As military escalations and the onset of COVID-19 threaten to wipe out hard-won gains in Yemen, an opportunity has emerged to bring peace, Special Envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council in a 16 April videoconference meeting*, stressing that there could be no better moment for parties to silence the guns.
Indeed, he said the threat of the novel coronavirus has galvanized efforts towards peace among Yemenis and the international community alike, recalling the Secretary-General’s appeal on 25 March for parties to end hostilities and focus on reaching a political settlement. Government and Ansar Allah leaders welcomed that call, as did other Yemeni political leaders and civil society. “They want this war to end and they want their leaders to agree to resolve their differences through dialogue,” he assured.
Updating on recent events, he said the Saudi-led coalition on 8 April announced a unilateral ceasefire for an initial two weeks, aiming to create an environment conducive for the success of United Nations-led peace efforts. Governments in the region and beyond have helped behind the scenes with timely advocacy. “All eyes are now on the parties to the conflict,” he said. “This is the time for hard decisions.” The demands on the leaders of both parties are of existential importance. “I know that both the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah want to end this conflict on the basis of a fair and just peace,” he added.
Describing three proposals he presented to the parties, he said the first concerns a nationwide ceasefire. The second centres on humanitarian and economic measures — among them, releasing prisoners and detainees, opening Sana’a International Airport, paying civil servant salaries, opening access roads and ensuring the entry of ships carrying essential commodities into Hudaydah ports — all of which will help in the fight against COVID-19.
The third proposal provides for the urgent resumption of the political process, he added. He has been in constant negotiations with the parties on details and wording to be included in these agreements, with the expectation that they will soon formally adopt these documents. Describing conversations with the two parties and those with the Saudi-led coalition as continuous, detailed and constructive, he said “we are moving towards a consensus over the proposals — particularly on the principle of a nationwide ceasefire.” Efforts are ongoing to bridge differences before convening at a virtual meeting where agreements will be tabled, confirmed and published.
Meanwhile, military activities persist and he expressed fear that the war will continue until agreement is reached on the proposals. While the governorate of Marib remains the centre of gravity, he drew attention to the “senseless” attack on the women’s section of the Central Prison in Taiz city on 5 April. In Hudaydah, ceasefire violations continue daily, and following the sniper shooting of a Government Liaison Officer, the Redeployment Coordination Committee and joint mechanisms to implement the 2019 Hudaydah Agreement have ceased to function. The Head of the United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA) continues to engage with parties to prevent a spillover of the fighting.
“Yemen cannot face a war and a pandemic simultaneously,” he insisted. The battle against the virus will be all consuming. “We can do no less than to stop this war and turn all our attention to this new threat… I know that the leaders of both parties, as well as those in the region, understand this as well as anyone.”
Also briefing the Council, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said a similar sense of urgency must be brought to the humanitarian crisis, as Yemen confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on 10 April. Five years of war have severely degraded the health infrastructure, exhausted people’s immune systems and increased acute vulnerabilities. Epidemiologists warn that COVID-19 could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences in Yemen than elsewhere. “We are, in other words, running out of time,” he stressed.
Outlining five priorities, he first underscored the need to protect civilians, pointing out that in the first quarter of 2020, civilian casualties rose each month, with more than 500 people killed or injured. One in every three civilian casualties has been a child. In Al Jawf — where hostilities escalated in mid-January — that rate is now one in two. Hostilities persist mainly in Marib, Al Jawf, Al Bayda and Taiz. Since January, 60,000 people have fled conflict in Al Jawf, most of them arriving in Marib, where 800,000 displaced people have sought refuge since 2016. If conflict expands deeper into Marib, more than 1 million people could suddenly be on the move.
He said the second priority — humanitarian access — is a requirement of international humanitarian law. While the precautions taken against COVID-19 are not slowing aid operations in a major way, restrictions on staff and cargo movements — mostly in the north — continue to limit delivery. In Government-held areas, bureaucratic impediments and insecurity pose problems, with humanitarian organizations awaiting Government approval for 43 projects that would assist 2.3 million people.
In the north, access challenges remain severe, he said. Progress is not moving fast enough. Restrictions are so onerous that aid agencies are being forced to calibrate programmes and delivery to levels where they can manage the risks associated with such a non-permissive environment. While Ansar Allah authorities have approved 13 aid projects since early March, 92 agency requests are pending. Local officials arbitrarily refuse missions, while humanitarian staff experience severe movement restrictions and long delays at checkpoints, even when paperwork is in order. In a particularly serious event, United Nations international staff have been prevented from moving from field hubs to Sana’a. “This is unacceptable,” he insisted, and there has been no progress in accessing the SAFER oil tanker.
To be sure, there have been positive steps, he said, noting that a principle governing framework for non-governmental organizations has been agreed upon and — after months of negotiations — there is finally confirmation that the World Food Programme’s long-planned biometric registration exercise can start. All the while, humanitarian operations remain a lifeline, helping 13 million Yemenis each month. In 2019, humanitarian agencies supported 3,100 health facilities and conducted 17 million medical consultations, enabled access to clean water and sanitation for more than 11 million people and treated a million acutely malnourished children.
However, of the 41 major United Nations programmes, 31 will start closing in the coming weeks if the Organization cannot secure funding. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 per cent of health services provided through the response could stop at the end of April, disbanding health teams that have successfully contained disease outbreak.
“The world’s largest aid operation cannot afford extended cuts during this unprecedented emergency,” he said, estimating that it will need $900 million to carry it through July. Noting that the United Nations-led response has received $800 million in 2020, he said the equivalent 2019 figure was $2.6 billion and he urged donors to pledge and immediately release funds. He also called for bold action to stabilize the economy “before it’s too late” — including with regular foreign exchange injections and “doing whatever we can” to immediately increase quantities of affordable food and consumer goods in markets.
Indeed, COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reinvigorate the political process and move towards peace, he said. “It is, though, also promising severe repercussions if that does not happen,” he warned.
In the ensuing discussion, Council members welcomed the unilateral ceasefire announced by Saudi Arabia, on behalf of the coalition forces, as well as Yemen’s commitment to uphold it, calling on the Houthis to do the same. Several pressed parties to engage in talks under United Nations auspices, stressing that COVID-19 presents an epic challenge to already trying conditions.
The United Kingdom’s representative said a ceasefire and cooperation with the United Nations-led political process “is the best defence we have” against COVID-19. Noting London’s $930 million contribution to the global coronavirus response and $1 billion in support to Yemen since the conflict began, he said the parties must now also improve humanitarian access to mitigate the worst effects of the outbreak. Saudi Arabia’s ceasefire is a rare opportunity to deliver peace, he said, urging the parties to make it a permanent end to hostilities.
The representative of the United States — welcoming Saudi Arabia’s unilateral ceasefire and urging the Houthis to make the same commitment — said all parties in Yemen must recommit to de-escalation and resumed talks. She urged all Member States to fully comply with the arms embargo, voiced concern over reports of Iran’s interference in the conflict and called out Houthi obstruction of humanitarian efforts. The Houthis must stop blocking a solution to the SAFER oil tanker problem and permit United Nations officials to carry out repairs on the vessel.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said recent flash floods in Sana’a and the COVID-19 pandemic have added layers of complexity to the dire humanitarian situation, requiring regional and global collaboration. Welcoming recent ceasefire announcements alongside WHO efforts and cooperation with Yemen authorities on a response to the novel coronavirus, she said sustaining humanitarian aid is critically important at this juncture.
Belgium’s representative voiced concern that aid is being obstructed and urged all parties to comply with their international law obligations. They must also prevent grave violations of children’s rights by implementing an action plan with the United Nations, and a memorandum of understanding of time-bound activities with the coalition. For their part, the Houthis allow access to the SAFER tanker.
China’s representative said all parties in Yemen must strengthen their political will, engage in broad dialogue and consultations, implement the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements, cease violence and build trust. Describing the humanitarian situation as grim, he expressed hope that the international community, including the Council and humanitarian agencies on the ground, will focus on the possible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Estonia’s representative said only an immediate ceasefire and collective response in cooperation with the United Nations can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. He urged all parties to stop attacks on civilian infrastructure, comply with international human rights law, engage with the Special Envoy and guarantee safe, full and unhindered access for aid delivery. He also reiterated the call on the Houthis to allow United Nations officials access to the SAFER oil tanker to prevent an environmental disaster.
Viet Nam’s representative voiced regret that some donors have cut funding for humanitarian work in Yemen. Calling on parties to uphold an immediate ceasefire — and on the United Nations, Member States, international organizations and donors to support humanitarian efforts — he echoed the appeal for full implementation of the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements.
“Yemenis must seize the momentum for political settlement”, added Indonesia’s representative. He called on all parties to avoid impeding humanitarian assistance, emphasized the importance implementing the Stockholm, Hudaydah and Riyadh agreements and urged the Houthis not to hinder access by the United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement patrols.
Offering the national perspective, Yemen’s representative expressed support for peace efforts based on the Gulf initiative and its implementation mechanism, the outcomes of the Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference and Council resolution 2216 (2015), which represents the essence of peace. Having complied with all calls to de-escalate, Yemen has worked to combat COVID-19 and create an environment for the success of the Special Envoy’s efforts. It has worked to save Yemenis from the humanitarian catastrophe created by the Houthi militia and welcomed the unilateral ceasefire by the “Coalition to support Legitimacy”.
He said the Government maintains an unwavering focus on humanitarian issues “according to the logic of priorities”. Such a pledge by the Houthis could lead to discussions on other issues — and ultimately a comprehensive settlement that meets aspirations to restore the State, end the coup, hand over weapons and resume the political process. “The situation in Yemen demands a complete cessation of all forms of escalation,” he said, a united stand with global humanitarian efforts and the urgent establishment of mechanisms to prevent the Houthis from exploiting the truce for military gains. He urged the international community to exert pressure on the Houthis to comply with these calls without preconditions.
Detailing various acts committed by Houthi militias — including the targeting of civilians in Marib, Hudaydah and Taiz, in service of the “destructive Iranian project” — he said global disregard for these crimes only encourages Houthis to violate international law. He urged the Council to condemn death sentences issued by the Houthis against four journalists who have been detained since 2015. Fighting COVID-19 — the Government’s top priority — has required it to equip quarantine centres, enhance hospital preparedness in all governorates and do everything possible to save lives. The Supreme National Emergency Committee for Coronavirus is working to obtain medicines and ventilators in adequate numbers, he said, and thanking Saudi Arabia for its support to Yemen’s health-care sector.
The Russian Federation’s representative expressed support for the Council press statement adopted in line with the Secretary-General’s call to end the conflict and combat COVID-19. Yet, reports indicate that hostilities continue, he observed, pressing the parties to cease hostilities and chart a path towards political settlement. Dialogue is essential. Moscow will continue to support United Nations efforts, he said, citing humanitarian aid and the response to the novel coronavirus as priorities. Recalling that Yemen’s people already have experienced cholera, diphtheria and hunger, he underscored the importance of unimpeded access for humanitarian and health-care workers to all areas of the country.
Niger’s delegate called on the “wisdom and responsibility” of the parties in Yemen to cease hostilities immediately. They must honour their commitments, resume peace talks and respect past agreements. He called for a halt to recurring restrictions on the movement of humanitarian aid and urged all sides to focus on the fight against “our common enemy”, the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the extreme poverty of its people and its precarious health system, the coronavirus outbreak could be particularly disastrous for Yemen, he added.
The representative of South Africa encouraged parties to continue their cooperation with the Special Envoy to reach an inclusive Yemeni-led and -owned political settlement. He called for the full participation of women in all aspects of that process. Underscoring the need to fully implement the Hudaydah Agreement, he expressed concern that the number of deaths from the war has exceeded 100,000. As Yemen is critically under-equipped to address COVID-19, he welcomed measures taken by the National Government of Accord and the Houthis to curb its spread, highlighting the ability of both sides to work together. He also urged them to ensure unhindered passage of humanitarian and medical supplies to those in need.
Germany’s representative, recalling the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire, said the situation in Yemen speaks to that need, yet “the promises we have heard have been empty”. The Saudi-led coalition’s announcement that it would cease all hostilities for two weeks has had no discernible effect on the ground. Nor has there been a similar commitment by the Houthis. He urged all parties to immediately stop hostilities, return to the negotiating table and translate their professed willingness into action by agreeing to a nationwide ceasefire as a first step towards a comprehensive and inclusive political solution to the conflict. All actors must work to limit the spread of COVID-19 and ensure full entry for aid workers, medicine and medical supplies into Yemen. UNMHA also must be given the necessary access and free movement to ensure its operations.
Tunisia’s representative expressed full support for ending hostilities and ramping up efforts to counter a potential COVID-19 outbreak in Yemen, pointing to the Special Envoy’s proposals for a ceasefire, resumed political process and both economic and humanitarian action. He likewise called for full implementation of the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements to enhance confidence-building measures. Only through dialogue will parties be able to reach a comprehensive settlement, in line with the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, outcomes of the national dialogue and relevant Security Council resolutions, he said.
France’s representative called on Yemeni parties to fully engage in negotiations to “silence the guns” based on the Special Envoy’s proposals. While welcoming the coalition’s announced cessation of air strikes, he said Yemeni parties meanwhile have intensified hostilities, which he condemned in the strongest terms. He called on them to commit to a cessation of hostilities and ensure safe, unhindered humanitarian access. United Nations efforts to fight COVID-19 in Yemen must be supported and all obstacles to such access lifted. France remains fully mobilized and engaged to find a political solution to the crisis and respond to the coronavirus pandemic, he said, noting more broadly its work to de-escalate regional tensions.
The representative of the Dominican Republic, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity to urge all parties to immediately halt fighting, implement the ceasefire, release all detainees and those forcibly disappeared, activate prisoner exchange agreements and work with the Special Envoy to restart inclusive political negotiations. He underscored the importance of women’s meaningful participation in that regard, stressing more broadly that early action can still prevent a full outbreak of COVID-19 in Yemen. He urged authorities to allow health-care and humanitarian workers full access into the country — and to communities in need — so they can help slow the infection rate.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.