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Yemen at the UN – December 2016 Review

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية


In December, the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi officially rejected the latest UN proposal to end the conflict in Yemen. The Hadi government then laid out new conditions for any future peace agreement that effectively preclude the possibility of a negotiated end to the war.

The Houthi movement and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sought out but failed to garner international recognition for their recently formed “Government of National Salvation” (GNS), following which the GNS was affirmed through a vote of confidence in the Houthi-Saleh controlled Parliament in Sana’a.

While there were no formal UN meetings regarding Yemen in December, the so-called “Quad” multilateral group – consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – met and later presented a united front calling for the implementation of the UN peace plan, while simultaneously the outgoing Obama administration canceled a $350 million arms deal for Saudi Arabia, citing Saudi bombings of Yemeni civilians.

Terrorist attacks in Aden underlined the Hadi government’s inability to enforce security in its zones of control, Yemeni government institutions continue to collapse, and a new Secretary General and five new non-permanent members usher in a new term for the UN Security Council.

Yemeni government rejects UN peace plan

On December 1, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, met with Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Aden. Hadi, and a portion of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, had arrived in Aden only a week earlier. This was the second time Hadi had visited Aden since he moved with most of his government to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March 2015.

Subsequently, on December 6, Hadi’s delegation to the UN submitted a letter to the UN Secretary General and the president of the Security Council stating the official position of the Yemeni government. The letter asserts that the Special Envoy’s current peace plan fundamentally contradicts various UN Security Council resolutions, statements and other international agreements, and that the Hadi government considers it a “free incentive to the Houthi-Saleh rebels, legitimizing their rebellion, their agenda, and the establishment of a new phase of the bloody conflict…[it also] creates a dangerous international precedent, encouraging coup trends against elected authorities and national consensus.”

The letter then states that for “any political solution” to be agreeable, former President Ali Saleh, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, “all those included in the Security Council sanctions regime, and all those with proven involvement in the coup or have committed crimes against civilians, must leave political life and leave the country with their families into self-imposed exile for a period of at least ten years, as well as the implementation of international sanctions against them.” These conditions effectively represent Hadi’s rejection of all current international efforts towards ending the Yemeni conflict, with the letter widely viewed in international circles as an attempt to dictate the outcome of any future negotiations before the negotiations have taken place.

This created obvious challenges for the Special Envoy’s efforts moving forward. Through the later half of last year there had been growing general consensus among UN Security Council member states that Hadi was incapable of heading any post-conflict government in Sana’a, given his government’s track record of corrupt and inept leadership, and that Hadi personally is widely despised in Yemen. Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s latest proposal to restart the peace process thus laid out steps by which Hadi would relinquish power following the formation of a new transition government.

Hadi’s official rejection of the Special Envoy’s plan last month clearly illustrated his ambitions to maintain power. The Yemeni president likely also felt his stance was bolstered by the renewed efforts his forces, and those of his Gulf allies, have recently undertaken to make advances on the battlefield in Yemen, with Hadi seeking more favourable circumstances on the ground before engaging in any future potential peace talks. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that December witnessed an intensification of the military conflict, including clashes along the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border areas, fighting in eastern areas of Taiz city, and a resumption of fighting in Asilan district in Shabwa province in the south.

Meanwhile, through December the Houthi movement, and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, continued attempts to legitimize the “Government of National Salvation” they had established in Sana’a the month before – a move the UN Special Envoy had described as “an obstacle” to peace efforts. These legitimization efforts included the Houthis sending a delegation to both Russia and China, though both states denied the official character of the visit and China later expressed “strong concern over the formation of a government by the Houthi group and its allies.” On December 10 the Houthi-Saleh Parliament of Yemen then granted the “Government of National Salvation” a vote of confidence.

Multilateral efforts to bolster the UN process

While there were no formal meetings at the UN regarding Yemen last month, on December 18, foreign ministers from the so-called “Quad” multilateral group – consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and the Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs. Oman has remained neutral in the Yemeni conflict and was the only Gulf Cooperation Council state not join the Saudi-led military coalition supporting the Hadi government. (It should be noted that a number of media outlets have recently reported that Oman joined the military coalition, but this information is inaccurate; Oman in fact joined a different Saudi-led effort focused on counterterrorism issues.) Both the international community and the warring parties in Yemen have regarded Oman’s role positively, making it increasingly likely that any negotiated settlement to the conflict will be facilitated through Muscat.

At the December 18 meeting discussions revolved around the peace proposal the UN Special Envoy put forward on October 23, 2016 – which had been endorsed by Quad members and, initially at least, rejected by all three of the main warring parties in Yemen. Through a US State Department communiqué on Yemen released following the meeting, attendees to the Quad meeting welcomed the decision by the Houthis and elements of the General People’s Congress (GPC), loyal to Saleh, to reverse course and endorse the Special Envoy’s roadmap on November 16. The communique then called on the Houthi-Saleh alliance to urgently engage with the Special Envoy’s security plan, which requires the Houthis and Saleh’s forces to withdraw from territory they have seized during the conflict and hand over their medium and heavy weapons.

The communique stated that “[t]he UN proposals, that include the sequencing of political and security steps, represent an outline for a comprehensive agreement whose details will be settled in negotiations” – effectively a rejection of the conditions the Hadi government had laid out in its December 6 letter to the UN Security Council. In what was presumably an effort to reassure President Hadi on the sequencing of elements in the Special Envoy’s plan however, the Quad communique also stated that “[t]he transfer of presidential authorities will not take place until the parties begin implementation of all political and security steps.”

The US Secretary of State and the Saudi foreign minister held a press conference following the Quad meeting to share the purposes and outcomes of the discussion and affirm their support for the UN Special Envoy’s peace plan, reiterating their calls for a cessation of hostilities and an end to the conflict in Yemen.

US-Saudi tensions

On December 13, the Obama Administration, with less than six weeks left in office, announced it had blocked a $350 million arms deal between American weapons manufacturer Raytheon and the Saudi government for the sale of “smart” munitions. Administration officials cited concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen that have resulted from Saudi coalition airstrikes, noting in particular the Saudi bombing of a funeral hall in Sana’a in October 2016 which killed well over 100 people and wounded more than 500. (Whether the incoming Trump administration will uphold Obama’s intervention in this arms deal is yet to be seen.)

Shortly afterward, it became public knowledge that UK Minister of Defence Michael Fallon had received evidence that the Saudi-led coalition had been using British-made cluster munitions in Yemen. On December 19th, the Saudi government then announced its military coalition would no longer use of cluster bombs in Yemen.

Widespread insecurity and collapsing government services

The persistent ineffectiveness of Hadi’s security forces has been fueling doubts amongst international stakeholders regarding the Hadi government’s ability to maintain peace and stability in the country following any successful peace negotiations.

The domestic military forces fighting on behalf of Hadi are largely disorganized and often improperly trained, with the internationally recognized government becoming ever more reliant on the Saudi-led coalition’s air power to keep it actively involved in the conflict. At the same time, in many areas supposedly under the control of the Hadi government, the lack of an organized and coordinated security force has resulted in a security vacuum that has allowed terrorist organizations, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, to proliferate.

On December 10, a suicide bombing near a military base in Aden killed 57 people. On December 18 a similar attack occurred in the same area – a suicide bomber disguised as a disabled police officer entered a crowd of security personnel outside the house of a Yemeni commander and detonated his explosive. The second attack killed 48 and wounded 84, with ISIS claiming responsibility for both attacks. This last attack was the fifth incident of its kind since pro-Hadi forces gained control of Aden in July 2015, and the two incidents last month happened while Hadi and members of his government were in Aden.

Meanwhile, as the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate – Yemen is already listed as a level three humanitarian crisis, the highest designation the UN has – government institutions that would otherwise be responding are witnessing a continuing deterioration of their capacity to do so, in large part due to the continuing non-payment of public servant wages since August 2016. Of particular importance is the devastating effect this has had on the healthcare sector, with hospitals increasingly being left without the staff, supplies and fuel necessary to provide medical services. Sanaa Center research in December identified the crippling challenges facing public health institutions at all levels, from the ministry offices down to local clinics.

Sana’a Center surveys last month found that the UN and other international humanitarian organizations operating in Yemen have, in many instances, resorted to providing financial incentives to key public sector employees to keep them at their posts and performing essential duties. The severe shortage of physical banknotes in circulation is, however, hampering the efforts of all international and local organizations, as is the interference of local powerbrokers, especially in Houthi/Saleh controlled areas, and the current difficulty in gathering accurate data on the health situation in the various governorates.

Importers have also reported that the persistent difficulty in accessing foreign exchange, as well as transportation and logistic challenges arising from the conflict, are hobbling their ability to restock the country’s reserves of basic foodstuffs. Yemen is almost entirely dependant on imports to meet the population’s food requirements and many areas of the country are already facing imminent famine; unless there is a rapid improvement in the quantity and distribution of food imports in the near term, widespread starvation is a likely.

New UN Secretary General, Security Council members

Antonio Guterres began his first term as UN Secretary General in January 2017, though it is unclear how Guterres will differ from Ban Ki Moon in his approach to the Yemeni crisis. However, the decade Guterres spent as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has given him a significant background with humanitarian crises, and he is familiar with Yemen: in January 2011, Guterres made a three-day visit to the country, during which he visited Yemen’s northern governorate of Sa’ada where he met with elected government officials and Houthi representatives.

The 15-member UN Security Council also saw changes in its non-permanent membership on January 1, 2017, with Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Italy, and Sweden joining the council for two-year terms, replacing Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, and Venezuela. It is not yet clear how this turnover will impact Security Council activity relating to the Yemeni crisis, however Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, and Venezuela were among the most vocal member states during their tenure in highlighting the humanitarian crisis, the war’s effects on children, and calling for a cessation of hostilities. They also repeatedly raised the Yemeni situation at closed-door council meetings, attempting to critically assess the work of the UN Special Envoy and push for greater efforts to resolve the conflict. In the upcoming Security Council session, it is likely that Sweden and Bolivia will be the strongest advocates for international action to stop the war in Yemen, due to both being relatively free from direct influence by Gulf countries and, especially in the case of Sweden, having strong human rights records.

In brief

  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of December 31, received only 60% of the USD $1.63 billion it has called for to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen. The $655 million shortfall rolled over into 2017.
  • As of this writing, the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) had not reported the number of cargo vessels that had applied for or received permission to offload in Yemen in November and December, as it has for every other month since it started operating in May 2016.

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.