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In Hindsight: Council Action and Inaction on Yemen

On 15 June, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement on Yemen, which focused on the country’s humanitarian crisis and confidence-building measures related to Hodeidah port. It was the Council’s first product on the Yemen war in nearly 14 months, with the exception of the annual resolution that it adopts to renew the Yemen sanctions regime. In total, the Council has adopted five decisions on Yemen since the start of the Saudi Arabia-led intervention on 26 March 2015: resolution 2216, two resolutions to renew the sanctions measures and two presidential statements. This output contrasts with the Council’s activity regarding other major wars and humanitarian crises, such as those in South Sudan and Syria.

Resolution 2216, adopted on 14 April 2015, remains the key Council decision on Yemen since the outbreak of full-scale war. Adopted shortly after the coalition intervention, the resolution established a targeted arms embargo against the Houthi rebel group and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. It also subjected Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi and the son of the former president, Ahmed Ali Saleh, to financial and travel ban sanctions, bringing the number of individuals sanctioned to its current total of five.

Resolution 2216 placed a number of demands on the Houthis: notably to withdraw from all seized areas and to relinquish all arms seized from security and military institutions, including missile systems. These demands were frequently held up by the Yemeni government as conditions to be fulfilled before the government would enter peace talks, and later as actions to be carried out before discussing transitional governing arrangements. (President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi was elected in February 2012, on a single-candidate ballot, envisioned to manage a two-year transition that long ago collapsed.) However, resolution 2216 also demanded that “all Yemeni parties adhere to resolving their differences through dialogue and consultation”. Russia abstained in the vote on resolution 2216 as its proposal to call for a cease-fire was not included.

During the drafting and negotiation of resolution 2216, countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) exerted considerable—even exceptional—influence. GCC members prepared the draft that became the basis of negotiations. Jordan, which was the Arab Council member at the time, then functioned as penholder on the text. This was notable since the UK is the usual penholder on Yemen. Negotiations were mostly held among the GCC countries, Jordan and the P5, largely excluding the other elected members. At one point, Russia’s permanent representative Vitaly Churkin met with Saudi ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi to negotiate the text. 

This was not without precedent. In the preceding two months, GCC countries prepared initial draft texts on which they consulted closely with the P5, which led to resolution 2201 of 15 February 2015 and a 22 March 2015 presidential statement on Yemen. In both these instances, the UK and Jordan jointly submitted the draft texts to the other Council members.

Not long after its adoption, some Council members became frustrated by some of the implications of resolution 2216. For example, members have noted that withdrawals and the disarmament of the Houthis could occur through a negotiated process over time, rather than being required to happen upfront. However, because of members’ bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, most have been reluctant to attempt a new resolution in the face of Saudi objections.

The Council’s approach has thus been to adopt presidential statements, when possible in support of progress that emerges in the UN-brokered political process, and thereby gradually expand upon the framework for negotiations. Its 25 April 2016 presidential statement, adopted to welcome the start of the Kuwait peace talks, was apparently considered useful in encouraging the parties to engage beyond positions taken based on resolution 2216. An attempt to adopt a presidential statement in July 2016, during the recess in the Kuwait talks, failed to gain consensus in the Council. Last month’s presidential statement further reflects the view that a resolution is too sensitive.

At times, frustrated by the stalemate and worsening humanitarian situation, some members have pressed for a new resolution. New Zealand, supported by several other elected members, suggested a humanitarian resolution in early 2016. After members discussed elements for a text, Al-Mouallimi held a 4 March 2016 press conference stating that OCHA regarded a humanitarian resolution as unnecessary, and reiterating Saudi Arabia’s view that resolution 2216 provides the basis for a political settlement. As progress emerged in organising the Kuwait talks, proponents of a resolution backed off, not wanting to risk undermining the rare positive developments on the political front.

In October 2016, following airstrikes on a funeral in Sana’a that killed over 140 people, the UK announced that it would propose a new resolution. During a 31 October Council meeting on Yemen, UK Ambassador Matthew Rycroft outlined the elements of the resolution, which would call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and on the parties to return to negotiations on the basis of the UN Special Envoy’s roadmap, developed to revive a political process. However, a draft was never circulated, apparently after pressure from Saudi Arabia.

The Council has also been reluctant to insist on the proper enforcement of the arms embargo and that it not penalise civilian life. Since the start of the intervention, the coalition has maintained restrictions on commercial shipping and flights, requiring the inspection of ships by coalition forces and their authorisation to proceed to Yemen. These policies have resulted in significant declines in essential imports to Yemen of food and fuel, as well as costly delays that have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis, which the UN has warned since June 2015 could turn into a famine. The measures have gone far beyond the Council mandate, which only authorises inspections when there are “reasonable grounds” to believe cargoes were in violation of the embargo. It also requires states to report all inspections to the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee, which with one exception (of several air shipments in June 2015) the coalition has never submitted.

An April 2017 study by the Yemen Panel of Experts contained several recommendations for the 2140 Sanctions Committee to address delays and obstacles for commercial shipping. These included having the Committee inform the coalition and the Yemeni government that regular denial and delays of shipping access could constitute obstruction of humanitarian assistance (which is among the designation criteria). It also proposed that the Committee establish a list of prohibited items to address the problems created by the Coalition denying shipments that it assesses contain dual-use military-civilian goods. Only one member spoke in favour of the recommendations at an 18 April Committee meeting, and the proposals gained little traction.

At a bilateral level or through formats such as the Group of 18 Ambassadors to Yemen and the “Quad” (comprised of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, UK and US), several Council members have pressed the coalition on a number of these issues, such as getting Saudi Arabia to agree to the creation of a UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism to facilitate commercial shipping or urging the coalition not to attack Hodeidah port. It has been suggested that these channels have relieved some of the burden on the Council.

It remains to be seen whether last month’s presidential statement, breaking a long silence on Yemen, previews more active Council engagement to revive peace talks and to address the humanitarian crisis.

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