Tomorrow at noon, Security Council members will meet in consultations to discuss the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition offensive on the port city of Hodeidah, held by Houthi rebels. The UK requested the session earlier this afternoon. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths by VTC and Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ursula Mueller, are expected to brief. This session follows consultations held on Monday, 11 June, due to members’ concerns over an impending attack.
The attack began earlier today after the expiry of a forty-eight hour deadline given by the coalition to the UN to convince the Houthis to withdraw from Hodeidah. Griffiths issued a statement saying that the escalation will have serious consequences on the humanitarian situation and will have an adverse impact on his efforts to resume political negotiations to end the war. He affirmed that his office is still seeking to negotiate arrangements for Hodeidah that would address political, humanitarian and security concerns of all parties, and called on the parties to engage constructively with these efforts. The attack comes less than a week before Griffiths is scheduled to brief Council members on a framework that he has been developing for the resumption of peace talks.
Council members are well aware that a battle for the densely populated city could be protracted, and entail heavy civilian casualties. They have shared concerns of the impact of the closure of Hodeidah port on what is already the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis. Approximately 70 percent of imports such as food and humanitarian assistance passes through the port. Even before the war, Yemen imported 90 percent of its staple food requirements and almost all of its fuel and medical supplies. The Council called Hodeidah a “critical lifeline” in its June 2017 presidential statement, and in its more recent 15 March presidential statement called for the port’s “sustained and full opening” in recognition of its role in addressing the humanitarian needs of a country where 8.4 million people are severely food insecure. In the past, UN officials have told Council members that no alternative entry points—other ports or land crossings—could compensate for the loss of access through Hodeidah.
When the Council met on Monday, Griffiths briefed on his efforts to avoid an attack, saying that the Houthis had agreed to the deployment of UN observers to the port and to have port revenues directed to the Central Bank for the payment of civil servant salaries. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock also briefed, seeking Council help in ensuring that the Hodeidah and Saleef ports remain operational, in pressuring the parties to meet their obligations to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, and in enabling the continuation of the Special Envoy’s wider political efforts for a peace process.
During Monday’s consultations, Council members found it difficult to agree on press elements. Russia, this month’s president, proposed elements that called for restraint and for Griffiths to have time to negotiate ways to avert an attack on the port, keeping in mind the negative humanitarian consequences. Kuwait, which is a member of the coalition, was unable to agree to most of the text and wanted language from resolution 2216, including that the Houthis should withdraw from all seized territory. In the end, members could only agree on very general press elements: a single paragraph that “reiterated that only a negotiated political settlement can bring the war to an end”, without specifically mentioning Hodeidah.
It seems that the current dynamics may make it difficult for agreement on a strong Council response to the situation. Due to their strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the P3 have generally been cautious about more active involvement, preferring a more bilateral approach. During the discussion on the press elements, the UK sought amendments to focus on the importance of keeping Hodiedah and Saleef ports functioning, and to condemn Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In a press statement two days ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that he had spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear the US’ desire to address the UAE’s “security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports”. A group of elected Council members—Bolivia, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland and Sweden—which have taken joint positions on Yemen when they perceive Council products as insufficiently addressing the humanitarian situation or lacking balance, had been ready to request a meeting on the offensive.
The coalition views the port as a means for the Houthis to finance their war effort, and to divert the flow of humanitarian aid. It also asserts that Hodeidah port is used to smuggle weapons. The Yemen Panel of Experts in its most recent annual report said this is “unlikely” because such a route is closely monitored. The UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism, which has provided clearance for commercial vessels to the port since May 2016, and in recent months has been inspecting around ninety-percent of cargo, has never reported discovering any weapons. The coalition also conducts its own inspections of commercial shipments to the port. Coalition member states have not reported any of these inspections to the 2140 Yemen sanctions committee, as required by resolution 2216 which established the arms embargo. The Houthis inherited large quantities of arms from the stockpiles of the Yemeni army, including ballistic missiles, when they took over the capital in September 2014. The Panel has reported that external sources of arms are more likely to come through land supply routes emanating from southeast Yemen or the Omani border. Black markets along front lines are believed to be sources of arms and ammunition.