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Yemen at the UN – July 2017 Review

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية


In July, Yemen’s cholera epidemic became the largest ever recorded in one country in a single year, with the World Health Organization recording 430,000 suspected incidents and almost 2,000 associated deaths with the disease by month’s end. This comes following the UN declaring Yemen the world’s largest food security emergency earlier this year.

Pro-government forces seized the Khalid bin Walid military base from Houthi fighters and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Taiz governorate last month, resulting in the most significant battlefield success for the Yemeni government since its forces captured the port city of Mokha in January. Continuing rivalries and sporadic violence amongst armed groups supporting the government, however, continued to undermine security in areas nominally under government control, notably in Aden and areas of Taiz city.

The United Nation’s Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed briefed both the Security Council and later the Arab League regarding the situation in Yemen, highlighting the escalating violence and the continued targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure by all warring sides. The Special Envoy said he was “encouraging” belligerent parties to engage with his peace plan, though his ability to mediate negotiations remained in doubt with the Houthis leadership re-asserting its opposition to working with Ould Cheikh Ahmed, whom they view as biased.

In the United States, opposition to American support for the Saudi-led military coalition – which is intervening in the Yemeni war on behalf of the internationally recognized government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi – advanced markedly. A bipartisan effort that gained widespread support in the US House of Representatives saw three amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which, contingent on the bill passing in the Senate and receiving presidential approval, would end funding for US military support to the Saudi-led coalition.

In economic news, following the reactivation of the Central Bank of Yemen’s (CBY) international wire transfer capacities, the US Treasury unfroze Yemeni government funds worth as much as $850 million. Also in July, the government received more shipments of Yemeni rial banknotes from printers abroad to help address the cash liquidity crisis and pay the country’s public servants, many of whom have not received a salary since September 2016. Economic observers suggested that the CBY’s access to new foreign currency reserves should help it offset the downward pressure on the value of the rial that will result from the distribution of public sector salaries.

Banking sector sources also told the Sana’a Center that the World Bank and UNICEF are assisting Yemen’s Social Welfare Fund (SWF) to restart payments in August; before the current conflict the SWF paid monthly stipends to approximately 1.5 million of Yemen’s most economically vulnerable persons, though it last disbursed funds in 2015.

International diplomatic developments

At the United Nations

In a July 12 briefing for the United Nations Security Council, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed offered an overview of the situation in the country, highlighting the escalation of violence in many areas, the warring parties’ continued targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, the escalating cholera epidemic, rampant food insecurity and economic collapse. The Special Envoy said he was also continuing to “encourage” the belligerent parties to engage with his de-escalation plan for Hudaydah port – the entry point for the vast majority of the Yemen’s humanitarian aid and commercial goods. Hodeidah city, located on Yemen’s northwest coast, is currently held by Houthi fighters and the allied forces of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, though since early 2017 there has been much saber-rattling regarding the prospect of the Saudi-led military coalition – which is intervening in the Yemeni conflict in support of the internationally recognized government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi – launching an attack on the city.

At the end of May this year, Ould Cheikh Ahmed offered some details of his de-escalation plan, which would involve Houthi-Saleh forces withdrawing from Hudaydah and port management to be transferred to neutral third parties. The Special Envoy’s ability to mediate such an agreement has been cast in doubt, however, by his inability to meet with any senior members of the Houthi-Saleh leadership during a visit to the capital, Sana’a, in May. As well, Saleh Ali al-Samad, the President of the Houthi-Saleh Supreme Political Council, stating in June that the UN Special Envoy was “not desirable for future peace negotiations,” before announcing that Ould Cheikh Ahmed was barred from entering Houthi-Saleh controlled areas again.

During his briefing to the Security Council last month the Special Envoy said, “in the past few days, I was in direct contact with Ansar Allah [the Houthis], which is cause for optimism.” He then thanked China for facilitating this communication. Members of the Houthi leadership, however, told the Sana’a Center that there has been no direct communication with the Special Envoy in recent months, while other sources suggested there had been trivial correspondence between low ranking Houthis personnel and members of the Special Envoy’s office. Two UNSC member state representatives told the Sana’a Center last month, however, that senior officials in former President Saleh’s General People’s Congress party had indicated that they were amenable to the Special Envoy’s plan. For his part, President Hadi has also voiced support for the Special Envoy’s plan.

On July 17 the Special Envoy was then in Cairo to present his peace plan for Yemen to the Arab League, where he said that his proposal for Hudaydah port was just an initial step in a comprehensive “plan of action” to address the humanitarian and economic crises, and end the war through a peace process inclusive of all Yemen’s diverse political actors.

In the United States

Growing disapproval in the US Congress for American government support of the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen continued last month in both the House and Senate. In a surprising move on July 14, the US House of Representatives voted to add three amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – the annual bill that sets defense policy – that if passed into law would end funding for US military support of the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, and require more transparency regarding the US role in Yemen. The bill was a bipartisan effort led by members from both parties, with the broad support amongst Republicans being unexpected for many observers.

Representative Warren Davidson’s (R-OH) amendment prohibits use of funds in fiscal year 2018 (starting October 2017) for US military operations in Yemen, with exceptions in cases of defending US Armed Forces, supporting freedom of navigation, for humanitarian assistance operations and in cases within the scope of the 2001 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists). Congressman Rick Nolan’s (D-MN) amendment prohibits the use of funds in this budget for deployment of armed forces to participate in the ongoing civil war in Yemen.

Ted Lieu’s (D-CA) amendment requires the secretaries of defense and state to jointly submit a bi-yearly unclassified report to congressional committees (the Congressional Defense committees, the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations and the House’s Committee on Foreign Affairs) to assess, among other things: the Saudi-led coalition’s compliance with the “No Strike List and Restricted Target List”, which includes more than 33,000 potential targets in Yemen, and the extent of the US military’s involvement with the Saudi-led coalition.

The NDAA legislation will move to the Senate next where members will also have the opportunity to introduce similar amendments. Once the Senate votes on their version of the NDAA, the two houses will have to reconcile their different versions before sending the final version to the president to sign into law.

In the US Senate last month, on July 18 Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) presided over a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing titled “The Four Famines”: Root Causes and a Multilateral Action Plan, related to humanitarian crises in the Middle East and Africa. Sen. Young – a fierce critic of the war in Yemen who has said it is a threat to US national security – dedicated the majority of the nearly three-hour hearing to Yemen. In particular, Young focused on Hudaydah port and the multiple failed attempts to deliver four mobile cranes purchased – purchased with nearly $4 million worth of American financing – through the World Food Program (WFP). Speaking at the panel, WFP Executive Director David Beasley described how the Saudi-led coalition destroyed the original cranes and bombed a WFP warehouse at the port two years ago, and has since prevented the delivery of replacement cranes, greatly extending offloading times for ships and undermining the flow of aid and commercial goods into the country. Both Sen. Young and the ICRC’s director of operations, Dominik Stillhart, stated that such actions, along with the coalition preventing air traffic in and out of Sana’a airport, may constitute violations to International Humanitarian Law Rule 55 regarding access for humanitarian relief to civilians in need.

Other diplomatic developments

The fallout from the Gulf-Qatar crisis continued to reverberate in Yemen. The crisis began in early June when various countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Doha, accusing the latter of destabilizing the region and supporting terrorism. Then on July 25, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt designated three charitable organisations in Yemen and three individuals as Qatari-funded facilitators of terrorism. The organizations were the Balagh Charitable Foundation, the al-Ihsan Charitable Organization and the Rahmah Charitable Organisation. Of note, the Rahmah Charitable Organization had previously been designated a supporter of terrorism by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

In the United Kingdom, efforts to prevent or limit British arms sales to Saudi Arabia – in light of numerous reports detailing Saudi-led coalition human rights violations and war crimes in Yemen – were dealt a blow after a High Court ruling deemed that the UK government was not acting unlawfully in continuing to licence the sales. The UK has approved more than £3.3 billion ($4.3 billion) in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in the coalition began intervening in the Yemen conflict in March 2015.

In Yemen

Frontline developments and security

In late July, pro-government forces captured the Khalid bin Walid military base in Taiz governorate. This marks the most significant battlefield success by forces supporting President Hadi since the capture of Mokha in January of 2017. Khalid bin Walid military base is one of the largest in Yemen, situated near the Mafraq junction where highways linking Mokha, Hudaydah and Taiz intersect. The loss of Khalid bin Walid is the culmination of months of fighting in the area, and marks a major setback for the Houthi-Saleh alliance. This victory paves the way for pro-Hadi forces to solidify their control over the south-western coastline, to threaten Houthi-Saleh supply lines to, and control over western Taiz, and also exposes Houthi-Saleh forces in Hudaydah governorate to the north.

In Taiz city itself, fighting during July occurred on various fronts, both between ostensibly pro-Hadi militias vying for control over territory and revenue sources – such as extortion rackets in the local markets – as well as between pro-government troops and Houthi-Saleh fighters. Gunmen also assassinated two Hadi government military police on July 24, who had recently been deployed to the city to mitigate clashes between rival pro-government militias. Taiz city has been racked by insecurity and violence throughout the conflict, having long been divided between government and Houthi-Saleh forces which, along with regular indiscriminate shelling by both sides, has seen significant civilian casualties and major restrictions on civilian movement.

On July 29, Houthi-Saleh forces claimed responsibility for an attack on a United Arab Emirate’s ship moored off Mokha port. The attack consisted of a drone boat detonating near the ship; conflicting accounts exist as to whether UAE forces suffered casualties or the extent of damage. This is the fourth attack this year by Houthi-Saleh forces on Saudi-led coalition warships.

In the country’s south, government-control Aden saw the security situation remain tenuous in July, largely stemming from competing political and security actors vying for control, and the inability of the government to provide regular basic services. For instance on July 11, clashes between different security forces left two Presidential Protection Forces soldiers dead, while elsewhere in the city there were more public protests over counter-terrorism units’ heavy-handed tactics and arbitrary arrests during security sweeps in the city. On July 13, gunmen attempted to rob a branch of the al-Ahli Bank in Aden, which follows a series of other successful bank robberies in the past several months. Banks in Aden subsequently announced a strike on July 16 protesting the lack of security in the city.

The Transitional Political Council of the South – an organization formed earlier this year as a part of the Southern Movement, which is demanding southern secession from the Republic of Yemen – held its first meeting on the 5 July, and two days later pro and anti-Southern Transitional Council demonstrations took place in separate locations in Aden. Those supporting the council were demonstrating in protest of President Hadi’s June decision to dismiss three southern governors who are members of the Southern Transitional Council. On July 9, the council’s head, Aidarus al-Zubaidi, issued a statement outlining the future structure of a Southern political entity. Relative to previous months, however, the public rhetoric between the council and the Hadi government was somewhat calmer.

In Shabwah governorate west of Aden there were tensions around a critical oil pipeline in the lead up to an expected restarting of oil pumping operations. Confrontations flared between Hadi government soldiers and local tribal militias on July 13. Oil exports ceased almost entirely in 2015, and the government regards restarting them as crucial to supply it with foreign currency; Historically, however, the pipeline has also regularly provoked conflict over the distribution of revenues between the local area and the central government.

In the north, along the border with Saudi Arabia, clashes continued to take place resulting in casualties amongst both Saudi soldiers and Houthi-Saleh fighters. Houthi-Saleh forces have, throughout the conflict, launched regular raids, shells and at time ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

AQAP remained active throughout July, carrying out assassinations, attacks and issuing a continuous stream of public media pronouncements related to events inside and outside Yemen. On July 29, a senior commander of the UAE-backed Security Belt forces, Colonel Nasir Saleh al-Ja’ari, was assassinated in Abyan in an attack claimed by AQAP. Al-Ja’iri played an important role in retaking Abyan from AQAP militants in 2012.

In al-Bayda governorate, AQAP, and to a lesser extent the Islamic State, were continuously active in guerilla-style attacks against Houthi/Saleh forces. Local tribes opposed to the Houthis have reportedly been cooperating with AQAP militants in attacks against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, with AQAP gaining significant local legitimacy through the perception of its role as a protector of the Sunni population in the area.

In late July, al-Bayda governor Nayef Salah al-Qaysi was removed and replaced with Saleh Ahmad al-Rasas, the former deputy governor. Significantly, the US Treasury Department designated the former governor an AQAP facilitator in May 2016. Some parts of al-Bayda currently host a strong al-Qaeda presence, and the governorate is viewed as extremely difficult managerial challenge. According to local sources the Hadi government has being attempting to replace al-Qaysi for more than a year, with a number of potential replacements having declined the opportunity; one reportedly describing al-Bayda as “the cemetery of governors.”

AQAP also continued to launch attacks in Hadramawt throughout July. Three UAE Hadrami elite soldiers were killed in an ambush in western Hadramawt on July 25, killed three of them. On July 16, a suspected AQAP attack killed six Yemeni soldiers in northeastern Shabwah governorate. Later, on July 17, an improvised explosive device targeted UAE-backed Security Belt forces at their base in southern Shabwa, killing three.

Also last month, a story in the Washington Post last month revealed that American soldiers are present on the ground in Yemen, involve in an operation to push AQAP from its foothold in Shabwa governorate. According to the report, the move “signals the next phase of the invigorated US counterterrorism campaign against the militants that began shortly after Donald Trump took office.”

Economic updates

On July 6, following the reactivation of the Central Bank of Yemen’s (CBY) financial transfer system (SWIFT) in Aden, the U.S. Treasury unfroze Yemen’s foreign currency reserves. These reserves had been frozen since the transfer of the CBY headquarters from Sana’a to Aden in September 2016. It is estimated that the CBY will now have access to between $600 million and $850 million in foreign exchange. Government sources have said these funds will be used to support the import of basic goods and necessities. Prior to the conflict Yemen imported almost 90% of the food Yemenis eat its food, and importers have faced shortages of foreign exchange to facilitate imports since the CBY stopped providing letters of credit in August 2016.

On July 29, the CBY in Aden also received the fourth shipment, since the beginning of June, of new Yemeni rial banknotes from the printers in Russia. Yemen has faced a severe liquidity crisis in cash currency since mid-2016, and the Hadi government has stated its intention to use the new rials to pay public sector wages.

The Hadi government has claimed that the new access to both the foreign currency reserves and physical banknotes of Yemeni rials will allow it to pay government workers – most of whom have not received a salary payment since September 2016 – without risking a dramatic depreciation in the value of rial (which would have disastrous consequences for the purchasing power of ordinary Yemenis). It should be noted that current foreign exchange holdings are unlikely to serve importation needs at pre-conflict levels for more than a few months, and new sources of foreign exchange will need to be obtained by the CBY, either through an arrangement with donor organizations and countries, or the restarting of oil and gas exports.

In response to a demand by the Yemeni Banking Association, the CBY in Aden scheduled a July 23 meeting to address concerns regarding the government’s handling of the current liquidity crisis, according to high-level banking sector sources who spoke with the Sana’a Center. The banking sector’s main demands include a commitment from the government to begin paying interest on public debt, as well as a commitment to remove damaged banknotes from the economy and replace them with new ones. However, due to the poor security situation in Aden, notably a number of high profile robberies and security incidents targeting the banking sector in recent weeks, the meeting was postponed, with a new tentative date set for August 10.

Also related to the liquidity crisis, at the end of July banking sources in Sana’a reported that a voucher system implemented in April 2017 by the Houthi-Saleh authorities has ceased to operate. Facing a cash liquidity crisis and an inability to pay public sector workers, the governing authorities had initiated the program to pay 50 percent of wages with vouchers, which workers could then be redeemed at pre-approved marketplaces. As noted by the Sana’a Center at the time, the implementation of the voucher system was inherently flawed, given the near inevitability that the market value of the rial vouchers, relative to cash rials, to depreciate significantly over time.

Other CBY developments in July included the central bank headquarters in Aden implementing new stringent data reporting requirements. Local banking sources voiced concerns to the Sana’a Cener, however, that the establishment of this regulatory body will result in two regulatory bodies – including the long-established regulatory body at the former CBY headquarters in Sana’a – further dividing the CBY between Aden and Sanaa and causing significant difficulty and confusion for Yemeni banks operating in both government and Houthi-Saleh controlled areas of the country.

Reactivation of the Social Welfare Fund

Banking sector sources told the Sana’a Center last month that the Social Welfare Fund, which before the current conflict paid monthly stipends to approximately 1.5 million of Yemen’s most economically vulnerable people, will restart payments in the coming weeks. The fund is reportedly being assisted by UNICEF and the World Bank, in partnership with the local Al Amal Microfinance bank. The intent is for UNICEF to buy rials from a local banking source and provide these to Al Amal to distribute to beneficiaries, with negotiations currently ongoing as to the exchange rate at which the rials will be purchased. Currently, many international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) operating in Yemen are forced to exchange at the CBY’s official rate $1 for 250 rials, well below the current market rate which is closer to 370 Riyals to the dollar. At the official rate, beneficiaries of aid organizations are receiving an almost 40% penalty on their payments, whether in kind or in cash. In what was likely an effort to pressure banks to offer better rates of exchange, the CBY in Sanaa started publishing market exchange data during July for the previous month, with the June rate being estimated at the low-ball, but far more accurate rate of 348 Riyals to the US dollar.

The humanitarian crisis and cholera epidemic

In July, the cholera epidemic in Yemen became the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded in one country in a single year. The previous largest outbreak over the course of a year had been 340,311 cases of the disease recorded in Haiti in 2011; Yemen has surpassed that in less than seven months. Between the beginning of the second outbreak of cholera on April 27 and July 30, the World Health Organization has recorded 430,401 suspected cholera cases and 1,903 related deaths, though the rate of new cases in Yemen seemed to be on the decline. Out of 23 Yemeni governorates, 21 have been affected, with all of the five most affected governorates – al-Hudaydah, Amanat al-Asimah, Hajjah, Amran and Dhamar – lying in the Houthi-Saleh controlled area.

While cholera is endemic to Yemen, Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien last month described the current unusually severe outbreak as a “man-made crisis” and “a direct result of the conflict and serious violations of international law”. The ongoing conflict has highly damaged Yemen’s health, water and sanitation systems, leaving less than 45% of all health facilities fully functional and two-thirds of Yemen’s population without access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Furthermore, humanitarian access is often highly restricted in Yemen, meaning that only 30% of the needed medicines enter Yemen.

In order to face the crisis, the World Health Organization and the UN Children’s Fund have established more than 1,000 diarrhoea treatment centres and oral rehydration corners, training 16,000 community volunteers to spread information locally on prevention methods. Although the International Coordination Group, which manages the global stockpile of emergency cholera vaccines, had decided to deploy a million doses of the vaccines to Yemen in June, this plan was abandoned during a multilateral meeting in Sana’a on July 10. Upon the initiative of OCHA, local ministries, the UN, and other aid agencies got together to discuss and coordinate cholera response measures. In this context, the vaccine stock was no longer thought to be necessary nor highly effective, given the already wide spread of cholera in 288 out of 333 districts to that date.

Meanwhile, on July 16, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced that the number of Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance had risen to 20.7 million, up from 18.8 million in January. As the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, 17 million people are food insecure including 6.8 million classified as severely food insecure.

Human rights and war crimes

Throughout July, both the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi-Saleh forces were reported to have attacked civilians and civilian infrastructure in Yemen. In the largest incident, on July 18, at least 20 internally displaced people (IDPs) were killed and several injured in a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on the village of al-Ateerah in western Taiz governorate – controlled by Houthi-Saleh forces – according to the UN and local witnesses. The loss of life triggered condemnation from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who argued for a comprehensive investigation into potential war crimes, given the lack of military targets in the immediate vicinity of the strike.

On July 26, a team of UN investigators accused a Saudi-led coalition of carrying out a deadly attack on a boat of Somali migrants off the coast of Hudaydah in March, which killed more than 42 people and injured 34.

The investigators wrote in their 185-page report to the UNSC that: “This civilian vessel was almost certainly attacked using a 7.62 mm caliber weapon from an armed utility helicopter… The Saudi Arabia led coalition forces are the only parties to the conflict that have the capability to operate armed utility helicopters in the area.” Investigators added that the Saudi-led coalition had become a cover for the nation states involved to avoid blame for war crimes.

Also in July, the Saudi-led coalition prevented a UN flight from taking off from Djibouti to Sana’a because it was carrying three BBC journalists among the aid agency staff. Coalition sources said commercial flights to Aden were the only legitimate way of entering Yemen, given the Aden-based internationally recognized government’s monopoly on issuing visas for foreigners. Coalition sources also said there was insufficient security in Houthi-Saleh controlled areas for the journalists to be safe.

In brief

  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of August 4, received 44.1% 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); 36 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 27 hours, an average of 18 hours less than the month before. A total of 710,598 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in July, consisting of 429,905 mt of food, 228,238 mt of fuel and 52,454 41,892 mt of general cargo. This is increase by total of 238,305 mt of cargo from the month before.

This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Farea Al-Muslimi, Spencer Osberg, Ziad Al-Eryani, Adam Baron, Victoria K. Sauer, Olivia Segal, Mansor Rajeh, Ola Abdulla, 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.

Program/Project: The Yemen Review