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United Nations efforts to end the conflict in Yemen made no effective headway in September, while political developments both at the UN and on the ground in Yemen will likely complicate future UN peace efforts.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ recommendation to establish an independent international commission to investigate war crimes by all sides to the Yemeni conflict was turned down by the UN’s Human Rights Council, which instead adopted a resolution to increase assistance to a controversial Yemeni committee investigating war crimes.

In addition, the internationally-recognized government’s decision in mid-September to relocate the Central Bank of Yemen from the capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden, is expected to exacerbate the country’s humanitarian catastrophe, which is already one of the worst in the world.

International peace efforts

There were no UN Security Council meetings regarding Yemen in September, and since the collapse of UN-mediated peace talks in Kuwait on August 6, no official negotiations between the main belligerents involved the conflict. The opposing sides are constituted by forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government – operating mainly from exile in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Aden, in southern Yemen – led by President Abdu Mansur Hadi with the backing of a Saudi-led international military coalition. The opposing side is made up of the rebel Houthi movement, allied with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his People’s General Congress (GPC) party, who control the capital, Sana’a, and much of Yemen’s north.

The most notable recent effort to bring the parties back to the negotiating table has come from a multilateral group external to the UN process, dubbed the “Quad”, consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Quad’s September 21 meeting, hosted by the UK mission to the UN in New York, included a briefing by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, on the challenges to achieving peace. Following this the UK Foreign office issued a statement reaffirming the Quad’s commitment to finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict and its “full support for the Special Envoy and his proposed roadmap to reach a comprehensive agreement.”

While many aspects of the peace plan put forward by the Quad at the end of August are similar to the ones the Special Envoy tried to advance at the failed Kuwaiti talks, a key distinguishing factor is the sequencing of the steps: Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s plan would have required that the Houthis and Saleh’s forces withdraw from captured territory and disarm before negotiations began to decide their place in a new national unity government, while the Quad’s plan would see these initiatives implemented simultaneously. The UK statement also noted the Quad’s concern over Yemen’s struggling economy, and specifically recent developments regarding the Central Bank of Yemen (discussed below). It then called for another cessation of hostilities, beginning with an immediate 72-hour ceasefire that would allow the UN Special Envoy an opportunity to consult with the warring parties and restart negotiations.

Given that the Quad’s peace plan suggests the parallel implementation of the political and security arrangements, rather than having the Houthis and Saleh’s forces surrender their strategic and military leverage first, it may offer enough of an enticement for them to reengage negotiations. Even so, a number of political developments during the summer will complicate future UN peace initiatives: in recent months various UN security council member states have privately, and at times publicly, begun to voice concerns regarding the Special Envoy’s ability to broker an agreement, bringing into question the support his future efforts will receive within the UN’s highest chamber. That the US, UK, UAE and Saudi Arabia saw it necessary to form the Quad is also telling of these states’ perception of the ability of UN mediation to independently bring about the results they prefer.

A second major political complication to future UN efforts is that, in the absence of a negotiated settlement to determine the contours of the future state, the Houthis and Saleh’s GPC have been unilaterally creating “new realities” on the ground in violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions. These moves have included reconvening the Parliament earlier this summer to ratify the formation of a Supreme Political Council to manage Yemen’s political, economic, military and security affairs, and a move at the beginning of October to appoint a new Prime Minister to form a “National Salvation Government”, which excludes members of Hadi’s internationally-recognized government.

No international war crimes investigation

On September 22, a coalition of human rights groups issued a joint letter to the 47 member states of the UN Human Rights Council urging the council to establish an independent, international investigation into alleged war crimes committed by all sides in the Yemeni conflict, as recommended by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in a report in August.

Al Hussein had previously called for an international investigation into war crimes in a report issued last year, following which the Netherlands submitted a draft resolution to the Human Rights Council in September 2015 for its establishment. However, under intense pressure from Saudi Arabia and other members of the Saudi-led coalition, and lacking crucial support from the US, UK and France – Amsterdam withdrew the proposal. In its place, the Human Rights Council adopted a Saudi-backed resolution to provide “technical assistance” to a domestic committee of inquiry, established by and reporting to President Hadi.

In the year since, this national commission has been widely criticized by human rights groups and UN officials as unproductive and biased. While war crimes by all sides have been well-documented by human rights groups, the national commission’s limited output has focused exclusively on the actions of Houthi-Saleh forces and ignored Hadi’s allies; in particular, overlooking the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes on hospitals, schools, markets, densely populated residential neighborhoods and other civilian infrastructure, as well as the use of cluster munitions in civilian areas. This was exemplified on October 8, 2016, by the Saudi-led coalition’s most deadly airstrikes thus far, which killed more than 140 people and injured hundreds who were attending a funeral ceremony in Sana’a.

Following the human rights groups’ joint letter to the UN Human Rights Council last month, the council adopted a resolution on September 27 calling for the UN Human Rights Commissioner to provide additional international human rights experts to work with the national commission of inquiry, “to enable it to establish the facts and circumstances of any violations and abuses.” Notably absent was any mention of a formal independent international investigation.

Relocating Yemen’s Central Bank

On September 18th, President Hadi issued a decree, from his exile Riyadh, to replace the Governor of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY), Mohammed Awad bin Hammam, and to move the CBY from Sana’a to the southern city of Aden. In an address to the UN General Assembly on September 23rd, Hadi said the move would escalate pressure on the Houthi rebels controlling the capital, while also acknowledging that it would bring hardship to millions of Yemenis, stating that: “We might fail to pay the salaries of people working in public service.” (Yemen has some 1.25 million government employees for whom the CBY has been paying salaries.)

Hadi’s decision to move the CBY follows his government’s August request for international financial institutions to deny the CBY access to the foreign currency reserves it holds abroad. Given that the CBY had by then expended much of the foreign currency reserves it held domestically, Hadi’s attempt to sever the CBY from currency reserves abroad would disable the central bank from carrying out many of its primary functions.

Hadi and his allies have justified the moves against the CBY and bin Hammam’s staff in Sana’a by claiming that the CBY has been unduly aiding the Houthis and associated forces during the conflict, and that the Houthis have plundered a total of $4 billion from the CBY’s reserves to fund their war effort since 2014. Bin Hamman has refuted this claim as “baseless.”

International diplomats and political figures on both sides of the conflict have generally considered the CBY as the last effective bastion of the Yemeni state and, crucially, bin Hammam had maintained the trust of financial markets and international financial institutions with his efforts to guide the economy and currency through the war and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

In a comment to Reuters, a Western diplomat stated: The concern is that the Yemeni government, and implicitly the Saudi-led coalition behind them, are trying to weaponize the economy.”

Importantly, while Hadi and his foreign allies have been disempowering bin Hammam and the CBY in Sana’a, at the end of September the new central bank in Aden, led by Hadi’s former finance minister Monasser Al Quaiti, was yet to secure the human resources and financial reserves necessary to operate and was thus effectively non-functional. The result is that by the end of last month, no authority in the country had the capacity to meaningfully execute essential central bank functions, such as paying public servants, stabilizing the value of the Yemeni rial and facilitating imports – crucial tasks in a country that imports 90 percent of its nutritional needs.

Various UN officials had reported that more than 12 million Yemenis were in need of life-saving assistance in September, while basic service were in near total collapse. The rapid erosion of a functioning central bank will exacerbate this humanitarian catastrophe.

In brief

  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of October 10, received only 47% of the US$1.63 billion it needs to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen.
  • The UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) – launched in May 2016 to speed the flow of commercial goods to Yemen through the Saudi-led coalition blockade – granted certificates of clearance to 27 of 40 vessels requesting to offload cargo in Yemen during the month of September. In reference to increased efforts to bring relief aid into Yemen, however, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said on October 5: “the real issue is the restriction of unloading capacity at the port because the cranes are smashed.”

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.