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In September, more than two dozen heads of state highlighted the plight of Yemenis and the need to end the conflict in speeches before the United Nations General Assembly.

At the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, a resolution was adopted to establish an international group of experts to investigate human rights abuses in Yemen since the beginning of the war. This comes after more than two years of lobbying by UN officials, UN member states and human rights groups for an international inquiry into war crimes in Yemen.

In Belgium, the European Union hosted several dozen tribal leaders from Yemen in exploratory talks regarding potential new avenues for conflict resolution and track II negotiations.

In the United States, bipartisan congressional efforts aimed at curbing American participation in the Yemen conflict continued, including efforts to withhold shipments of precision-guided weapons to the Saudi-led coalition intervening in the Yemen conflict, and efforts to force the withdrawal of US military assets from the country. None of these efforts, however, appeared to have enough general support to be voted into law.

In Yemen, the World Health Organization reported that the cholera epidemic had surpassed 750,000 suspected cases, while the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported continuing attacks against civilians by all belligerent parties to the conflict

In Sana’a, the Houthis staged a large rally on the third anniversary of their takeover of the capital. This came after a Houthi purge of government positions formerly occupied by loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Diplomatic developments

At the United Nations

In September, at the United Nations General Debate, numerous heads of state highlighted the plight of Yemenis and the need to end the conflict during their time to speak before the world body. These included leaders from Algeria, Austria, Bahrain, Belize, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Estonia, Ethiopia, the European Union (EU), Ireland, Jordan, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Saint Vincent And The Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Spain, The Holy See, Tunis, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates.

In his speech to the General Assembly, Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi accused Iran of providing arms shipments and long-range missiles to Houthi fighters and the allied forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in an attempt to destabilize the region. Hadi praised his own government for seeking solutions to the conflict based on the UN-backed peace process, the GCC Initiative and the associated National Dialogue Conference. President Hadi then criticized the Houthi-Saleh alliance for not being as committed to peace as his government.

During the General Assembly Week, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, gave a presentation at a side event in New York in which he spoke positively of new World Bank projects that would provide aid to Yemen through a social development fund to preserve basic health services in the country. Highlighting that the only solution for Yemen is a political one, McGoldrick praised the recent meeting in Brussels that included various tribal groups (discussed below). When asked about the idea that the cholera epidemic seemed to be mainly centered in rebel areas, he responded that this was a misconception.

During his presentation McGoldrick said that the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict, previously expected to be released in September, would be presented to the UN Security Council in the first or second week of October. Last year’s report had initially listed Saudi Arabia to the so-called “child killer” list of state and non-state actors violating the rights of children in conflict zones around the world; this was in relation to Saudi conduct in the Yemeni conflict, where it is leading a military coalition intervening in support of the Hadi government. After Saudi Arabia had threatened to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for UN poverty programs, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon removed the kingdom from the list. A confidential draft of this year’s Children and Armed Conflict report leaked to the press in August showed Saudi Arabia again named to the “child killer” list (for more see Yemen at the UN — August in Review).

At the Security Council last month Yemen was not discussed. The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed had been scheduled to brief the Security Council on Tuesday, September 26, however this briefing was rescheduled to October.

At the UN Human Rights Council

The crisis in Yemen was a focal point of the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), held from September 11 to 29 in Geneva. For the third straight year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein reiterated his call for the HRC to establish an independent international body to investigate violations of human rights (HR) and international humanitarian law (IHL) in Yemen; 67 international and Yemeni NGOs echoed this demand in a joint letter sent to council members and observer states in advance of the session.

In a contradiction to previous convention, the session saw two different resolutions regarding Yemen proposed. Following up on similar resolutions the council had adopted in 2015 and 2016, Egypt drafted another on behalf of the council’s Arab Group calling for technical assistance and capacity-building support for Yemen’s National Commission, which President Hadi established in 2015 to investigate alleged human rights violations.

Simultaneously, another group of nations – led by the Netherlands and Canada, and later joined by Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland – tabled a draft resolution requesting that HRC President Joaquín Alexander Maza Martelli of El Salvador appoint a year-long commission of inquiry. This proposal came in response to repeated international criticism of both the Yemeni National Commission and the Saudi Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) – the investigative mechanism of the Saudi-led military coalition – which are widely viewed as ineffective and biased.

While representatives from the Netherlands and Canada stated that the two resolutions were complementary, the Arab Group saw them as highly conflictual and boycotted informal consultations on the other draft proposal. Intensive negotiations between the groups and key HRC member states, such as the United States, followed, and on September 29, the last day of the HRC session, a compromise was reached to adopt the Egyptian draft proposal with amendments made based on the Netherlands-Canada proposal.

The adopted resolution requests that the High Commissioner establish a “group of eminent international and regional experts” before the end of 2017 to work in parallel with the national commission, with the commission also being given further technical assistance and capacity-building. The expert group’s one-year mandate includes the investigation of human rights violations and abuses, as well as violations of “applicable fields of international law committed by all parties to the conflict since September 2014.” Its findings to the High Commissioner will then form the basis for an interactive dialogue at the council’s 39th session in September 2018.

Amnesty International called the adopted resolution a “breakthrough” and a “a clear reminder that when the Human Rights Council member states fulfil their responsibility to place human rights ahead of political interests they are able to pave the way for perpetrators of atrocities to be held accountable.” Much will depend, however, on the yet-to-be-appointed experts’ actual independence and qualifications, and the resources allocated for them to fulfil their mission. While the adopted resolution encourages all parties to the conflict to grant the group of experts “full and transparent access and cooperation,” it is foreseeable that the state and non-state actors involved in HR and IHL violations in Yemen will continue to impede investigations of such.

In the European Union

Last month the EU delegation to Yemen hosted informal consultations in Chateau Jemeppe, Belgium, with more than 30 tribal leaders from various areas across Yemen. While details of the discussions remained confidential, the general premise of the meeting was to explore new potential avenues for conflict resolution and track II negotiations.

Observers noted that the EU-sponsored talks appeared to indicate that Brussels was ready to take up a more assertive role regarding Yemen, and that it is more free to do so as a result of Brexit and the United Kingdom’s imminent exit from the union; London – which is the second largest western military and political backer of the Saudi-led coalition – would likely have opposed deeper EU engagement in Yemen, but now is in a weaker position to do so.

After two years of comparative absence from the Yemen file, the French government has also grown increasingly engaged, displaying a more robust willingness to take leadership in political and conflict-resolution related developments. French government officials described this decisions as originating from the office of President Emmanuel Macron, stating that the newly-elected president had himself expressed a desire to treat Yemen as a key priority.

In the United States

The New York Times and the Guardian reported last month that US President Donald Trump’s administration was in the midst of expanding the authority of the US military and Central Intelligence Agency to carry out drone strikes in a number of selected countries. These reports noted that Trump’s initiative involved further dismantling Obama-era safeguards and restrictions placed on the military operations outside of officially declared war zones. Yemen is expected to be amongst the countries most affected by this policy change.

While domestic issues dominated the agenda for members of the US Congress in September, there was also continuing demonstrations of bipartisan opposition to the US role in Yemen. This included continued debate and amendments in the Senate regarding the National Defense Authorization Act the annual bill that sets defense department policy and resource allocation. This included Senator Todd Young’s (R-IN) amendment aimed at limiting the transfer of precision guided weapons to Saudi Arabia until steps are taken to protect Yemeni civilians; his amendment, however, did not make it to the floor for a vote.

In another Senate debate regarding the possible repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) – the act passed shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington that gave the president wide latitude to carry out military operations around the world – Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) highlighted the need for a debate over the US role in the Yemeni conflict. In his speech to the Senate, Paul argued that US military and political support of the Saudi-lead coalition has facilitated the empowerment of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other radical groups, exacerbated the country’s already dire humanitarian situation, and generally been counterproductive to US interests.

On September 27, in the US House of Representatives, congressmen Ro Khanna (D-CA), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Mark Pocan (D-WI), and Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced House Concurrent Resolution 81 that would require the president to terminate unauthorized military operations in Yemen. If passed, it would force the withdrawal of all US military assets and personnel from the conflict in Yemen. As it is a privileged resolution it will pass committee and is guaranteed a vote on the House floor in 15 days.

While this resolution is not expected to gain the votes required to pass, it is reflective of growing congressional concerns regarding the US role in Yemen and the president’s ability to unilaterally launch military operations. Khanna and Pocan, in a letter to colleagues that was obtained by Foreign Policy, wrote, “We aim to restore Congress as the constitutionally mandated branch of government that may declare war and retain oversight over it.” It is expected that H.Con.Res. 81 will come to a vote by mid October.

Developments in Yemen

Tensions between allies

On September 9, the head of the Supreme Political Council in Sana’a and senior Houthi official, Saleh al-Sammad, unilaterally fired loyalists of former President Saleh from key positions in the government, replacing them with Houthi partisans. In a bid to contain wider fallout between the two allies, Saleh and Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi held a conference call on September 13, though tensions remained following the talks.

On September 21, for the occasion of the third anniversary of the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, the Houthis held a large rally in the capital’s Sabeen Square under heavy security, with nearly all the surrounding roads blocked off. This event included groups from nearly every region in which the Houthis maintain a commanding presence, and bringing the participants to Sana’a indicated a notable investment on the part of the Houthis to transport supporters. High-ranking members of the Houthi leadership were in attendance, including the head of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, who reportedly arrived in a captured Emirati armored vehicle. Many of the leaders present offered speeches calling for greater cooperation within the Houthi-Saleh faction.

The Houthi event came on the heels of the General People’s Congress (GPC) rally in August, during which Saleh, the head of the party, had addressed supporters on the 35th anniversary of the party’s founding. The August rally was generally perceived as a GPC attempt to show its strength vis-a-vis the Houthis, and in terms of total attendees, the GPC rally was noticeably larger than that which the Houthis staged a month later.

Tensions between ostensibly pro-government forces were also on display last month. These included battles in Taiz between the Abu Abbas brigades and forces affiliated with the Islah Party, signifying the continuing rift between Salafi militias and forces affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

The UAE-backed al-Hizam, or “Security Belt” forces, under the cover of the Saudi air force, continued its campaign last month to secure parts of Abyan governorate from AQAP. In pursuit of this goal, a variety of raids on safehouses in the province were carried out, and two mid-level operatives were reportedly killed in the districts of Mudiyah and al-Wadea. Shortly after, AQAP claimed an attack on a Security Belt checkpoint in Abyan with improvised explosive devices.

US air strikes against suspected AQAP targets continued in September, including three in al-Sawmah district of the al-Bayda governorate alone. Reports of civilian casualties were mixed, with AQAP claiming civilians had died in airstrikes while local media has not verified these allegations.

The cholera epidemic

In September, the number of suspected cholera cases continued to rise from the ongoing outbreak, now five months old. By September 27, there had been a total of some 753,000 reported cases and 2,122 associated deaths. The average case fatality rate (CFR) has been kept relatively low at 0.28%, while Raymah governorate reached the highest CFR of 0.93%. So far, all governorates except the island of Socotra have been affected as well as 304 out of 333 districts. In terms of absolute numbers, most affected are Yemen’s western governorates, notably those under Houthi-Saleh control such as al-Hudaydah, Amanat al-Asimah where the capital of Sana’a is located, Amran, and Dhamar. The highest absolute number of cases has been documented in al-Hudaydah with close to 100,000 reported cases, while Amran is facing the highest per capita number of cases. Notably, Sa’ada governorate saw the frequency of new cases per week increase 53% between August 28 and September 24.

Human rights and war crimes

At the beginning of the 36th session of the HRC on September 11, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights updated the council on human rights situations in 40 states, noting that the number of reported casualties in Yemen had risen to 5,144 killed and 8,749 injured as of August 31. He attributed the majority of these to airstrikes launched by the Saudi-led coalition.

During September, indiscriminate attacks conducted by both sides to the conflict continued. On September 15, Houthi-Saleh forces were responsible for the shelling of residential areas in Shab Al Dhuba and Souq Al Samil in Taiz governorate, killing three children and injuring seven as well as two adults, according to witnesses. The following day, a coalition airstrike reportedly hit a civilian car in Harib Al Qaramish district, killing five children, four women and three men on their way home after having sought medical treatment in Sana’a. In both cases, the casualties have been verified by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. On September 29, when the HRC adopted its resolution on Yemen by consensus, two coalition airstrikes hit Sa’ada governorate, according to local media sources, killing five civilians – including one child – and injuring 14 in the districts of Sahar and Razih.

In addition to indiscriminate and other forms of illegal attacks, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions continued to occur in Yemen. Reuters and the International Business Times reported that on September 25, Houthi forces had kidnapped and detained a US citizen in the capital Sana’a where he had been working for the Yemeni oil and gas company Safer. The day after, the Houthi-Saleh Ministry of Interior denied responsibility and affirmed to be pursuing the perpetrators. It claimed that unknown gunmen had kidnapped the US citizen (original Arabic source).

In brief

  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of October 2, received 54.8% of the USD $2.3 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.

(*Edits made to article 2017-10-04-02:04AST)

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

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.