states, sponsorship of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State Group and Al Qaeda, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood – which various Gulf states have classified as a terrorist organization – and “Iran-backed terrorist groups”. The SPA statement added that “it was clear to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the support and backing from the authorities in Doha for coup [sic] Al-Houthi militias even after the announcement of the Coalition to Support the Legitimacy in Yemen.” Qatar was also concurrently expelled from the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in Yemen to support the government of President Hadi.

Doha’s military role had been marginal in comparison to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, consisting of a thousand Qatari soldiers, 200 armoured vehicles and 30 attack helicopters deployed to Marib governorate and along the Yemeni-Saudi border, according to Al Jazeera English. Qatar’s arguably more substantive role in Yemen has been through “soft power” and its relationships with local actors on the ground.

Before the current crisis, Qatar had mediated foreign hostages situations and brokered peace negotiations and prisoner exchanges, notably between Houthi fighters and Yemeni government forces in 2007 and 2008. However, Qatar’s largest influence on the ground has been through Islah, an Islamist party often dubbed Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood – a characterisation Islah has been attempting to distance itself from in recent years. Prior to the 2011 revolution, Islah had been the main opposition party in Yemen’s Parliament to then-President Saleh; during the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in September 2014 many Islah members were rounded up and imprisoned, while since the current conflict began in early 2015, Islah-affiliated groups have contributed substantially to pro-Hadi forces fighting the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Throughout, Doha has supported Islah politically and financially, while also funding pro-Islah TV channels.

Qatar has also supported the Hadi government through funding for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, notably covering the budgets and salaries of Yemeni embassies abroad in 2016. Qatar has also provided training to rehabilitate police forces in areas under Yemeni government control, while the Hadi government and Saudi-led coalition also regularly received favourable news coverage in Doha-affiliated media outlets, the largest and most influential being Al Jazeera Arabic. On the humanitarian front the Qatar Foundation, the Qatar Charity and various other associated non-governmental organizations have provided Yemen with aid, humanitarian assistance and performed damage and needs-assessment surveys.

On the first day of the embargo against Qatar last month, the Islah leadership – most of which currently resides in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – issued a statement supporting the Hadi government’s decision to cut ties with Doha, while at the same time various prominent party members expressed sympathy for Qatar. (The Yemeni government officially closed its embassy in Doha on June 20.)

Regarding the Houthis, various members of the leadership condemned the actions against Qatar and expressed a willingness to cooperate with Doha, including Houthi leader Abdulmalik Badreddin al-Houthi and the president of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi; the latter of the two tweeted at the end of June that Al Jazeera’s request to reopen its office in Sana’a had been approved. Houthi ally, former President Saleh, on the other hand – following nearly a decade of acrimonious relations with Doha while he had been in office – stated that Yemen had suffered greatly at the hands of Qatar-sponsored terrorism, and threw his support behind the Saudi-led embargo.

It should be noted that the tenor of Qatar-owned media outlets’ news coverage of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has changed markedly through June, with numerous stories portraying the coalition as the aggressor in the conflict, highlighting possible war crimes by coalition members, and leveling critical commentary at coalition leadership.

Developments in Yemen

The Transitional Political Council for the South

The so-called “Transitional Political Council for the South” – the group formed in May this year from prominent political, military and tribal leaders with the stated aim of creating an independent state in South Yemen – postponed its first scheduled meeting slated for June 13 (, the meeting was eventually held in early July). The stated reason for the postponement was the logistical challenges facing many of the council’s membership in traveling to the meeting’s proposed location in Mukalla city, Hadramawt governorate. Later the same week, then-governor of Hadramawt, Ahmed bin Breik, was quoted in local media saying that the council’s inability to meet would not affect progress towards southern autonomy, and that the council would issue a resolution in the coming months outlining its vision for confederation and self-governance in southern Yemen.

Tensions between the southern separatists and the Yemeni government – which in recent months havw seen the removal of a southern leaders from their political and military posts and street protests in Aden – was further inflamed on June 28 when President Hadi issued a decree sacking the governors of Hadramawt, Socotra and Shabwa. All three governors were members of the Transitional Political Council of the South, and Hadi justified the move as retaliation for their support for the secessionist movement.

Frontline and security developments

The rift between Qatar and other Arab states had a direct impact on the battlefield last month after Saudi Arabia published a list, on June 8, of the individuals it considers Qatari-sponsored terrorists. Among them was Abdul Wahab al-Humayqani, an advisor to President Hadi who was accused to providing financial assistance to AQAP. Tribal fighters loyal to Humayqani subsequently withdrew from the frontlines in Al Bayda governorate, allowing Houthi-Saleh forces to advance and capture territory.

Aden and other southern governorates continued to witness popular anger against public service failings in June, most notably the widespread power outages, with demonstrations in Lahaj and Aden on June 4. Aden also continued to endure a generally poor security environment, exacerbated by the competing security actors present in the city. On June 20, gunmen robbed the Omgy Bank, the latest in a series of major robberies over the last several months that have also targeted the Kureimi exchange company’s delivery trucks carrying public sector wage payments. On June 22, there was a failed assassination attempt on the Hadi government’s Deputy Interior Minister, Major General Ali Nasser Lakhsha. (In March this year AQAP claimed the assassination of Lakhsha’s son, a colonel in the army, in Abyan governorate.)

On June 27, local media reported that various Aden-based security forces were being redeployed to frontlines in south-central and southwestern Yemen. The redeployment was described as an effort to disperse rival security forces, diffuse festering tensions between troops loyal to President Hadi and various UAE-backed southern forces, and refocus efforts towards fighting the Houthi-Saleh alliance.

Increased fighting took place in the city of Taiz during the month of June, as pro-Hadi forces and local anti-Houthi militias made progress against a number of Houthi-Saleh positions. Notable were pro-Hadi forces’ capture of Al Hamad hospital on June 6, the Tashrifat military base and nearby Presidential Palace on June 12, and then strategic hills south of the city on June 21. Also in Taiz city, demonstrations took place on June 19 demanding the government pay public sector salaries, accusing the Hadi administration of intentionally not paying civil servants in the city. Most of Yemen’s 1.2 million registered government employees have not received salaries since September 2016, placing huge financial strain on millions of Yemeni families and devastating public sector service delivery.

In wider Taiz governorate fighting intensified in the coastal district of Mokha, while Houthi-Saleh forces twice fired missiles on coalition ships leaving the port of Mokha, on June 14 and again on June 25. Elsewhere around Yemen sporadic fighting took place on a number of frontlines – namely in the governorates of Hajjah, Al Jawf, Marib and Al Bayda – though without significant movement of the frontlines.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Throughout June AQAP continued to claim credit for hit and run attacks and assassination attempts throughout the country, against both Houthi-Saleh forces and pro-government troops. US drone strikes against AQAP targets in Yemen also continued last month, with the US military reporting that a June 16 airstrike in Shabwa killed AQAP leader Abu Khattab Saleh Beleed al-Awlaqi and two of his associates.

On June 21, the US Department of State amended AQAP’s terror group categorization to include local AQAP front groups in Yemen such as the “Sons of Abyan”, the “Sons of Hadramawt”, “Sons of Hadramawt Council”, the “Civil Council of Hadramawt” and the “National Hadramawt Council.”

Cholera update

The transmission rate in Yemen’s cholera epidemic rapidly increased through June. The current outbreak, the country’s second in less than a year, began towards the end of April and saw 100,000 suspected cases of cholera/acute watery diarrhea (AWD) within the first six weeks; two and a half weeks later, on June 24, UNICEF reported that the disease had spread to another 100,000 people. By July 1, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated there were almost 250,000 cases of cholera/AWD in Yemen, with some 5,000 new cases appearing daily and 1,500 deaths from the disease so far.

The health coordinator of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen, Maria del Pilar Bauza Moreno, noted that aid workers were encountering unusually high numbers of severe cholera/AWD cases: “It’s concerning that severe suspected cholera cases now account for about half of the total, which is more than double what we usually observe during such outbreaks.” The fact that Yemen also continues to be the largest food security emergency in the world – with 17 million people classified as food insecure and 6.8 million among these being severely food insecure – is heavily exacerbating the impact of the cholera epidemic. Vulnerable groups are especially affected, with children accounting for half of the suspected cases of cholera and a quarter of the associated deaths. The epidemic has to date reached 20 of Yemen’s 22 governorates, with nine of these – most being under Houthi-Saleh control – having surpassed 10,000 suspected cases each.

The spread of the disease has been aided by the fact that 14.5 million people in Yemen lack access to clean water and sanitation, and less than half of Yemen’s health facilities are fully functional. The largest government hospital in Taiz governorate, for instance, was effectively closed on June 21 due to severe operational challenges.

In order to face this crisis, the Health Cluster, led by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Cluster, led by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), requested $66.7 million in funds last month to implement their Integrated Response Plan, the aim of which is “to control the outbreak, prevent further spread, and minimize the risk of recurrence.” On June 23, Saudi authorities announced that designated Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had pledged to cover this amount.

With most public sector workers in Yemen having not received a salary since September 2016, UNICEF announced the unusual step last month that it was tapping an emergency fund to begin paying the country’s public sector medical staff, with doctors and nurses to receive some 70% of their original salaries as daily stipends. The IRIN news agency also reported last month that the International Coordinating Group, which manages the global stockpile of emergency cholera vaccines, was to deploy the largest ever shipment of the vaccines to Yemen after a request by WHO representative Doctor Nevio Zagaria. The first doses are expected to arrive in early July.

Secret prisons and torture allegations

On June 22, Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press both published investigative reports revealing the use of secret detention facilities, torture and forced disappearances by Emirati-backed forces in Aden and Hadramawt governorates. While the UAE is accused of setting up these facilities – run by the Security Belt Forces in Aden and Hadrami Elite Forces in Hadramawt – the depth of US involvement is, to date, somewhat unclear. According to the AP, US defense officials acknowledged providing the UAE with lists of suspected AQAP militants to be questioned, of US personnel being present at, and receiving transcripts of, various interrogations; however Pentagon officials denied any American involvement in, or awareness of, torture taking place.

On June 22, Amnesty International demanded the UN investigate Emirati and US involvement in these facilities. Multiple senior US senators also called for investigations into those reports. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain (R-AZ) and ranking Democrat, Jack Reed (D-RI), wrote a letter to the Defense Secretary Mattis urging him to immediately investigate the allegations and any possible US role in them: “We are confident that you find these allegations as extremely troubling as we do,” the senators wrote. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and the Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, echoed calls for investigations. The Senator also suggested that support for UAE forces could constitute a violation of the law that prohibits the US from funding known human rights violators.

On June 24, Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Dagher formed a six person committee to investigate the allegations.

Civilian airstrikes casualties

On June 17, an airstrike on a house by a market and subsequent strafing by a helicopter gunship in the village of Moshnaq in Sa’ada governorate killed at least 23 civilians. UN human rights personnel spoke to residents in the area, which is located near the Saudi border, who said the house was used as a staging post by Qat smugglers, operating between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Also last month, the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies and the Columbia Law School published a report that revealed the US has disclosed details of only 20 percent of its lethal force operations led in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan since 2002. As of June 16, the report noted that the US has carried out at least 90 strikes in Yemen in 2017 using drones, aircraft and missiles, which have led to a minimum 81 deaths, including at least 30 civilians.

In brief

  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of June 5, received 33% of the USD $2.1 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.
  • In the month of June, 31 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 23 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 45 hours, an average of 15 hours more than the month before. A total of 472,293 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in June, consisting of 342,835 mt of food, 87,566 mt of fuel and 41,892 mt of general cargo. This is a decrease by a total of 138,759 mt of cargo from the month before.

This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Maged Al-Madhaji, Spencer Osberg, Ziad Al-Eryani, Tawfeek Al-Ganad, Adam Baron, Victoria K. Sauer, and Alex J. Harper.

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.

This month’s report was developed in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.

Program/Project: The Yemen Review