Yemen

Despite ‘Quietest Week’ Since Start of Yemen Conflict, Access Constraints Hinder Humanitarian Aid for 6.7 Million People, Top Officials Warn Security Council

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SECURITY COUNCIL
8704TH MEETING (AM)

While Yemen is experiencing the “quietest” week in its five-year-long war that triggered the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, concerns persist about safe access to reach millions of people requiring urgent assistance, high-level United Nations officials told the Security Council today.

Martin Griffiths, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, citing a range of achievements since he last briefed the Council, said that de-escalation commitments are holding, the frequency of air strikes has dramatically dropped and fuel shipments are arriving in Hudaydah ports. Moreover, he said, despite a regional crisis, there have been no major acts of military provocation in Yemen, thanks to regional and Yemeni leaders who are deliberately exercising restraint. The significance and meaning of these initiatives only become real in the context of the political solution to end the conflict.

“We have indeed discussed the need for impatience in this respect,” he stressed. “Yemen has been brushed by potential tragedy from regional tensions, and so far, appears to have emerged from it unscathed. This is evidence of its leaders’ desire to keep Yemen safe from such tensions, but also to restore to its people, this year, the peace they so evidently deserve.” However, concerns persist, including dire humanitarian needs that remain unmet due to several factors, he said.

Ramesh Rajasingham, Director of the Coordination Division of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, speaking via video conference from Geneva, elaborated on the current situation on the ground, which is less dangerous for civilians than one year ago, but remains pockmarked by violence resulting in mass casualties. “It is unacceptable that civilians should so disproportionately bear the brunt of this conflict,” he said, urging parties to uphold their international humanitarian law obligations and swiftly move to a nationwide ceasefire.

Turning to humanitarian access, he said that current constraints affect an unprecedented 6.7 million people in need, amid harassment and violence against humanitarian agencies in northern Yemen. “We are doing everything we can to mitigate the impact of this crisis,” he said, adding that the Office aims to reach 15.6 million people in 2020 — about half the population. While parties are closer now to peace than they were before the Hudaydah Agreement, “that doesn’t mean peace is a foregone conclusion”, he said. After five years of conflict, millions of Yemenis are hoping that, with the Council’s support, peace may finally come.

Council members recognized the efforts of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Food Programme (WFP) to reach those most in need. The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, who chairs the 2040 Sanctions Committee on Yemen, stressed: “There is an urgent and critical need for unimpeded humanitarian access — for many people, this is literally the difference between life and death.”

They also commended steps taken by the Government of Yemen and the Houthi movement — formally known as Ansar Allah — to hammer out agreements and exercise restraint. Many reiterated support for the renewal of the United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA), but noted a lack of steps taken towards this accord’s implementation.

Several delegates voiced concern about the abandoned oil tanker off the coast, with the United States saying the Council should work together to avert this potential environmental disaster.

Echoing a common message, Tunisia’s delegate cited recent progress, saying these signs of hope must be built upon, including fully implementing the Riyadh and Hudaydah Agreements and establishing confidence-building measures to reach a political solution to the conflict.

The United Kingdom’s representative, cautioning that Yemen must not become hostage to a wider regional crisis, urged the international community to press the Houthis to not become a vehicle for wider retaliation by Iran in the region. A political settlement is the only way to foster stability in Yemen, underscoring the Council’s vital role in supporting the peace process.

South Africa’s delegate agreed, saying that the only sustainable solution is a Yemeni-led political settlement that is inclusive and fair and puts the interests and well-being of all Yemeni citizens first.

The representative of Yemen welcomed the UNMHA mandate renewal, but raised concerns that the Houthi militias are not serious about peace. Any attempt to circumvent the implementation of the Hudaydah Agreement will threaten the path to peace, especially regarding local security forces and authorities, withdrawal from the ports and city, and the release of prisoners. Welcoming the Special Envoy’s efforts towards a political settlement based on the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative and Security Council resolutions, he expressed hope to build a new federal Yemen based on national dialogue.

Throughout the meeting, many members expressed condolences for Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said of Oman, who was a leader in the field of peace and reconciliation.

Also delivering statements were representatives of Germany, France, Russian Federation, Indonesia, China, Estonia, Dominican Republic, Belgium, Niger and Viet Nam.

The meeting began at 10:04 a.m. and ended at 11:46 a.m.

Briefings

MARTIN GRIFFITHS, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, said that, while the region has been in crisis, no major acts of military provocation have been seen in the country, with this week being the quietest since the war began. “I hope it is not premature to say that Yemen has emerged at this moment unscathed,” he said, attributing this to leaders in Yemen and the region, who have deliberately exercised restraint. He also offered his condolences concerning the death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said of Oman, who was a leader in the field of peace and reconciliation.

Regarding the de-escalation of military operations, he said that the aerial war was reduced by 80 per cent in November 2019 and that, for nine days in January, there were no air strikes at all, which is “no small thing”. Noting that experience shows that military de-escalation cannot be sustained without political progress, he said that daily detailed negotiations can lead to key appointments in Aden in the coming days in line with the Riyadh Agreement, representing a starting point to open a new page to reach a political solution. Regarding the Hudaydah Agreement signed in Stockholm in 2018, no one should be satisfied with the record of its implementation. Although violence continues in southern districts, relative calm on the frontlines of the city demonstrate that de-escalation measures are working, with the Redeployment Coordination Committee engaged in discussions on opening humanitarian corridors.

Despite these achievements, he remained concerned about persistent restrictions on the freedom of movement of personnel of the United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA), calling for the immediate resumption of Mission patrols of the city and ports. Citing a range of gains, from the entry of fuel ships to the collection of revenues, he said that further confidence-building measures include the proposed “mercy flights”, a World Health Organization (WHO) project resulting from negotiations between the Government and Ansar Allah, which will transport patients in need of care. More evidence of good will between parties occurred with the 1 January release of six Saudi detainees by Ansar Allah, he said, adding that he will convene a prisoners’ exchange committee, as outlined in the Hudaydah Agreement.

All these initiatives support the urgent search for a political solution and the end of the conflict, he said. With each positive step, the launch of political consultations between the Government and Ansar Allah gets closer. The significance and meaning of these initiatives only become real in the context of the political solution to end the conflict, he said, adding that: “We have indeed discussed the need for impatience in this respect. Yemen has been brushed by potential tragedy from regional tensions and, so far, appears to have emerged from it unscathed. This is evidence of its leaders’ desire to keep Yemen safe from such tensions but also to restore to its people, this year, the peace they so evidently deserve.”

RAMESH RAJASINGHAM, Director, Coordination Division, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, speaking via video conference from Geneva, said that, on the whole, Yemen is less dangerous for civilians than it was before the Stockholm Agreement was created one year ago, with casualties in 2019 about 35 per cent lower than 2018 and fatalities down by almost half. Nonetheless, hostilities are flaring again along several front lines, particularly in Al Dhale’e, Hudaydah and Shabwah, and while mostly contained, mass casualty incidents persist across the country amid daily reports of civilians killed or injured when shells land on their homes, snipers fire on their communities or landmines explode. “It is unacceptable that civilians should so disproportionately bear the brunt of this conflict,” he said, urging parties to uphold their international humanitarian law obligations and to move as quickly as possible to a nationwide ceasefire.

On humanitarian access, he said that access constraints affect 6.7 million people in need of assistance, a figure that has never been so high amid harassment and violence against humanitarian agencies in northern Yemen. Staff are harassed and arbitrarily detained — sometimes for extended periods — while missions are delayed or cancelled. His Office engages continuously with the Ansar Allah authorities about such concerns and was encouraged that its officials had agreed, without conditions, to the assessment of the SAFER oil tanker decaying off the Hudaydah coast and at risk of rupturing. The Office was later disappointed when other officials reversed that position and it is now following up with authorities to confirm how to proceed. In the south, constraints against humanitarian agencies have intensified. Clashes in Shabwah have prevented aid convoys from travelling along the southern coast and humanitarians have also been directly targeted, notably in Al Dhale’e, where four international humanitarian groups were attacked.

He said that his Office is seeking Government support in addressing several proposed regulations that would hinder aid delivery, and it continues to advocate faster procedures for project approvals and the importation of key assets. Despite such challenges, the Office is able to deliver the world’s largest aid programme in Yemen, with the World Food Programme (WFP) providing assistance to more than 12 million people each month; 7 million people can now access clean drinking water, while 1.2 million medical consultations take place each month. On funding, he said that, with $3.5 billion received — or 83 per cent of requirements and $1 billion more than in 2018 — the 2019 response plan was relatively well resourced. In 2020, Yemen will remain the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

“We are doing everything we can to mitigate the impact of this crisis,” he said, despite that key assessments are being delayed in the north. The Office aims to help 15.6 million people in 2020 — about half the population. On the economy, he said that, because Yemen imports nearly everything, maintaining adequate commercial import flows is crucial. Commercial food imports have remained stable and fuel imports have recovered since severe shortages in the north last September and October. However, the rial is losing value, due partially to a dispute over bank notes printed after 2016 and a mid-December 2019 ban by Ansar Allah authorities of their use in the north — a decision that caused newer bank notes to pool in the south. Subsequently, the Government announced that payments to civil servants and retirees in the north could not be made.

Indeed, with a rapidly depreciating rial and disrupted salary payments, conditions are emerging that brought Yemen to the brink of famine a year ago, he said. “We must not let that happen,” he stressed, calling for a regular programme of foreign exchange injections that would help lower the exchange rate, and by extension, make it easier for people to afford what they need to survive. While parties are closer now to peace than they were before the Stockholm Agreement, “that doesn’t mean peace is a foregone conclusion”, he said. After five years of conflict, millions of Yemenis are hoping that, with the Council’s support, peace may finally come.

Statements

KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said that political settlement is the only way to foster stability in Yemen, underscoring the Council’s vital role in supporting the peace process. Expressing strong support for the Riyadh Agreement, which is vital to stabilizing the south and key for the overall peace process, she welcomed the 9 January announcement to make progress on it. The formation of a new Government is likewise critical to progress. She welcomed a decrease in inflammatory rhetoric, noting that the 20 December 2019 announcement that Houthis would stop striking Saudi Arabia must be enforced and carried out. Yemen must not become hostage to a wider regional crisis and she urged the international community to press the Houthis to not become a vehicle for wider retaliation by Iran in the region. Any peace process must be underpinned by a security agreement. On the humanitarian front, she expressed alarm that some of the factors that brought Yemen to the brink of famine are re-emerging, stressing that aid workers must be allowed to safely deliver life-saving support. The tanker issue must also be resolved, she said, urging the Houthis to allow the United Nations assessment team access to the tanker. On the economy, she encouraged engagement and looked forward to greater financial transparency.

INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) said that, since assuming the chairmanship of the 2040 Sanctions Committee on Yemen, her delegation is pleased that UNMHA’s mandate has been renewed, reaffirming her commitment to the peace process. The only solution is a political one, inclusive of all Yemenis, particularly women and youth. Stressing the need to fully implement the Stockholm, Hudaydah and Riyadh Agreements, she commended the efforts of the Government and the Southern Transitional Council towards a Riyadh deal that provides for the withdrawal of forces from Aden within three weeks. To address the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, it is imperative that parties do not actively obstruct the work of humanitarian personnel, she said, adding: “There is an urgent and critical need for unimpeded humanitarian access — for many people, this is literally the difference between life and death.”

CHERITH NORMAN-CHALET (United States), expressing support for renewing UNMHA’s mandate, said that her delegation is encouraged by recent political developments, with a more inclusive cabinet being in the interest of all Yemenis. However, she remained extremely concerned about the state of humanitarian access, highlighting WFP efforts and calling for the removal of levies on aid deliveries. The United States stood by the United Nations and its initiatives to provide aid, as all Yemenis in need deserve life-saving assistance. Noting that no progress has been made to assure clearance of personnel to address the problem of the abandoned oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, she said that Council members should work together to avert this potential environmental disaster. She encouraged the parties to capitalize on recent progress, expressing hope that they can maintain their path forward, as the time has come for a solution to the conflict.

MONCEF BAATI (Tunisia) called on all parties to overcome differences to end the suffering of the Yemeni people and find a political solution to the conflict. Welcoming recent positive steps, he said that these signs of hope must be built upon, including fully implementing the Riyadh and Hudaydah Agreements and establishing confidence-building measures to reach a political solution. While he welcomed the UNMHA mandate renewal, he said negotiations must continue, including regarding the prisoner exchange agreement. Commending the role played by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and other humanitarian organizations, he said that necessary funding must ensure an effective response and all parties must ensure the safe delivery of assistance. Going forward, there is a need for a political settlement to gain traction, he said, calling for building on achievements in accordance with relevant agreements.

CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) said that those responsible for attacks on the Red Sea Mills are demonstrating “an incomprehensible degree of cynicism and barbarism”. Everyone should be concerned by the lack of respect for international humanitarian law in Yemen and elsewhere. He encouraged the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Special Envoy to continue to demand humanitarian access, including mercy flights out of Yemen for those who have been severely injured. He also encouraged the Special Envoy to insist on the political participation of women. Germany hopes that 2020 will bring peace to Yemen, he said, adding that his country will contribute substantially to the humanitarian response plan while also facilitating meetings on the political track at different levels.

NICOLAS DE RIVIÉRE (France) said that there is an urgent need to find a political solution to the conflict in Yemen and to continue efforts to bring about de-escalation. Yemen should not be used as a proxy ground for regional tensions and he appealed to the Houthis to uphold their commitment to desist from attacks. Further, the Riyadh Agreement must be implemented as soon as possible and a new Government, including with representatives from the south, must be formed. He welcomed the Council’s recent renewal of the Mission to support the Hudaydah Agreement, stressing on the humanitarian front the priority of protecting civilians, including humanitarian and medical staff, and civilian infrastructure. Attacks against humanitarian staff are a source of great concern. Second, he advocated guarantees for humanitarian access. “This is non-negotiable,” he said, stressing that France will remain fully engaged to restore peace in Yemen, pushing for peace in the region and promoting a lasting solution to the conflict.

VLADIMIR K. SAFRONKOV (Russian Federation) expressed extreme concern about the situation in Yemen, noting that the Stockholm Agreement has not been fully implemented and that the Riyadh Agreement is meant to contribute to a solution. His delegation has advocated for a political and diplomatic solution to the crisis, based on inclusive dialogue among all Yemeni forces, and will continue to support mediation with all stakeholders in the country, both in its national capacity and as a permanent Council member. A unified position on behalf of all external players is likewise required. He called on all parties to support the Special Envoy, noting that, thanks to mediation, fighting has decreased. The ceasefire has held and ships have resumed entering and unloading shipments in ports, opening more avenues for humanitarian assistance. He called on the parties to the conflict to do their utmost so that such positive developments lead to a full cessation of hostilities and launch of a comprehensive peace settlement, exclusively under United Nations auspices that encompasses all religious and social groups. The international community must keep the conflict on a political track. He called on Yemenis to unite to suppress terrorism, restoring State stability and stable functioning of Government institutions. Recalling that Council resolution 598 (1987) directed the Secretary-General to develop a security architecture for the region, he drew attention to the Russian Federation’s concept of collective security in the Gulf.

MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) said that, sadly, there has been very little progress since the Council’s meeting in December 2019 on the situation in Yemen, reiterating his delegation’s support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to get the parties to resume of peace talks. It is critical that Yemenis own the process and the outcome. He condemned the attack on 21 and 22 December 2019 in Al Dhale’e, which targeted the premises of the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations, posing a security risk to humanitarian workers. While welcoming some progress in implementing the Riyadh Agreement, he said that it is important to fulfil prior agreements, such as the Stockholm Agreement. Any setback in implementing the agreement on Hudaydah is dangerous, as this pact is the lifeline for humanitarian assistance, he emphasized.

WU HAITAO (China) urged the Council to push for breakthroughs in finding a political settlement to the conflict. Parties in Yemen must advance the Stockholm and Riyadh Agreements and push for an early restart of a United Nations-led political settlement. Recalling that the Stockholm Agreement has helped ease tensions in Hudaydah and must be implemented, he applauded Saudi Arabia and other regional countries in their conduct of good offices and encouraged parties to maintain solidarity in the south. The Council, regional countries and the international community must likewise foster dialogue among the parties, with the Council discussing how to promote dialogue through different means and how to implement existing agreements. Regional countries must continue to encourage parties to build trust and to uphold the ceasefire. He called on the international community to improve livelihoods for Yemenis, helping to stabilize the currency, contain cholera, assist in development projects and increase employment. It is imperative for Yemeni parties to fully coordinate with United Nations humanitarian agencies.

SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia) said that all stakeholders must remain committed to de‑escalation, calling on parties to resume talks on a comprehensive political solution without delay or preconditions. He welcomed all efforts to de-escalate and all confidence-building measures, such as the recent prisoner exchange. It is unacceptable that civilians continue to be harmed and he voiced concern about gender‑based violence and arbitrary detentions, calling on all parties to fulfil their human rights and international humanitarian law obligations, and to hold all violators to account. As 24 million people depend on aid, it is crucial that unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance be guaranteed throughout the country. Stressing that implementation of the Riyadh Agreement is crucial, he likewise called on Hudaydah authorities to ensure free movement for the Mission to support that agreement and to allow a United Nations assessment team access to the SAFER oil tanker.

WELLINGTON DARIO BENCOSME CASTAÑOS (Dominican Republic) condemned attacks against humanitarian infrastructure in Al Dale’e, recalling that parties are obliged to uphold international humanitarian law and advocating efforts to find a political agreement. Concerning the Hudaydah Agreement, he commended work by General Abhijit Guha and emphasized that parties are obliged to ensure the free movement of Mission staff. He recognized the release of 200 detainees by Saudi Arabia in the context of the Stockholm Agreement, and commended the announcement about medical mercy flights being allowed to operate out of Sana’a airport, expressing alarm about the possibility of a Dengue-related illness epidemic. He likewise voiced deep concern about reports of food insecurity, stressing that agriculture output is well below average and food prices are significantly higher than pre-conflict levels. Any political solution must be inclusive, with safe spaces carved out for women to contribute to the peace process. He urged parties to adhere to the Stockholm Agreement and to uphold a ceasefire.

MARTHINUS VAN SHALKWYK (South Africa) welcomed the ongoing talks between the Houthis and the Government of Saudi Arabia, saying that sustainable peace in Yemen will only come through assertive efforts at dialogue. He called for full implementation of the Stockholm Agreement and for the Council to continue its support for confidence-building measures, such as the exchange of prisoners. The unprecedented humanitarian crisis necessitates an urgent commitment to a ceasefire and respect for the Geneva Conventions. He reiterated South Africa’s view that the only sustainable solution is a Yemeni-led political settlement which is inclusive and fair and puts the interests and well-being of all Yemeni citizens first.

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYSWERVE (Belgium), citing reduced fatalities by shelling and landmines, expressed hope that positive developments will be built upon. A political process under the United Nations auspices must be inclusive, with meaningful participation by women, and reflecting Yemen’s ethnic, religious and social diversity. Describing implementation of existing accords as woeful, he urged all parties to uphold the Stockholm Agreement. The operational environment for humanitarian actors is among the most restrictive in the world, and he urged all parties to facilitate access to aid and uphold international humanitarian law. He expressed concern about reports that Houthis are demanding 2 per cent of the budget for humanitarian projects in exchange for allowing those projects to go ahead. He cited the Yemen Central Bank’s need for foreign currency, corruption in institutions and the 19 December 2019 decision to ban the use and exchange of new bank notes as among the challenges, particularly in the north. He encouraged the Houthis to grant access to the SAFER oil tanker and expressed concern about serious violations of children’s rights, stressing that the Houthis’ policy of sexual violence against women “must immediately end”.

ABDOU ABARRY (Niger), describing the conflict in Yemen as complex, said that the decrease in violence is good news and called on parties to respect international humanitarian law, particularly for personnel delivering aid around the country. He emphasized the need to support the Mission’s mandate to allow unimpeded aid delivery and expressed hope that gains made since the signing of the Riyadh Agreement can continue to foster comprehensive peace. He urged parties to resume dialogue and implement the Stockholm Agreement, welcoming the prisoner exchange as a step in the right direction.

DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam), Council President for January, spoke in his national capacity, expressing concern about the complicated humanitarian situation in Yemen, which has significantly impacted the region’s peace, stability and security. He welcomed the Stockholm and the Riyadh Agreements as they would help contribute to de‑escalation. Positive progress has been made over the past few months, including a decrease in acts of hostilities in Hudaydah Governorate and the country’s south, as well as the release of detainees by Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. His delegation supports the Special Envoy’s efforts and commends the renewal of UNMHA’s mandate.

ABDULLAH ALI FADHEL AL-SAADI (Yemen), welcoming the UNMHA mandate renewal, recalled recent events, including grave concerns about the Houthi militias, who are not serious about peace, defying United Nations efforts. Any attempt to circumvent the implementation of the Hudaydah Agreement will threaten the path to peace, especially regarding local security forces and authorities, withdrawal from the ports and city, and the release of prisoners. Welcoming the Special Envoy’s efforts towards a political settlement based on the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, national dialogues and Security Council resolutions, he condemned serious violations committed by the Houthi militias, including targeting the Red Sea Mills and Médecins Sans Frontières.

Commending Saudi Arabia’s role in forging a new phase of partnership, he expressed hope of building a new federal Yemen based on national dialogue. However, ongoing threats include Iran’s support of the Houthis. Turning to humanitarian concerns, he said that the Government of Yemen is committed to addressing these needs and is dedicated to developing mechanisms and reforms to end corruption. Meanwhile, the Houthis have restricted the use of the new currency in certain areas, which could paralyse economic activities, he said, calling on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities in this regard. Aid agencies operating in Houthi-controlled areas face interference with the arrival of and access to aid deliveries. The Government will continue to work with these agencies, whose efforts are greatly appreciated, even when the Houthi militias are commodifying the suffering of Yemenis. Raising other concerns, he said that the leakage of the abandoned oil tanker remains a potential environmental disaster, calling on the international community to urge the Houthis to provide access to an assessment team to avoid this catastrophe.

For information media. Not an official record.