Amid unabated military clashes and a worrying jump in COVID-19 cases, an end to the fighting in Yemen is now “within close reach” as the warring parties continue to weigh a proposed set of draft agreements, the senior United Nations official in that country told the Security Council during a 14 May videoconference meeting*.
Martin Griffiths, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen, briefed the 15-member Council on progress made since the parties — the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis — began considering his three-pronged draft proposal in late March. “The United Nations has provided a feasible road map; it is up to those with arms and power to make the decisions to achieve it,” he said. The Yemeni people continue forcefully to demand peace and are understandably frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations, he pointed out. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economic downturn bring fresh challenges to a country that has already suffered more than nearly any other.
Recalling that the three-pronged drafts include a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures, and resumption of the peace process, he cited significant progress towards the most urgent component — a ceasefire. However, that is just one part of a broader package of measures that must be agreed in full, he said, emphasizing that the proposed humanitarian and economic measures — over which disagreement remains between the parties — are crucial to fighting the spread of COVID-19. The virus is currently spreading at an unknown rate in Yemen given the low levels of testing, he added, noting that, among other things, his proposed agreements would enable the creation of a joint operations cell between the parties, allow medical supplies and personnel to reach vulnerable populations, and reaffirm the parties’ prior commitments to release conflict-related detainees.
He emphasized that the details relating to the implementation of the agreements must not become yet another sticking point for drawn-out negotiations, welcoming constructive cooperation on the part of both the Government and Ansar Allah.
Turning to critical elements of the peace process, he said Yemeni women have repeatedly demonstrated their leadership and must be a core part of the parties’ negotiating delegations. All parties must shoulder their responsibility to protect journalists and respect the freedom of the press, he stressed.
Outlining developments on the ground, he said the military situation remains extremely concerning. Hostilities continue in Ma’rib and heavy fighting is now being seen in Al-Bayda and Al Dhale'e Governorates. Meanwhile, ceasefire violations continue to occur far too often in the port city of Hudaydah, where the United Nations Mission to support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA) maintains its dialogue with the parties, which is under strain.
He went on to report that Colonel Muhammed al-Sulayhi, the Government of Yemen Liaison Officer who was shot in March, has died of his injuries, while expressing hope that the parties will overcome their mistrust and reactivate the Redeployment Coordination Committee as well as the joint mechanisms to implement the Hudaydah Agreement.
Regarding southern Yemen, he cautioned that “a perfect storm is brewing” amid the rising civilian death toll, heavy flooding following the April rains, daily power outages and a health system that remains unequipped to handle the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. In that precarious context, the Southern Transitional Council’s recent steps to consolidate more power is troubling, he said. Amid military tensions rising, he called for restraint and urged the Government and the Southern Transitional Council to intensify efforts towards implementing the 2019 Riyadh Agreement.
Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the number of COVID-19 cases in Yemen has jumped from 1 in April to 72 today, including 13 deaths. Indications are that Yemen now has community transmission and Yemenis, like other people around the globe, are deeply frightened at the prospect of an unknown disease ravaging their country. Noting that the authorities are seeking support and calling upon international partners to help confront the virus, he said that means reporting cases everywhere, keeping people informed, caring for the sick and following expert advice. “This approach has flattened the curve in other countries, and it can do the same in Yemen,” he emphasized.
He went on to spotlight the five pillars of the wider United Nations humanitarian strategy in Yemen: protection of civilians; humanitarian access and delivery; funding; support for the economy; and progress towards peace. He also underlined the responsibility, under international law, of all parties to spare civilians in times of conflict, pointing out that the threat of COVID-19 makes that requirement all the more critical. Welcoming the coalition’s decision to extend its unilateral ceasefire through the holy month of Ramadan, he expressed hope that it will soon translate into a mutual agreement to end all fighting. Civilian casualties rose again in April, with 177 civilians killed or injured across Yemen, he said, noting that the first quarter of 2020 saw six attacks on health facilities — a three-fold increase over the previous quarter.
In similar vein, he expressed concern about increasing reports of the forcible deportation or detention of refugees and migrants due to COVID-19 fears, echoing the Secretary-General’s call to eschew rumour and scapegoating in favour of science and solidarity. Meanwhile, he said, the delivery of humanitarian assistance faces new challenges and restrictions on movement amid the pandemic, with a disturbing increase of harassment against United Nations aid workers, he said.
He went on to note that rising tensions in southern Yemen, many of which pre‑date COVID-19, are nevertheless complicating matters. Dozens of non‑governmental organization projects still await approval, effectively blocking $100 million in donor funding, he added, stressing the need to ensure more effective procedures for future projects and an end to arbitrary delays in movement.
Despite the many current challenges, he continued, the United Nations is reaching more than 10 million people each month with food, water, health care and other services that offer people a chance to protect themselves against COVID-19. Activities to combat the virus are also expanding, with 38 hospitals now equipped to serve as COVID-19 facilities, rapid-response teams deployed and health workers being trained and provided with essential supplies such as tests and personal protective items. “We are asking everyone to give Yemen the highest priority in COVID-19 global supply chains,” he said, also stressing the critical need for funding. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently informed the Yemeni authorities of plans to reduce the agency’s activities in the country, he noted, adding that the rapid-response team plans to close in June.
Outlining other at-risk essential activities, he warned that 31 of the 41 major United Nations programmes will begin closing down in the next few weeks unless they are able to secure additional funds, noting that aid agencies estimate they will need some $2 billion to cover essential activities from June through December.
He announced that Saudi Arabia and the United Nations will host a virtual pledging conference on 2 June, offering the international community a chance to show Yemeni civilians that they will not be abandoned. While donors have begun to signal support — including a large pledge by Saudi Arabia and the announcement of a funding lifeline by the United States — pledges remain far below what is required and most still have not been paid, he added. “We are calling on all donors to pledge generously and pay quickly.”
Turning to the economy, he said Yemen’s commercial food imports have been falling — in a country that imports almost everything — and fuel imports have risen considerably, most likely due to lower oil prices. Meanwhile, the weakening Yemeni rial means fewer people can afford basic goods, he noted. “COVID-19 is poised to make these dynamics even worse,” he warned, pointing out that remittances from around the world have dried up amid the pandemic. Calling for bold action to stabilize Yemen’s economy — including regular injections of foreign aid and affordable food — he emphasized that, even before the pandemic, millions of Yemenis were already exhausted from years of conflict, concluding: “Peace is the best chance Yemen has to contain COVID-19.”
As Council members delivered statements, several spotlighted Secretary‑General António Guterres’ clarion call on 23 March for a global ceasefire amid the pandemic. Others described developments in southern Yemen — including recent efforts by the Southern Transitional Council to consolidate power — as deeply troubling, especially amid a pandemic and a severe humanitarian crisis.
The representative of Estonia, Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity, stressing that, with nearly half of Yemen’s health facilities shuttered by fighting, the spread of COVID-19 is likely to have devastating consequences. He called upon the Government and the Southern Transitional Council to end their military activity and continue implementing the 2019 Riyadh Agreement, saying the accord will allow both parties to participate in political talks to resolve the broader conflict. In addition, he voiced regret that restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance are still in place, preventing aid groups from gaining access to those in need.
Indonesia’s representative echoed concerns that the crisis in Yemen continues despite the robust efforts of the United Nations. “If nothing changes in the coming months, there could be complete collapse in Yemen, with nobody gaining anything from the tussle for control,” he warned. Noting how difficult it has been for the parties to sit at the table together, he emphasized that the commitments laid out in the Stockholm and Riyad agreements are monumental and must not be tossed aside. Where disagreements exist, progress should be made incrementally.
Niger’s representative said the situation in Yemen, marked especially by the recent actions of the Southern Transitional Council, remains deeply worrisome. “[It] reminds us that our hopes were short-lived and that our mobilization must be even stronger.” Turning to the humanitarian situation, he warned that Yemen’s rainy season could make the situation of families already displaced and exposed to various diseases — including COVID-19 — even more difficult, urging an end to military offensives and the lifting of movement restrictions on humanitarian actors.
The Dominican Republic’s representative agreed that the Southern Transitional Council’s actions are cause for concern, predicting that a new civil war will erupt. “We know that it has been met with dismay by leaders of most southern governorates,” he said. He went on to describe testing for COVID-19 as inadequate, echoing the WHO call for local authorities to transparently report confirmed cases in a transparent manner.
The United Kingdom’s representative cited new modelling that suggests thousands of Yemenis may already be suffering from COVID-19. Recalling that his country has provided more than $940 million to the global response since the beginning of the pandemic, he echoed calls upon the parties — the Houthis in particular — to be transparent in reporting COVID-19 cases in order to allow WHO to procure equipment and ensure supplies reach those in need. Welcoming the Government’s initial positive response to the Special Envoy’s proposals, he urged the Houthis to do the same, stressing: “Yemenis cannot wait any longer.” Meanwhile, the extension of the ceasefire by the Saudi-led coalition — which has not been reciprocated — demonstrates the coalition’s serious intent to end the conflict.
France’s representative urged the parties to accept the crisis meeting proposed by the Secretary-General, at least to coordinate efforts to fight the pandemic. He joined other delegates in expressing deep concern about the potential impact of COVID-19 on highly vulnerable Yemenis, emphasizing that it is crucial to overcome the shortage of essential supplies.
China’s representative said all parties must strengthen their political will and engage in broad dialogue. “For China, our message is clear and consistent, and that is political settlement,” he said. Everyone must show unity, fight the pandemic and improve livelihoods. He went on to note China’s donation of 10,000 facial masks to Yemen’s Ministry of Health, as well as other forms of humanitarian aid, such as rice.
Belgium’s representative urged all parties to engage in an inclusive dialogue that addresses the concerns of all Yemenis, including those in the south. Emphasizing the importance of implementing the Riyadh and Stockholm agreements, he drew attention to his country’s €5 million contribution to Yemen’s country-based pooled fund, assuring that Belgium’s “solidarity with the fate of the Yemeni people remains strong”. He went on to express concern over reports of conflict‑related sexual and gender-based violence, while urging the parties to fulfil their pledges for women to take part in the peace process. He also joined other speakers in regard to the oil tanker Safer, which remains moored in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen and poses serious environmental risks. Granting the United Nations access to the vessel is crucial, he stressed.
The representative of the United States echoed that point, expressing solidarity with the Yemeni people’s struggle to survive conflict, food insecurity, devastating floods and now COVID-19. Welcoming the extension of the Saudi-led coalition’s unilateral ceasefire in support of the United Nations peace process, she strongly urged the Houthis to join the Government of Yemen in halting its offensive operations.
Viet Nam’s representative said it is high time to help doctors and humanitarian workers in helping the Yemeni people combat COVID-19. He expressed regret that WHO has ordered its staff to end operations in Houthi-controlled areas. Noting that only about $455 million of the $2 billion needed for United Nations operations in Yemen has been received so far, he urged the parties to agree an immediate ceasefire, and called for the full implementation of the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements.
South Africa’s representative stressed that Yemen is simply not equipped to deal with a full-scale COVID-19 outbreak. “If this crisis is not addressed, an entire generation will suffer long-term physical and psychological consequences,” he warned. The violence must stop so that the Yemeni people, health workers and aid groups can focus on slowing the pandemic, he emphasized. On the political impasse, he encouraged the parties to pursue new confidence-building measures, including agreement on a set of nationwide measures to combat COVID-19. He went on to stress that the threat posed by the Safer oil tanker must be addressed in a purely technical way, without politicization.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said COVID-19 has further strained Yemen’s already shattered health system, emphasizing that the delivery of humanitarian relief, in accordance with international law, is critical to helping people survive. Warning that the scaling down of some operations and possible closure of others represents the difference between life and death, she appealed to the international community to help strengthen the capacity of the Yemeni Government to protect civilians and their livelihoods. Among other things, she underlined the need for Yemeni responsibility and collective ownership over the political process. “This is the only path to a dignified advancement of Yemen, its institutions and political expressions,” she said.
Also participating were the representatives of Germany, Russian Federation, Tunisia and Yemen.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.