With a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping over Yemen, and as Houthi rebels pursue their offensive in the oil-rich Marib region, more must be done — urgently and with greater international funding — to ease what is still the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, senior United Nations officials told the Security Council today as the 15-member organ, meeting via videoconference, conducted its monthly debate on the conflict in that Middle East country.
Martin Griffiths, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, said that six years on, there is no sense as to when the conflict might end. However, there is a fair plan on the table, frequently discussed by the parties, that favours humanitarian action and a nationwide ceasefire which would pave the way for a political solution. All that is needed now is for the parties to agree to such a deal, he said, welcoming Council unity on the crisis.
Surveying the situation on the ground, he said that COVID-19 has unleashed itself again on the Yemeni people, while fighting in the area of Marib is showing dangerous signs of escalating, with the local population and internally displaced persons both in the line of fire. He also expressed alarm at reports of drone and ballistic attacks by Ansar Allah against Saudi territory in the past week. In Hudaydah, the United Nations Mission to support the Hudaydah Agreement is engaged in intensive talks with the parties on resuming the activities of the Redeployment Coordination Committee, which would help maintain calm in that port city. In Taiz, fighting and tensions are on the rise and key roads are still closed after many years, inflicting terrible consequences on civilians.
Painting a hopeful picture of what could unfold if the parties agree to end the conflict, he said that the guns would fall silent and long-blocked roads would reopen to allow the passage of humanitarian supplies and, later, the free movement of people. Children would go back to school and workers would return to jobs across conflict lines. Impediments to the entry of ships into Hudaydah would be lifted, allowing shipments of fuel and other crucial commodities to dock and unload their cargo. Revenue from those imports would go into the Central Bank of Yemen to be used to pay civil service salaries. Domestic and international flights would resume at Sana’a airport, students would return home and the sick would be able to travel easily for medical treatment. Finally, the parties might agree to release detainees so that families might be reunited. Such arrangements would allow a return to normal life, he said, adding: “Let us together call upon the parties not to disappoint — not us, but their people — and instead deliver Yemen from its tragic plight.”
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that the situation in Yemen — still the world’s largest humanitarian crisis — is quickly getting even worse as the country faces a devastating new wave of COVID-19 infections. The number of confirmed cases doubled in just six weeks and hospitals and clinics are turning people away due to a lack of room and supplies. Aid agencies are doing all they can to help and the United Nations is working with the Government on vaccines after a first shipment of 360,000 doses arrived in Aden two weeks ago through the COVAX facility. Another 1.6 million doses are expected to follow in the coming months, “but right now, the virus is moving much faster than we can keep up”, he said, appealing for more resources to scale up treatment, monitoring and other measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
This second wave comes at a time when large-scale famine is still bearing down on the country, he said, with tens of thousands already starving to death and another 5 million “just one step behind them”. March was the deadliest month for civilians so far in 2021, with more than 200 killed or injured as a result of hostilities, nearly 350 homes damaged or destroyed, and 10 camps hosting displaced persons coming under fire. About a quarter of civilian casualties occurred in and around Marib where Ansar Allah forces have continued an offensive that has displaced nearly 20,000 people so far. The fighting in Marib has also set off escalations in Taiz and Hudaydah, among other places, he said, adding that tens of thousands more people are expected to flee the hostilities — something that would be extremely dangerous as COVID-19 tears through the country.
Humanitarian agencies are quickly expanding their presence in Marib, he said, noting that regular United Nations flights to that city are expected to begin soon. The Government has also released humanitarian assets which had been stuck in customs in Aden. However, bureaucratic impediments remain a severe challenge, with local authorities in Government-held areas in the west, acting without Government approval, imposing new regulations on aid agencies. In the north, the United Nations is engaging with Ansar Allah at all levels to speed up improvements in such areas as biometric registration, humanitarian assessments and project approvals.
Regarding the floating storage and offloading oil vessel Safer, moored off Yemen’s west coast and threatening to spill its cargo of 1.1 million barrels of Marib crude into the Red Sea, he said that a deal may be in sight to resolve an impasse over logistics and practical arrangements to implement an agreed mission plan. The United Nations has been as flexible as it can because it is eager to get started, he said, adding that a United Nations assessment team could arrive by early July to inspect the erstwhile supertanker and carry out urgent repairs if the Ansar Allah leadership agrees to move forward, as it has indicated in recent statements.
He then turned to the funding for the aid operation, saying that so far, about half of the $1.7 billion pledged by donors on 1 March — itself less than half the amount required — has so far been paid. Aid agencies are helping 9 million people every month, down from 14 million a year ago due to funding cuts, while the United Nations response plan is only about 22 per cent funded. “Without more funding, millions of Yemenis will be staring down a death sentence this year,” he said, calling on donors to make good on outstanding pledges right away and to increase their support.
In the ensuing debate, Council members voiced their support for the Saudi Arabia initiative, announced on 22 March, which — in line with the Special Envoy’s efforts — calls for, among other things, the reopening of Sana’a airport, the resumption of fuel and food imports through the port of Hudaydah and the resumption of peace talks between the Government and Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthi militia. They also reiterated their concern about the ongoing violence and dire humanitarian situation, emphasizing that there can only be a political end to the conflict.
The representative of the United Kingdom sounded alarm about an imminent period of even deeper darkness in Yemen, which could be marked by a second wave of COVID-19 and famine conditions. Against that backdrop, she urged the Government and all parties to disclose all data collected and allow full access to international staff and supplies. Echoing expressions of support for Special Envoy Griffith’s calls for a nationwide ceasefire, she noted with concern that the Houthis launched a fresh escalation against Saudi Arabia in the very same week that the latter publicly recommitted to the peace process. “We must be clear about who is frustrating the United Nations efforts,” she stressed. Welcoming the entry of fuel ships into the port of Hudaydah, she strongly urged the Government to immediately release all remaining fuel ships and for all parties to work with the Special Envoy towards a sustainable solution, as the current shortages are coming at a time when 16 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation. She called on the Houthis to ensure that any fuel that arrives is distributed and not used to further escalate the conflict. Welcoming Mr. Lowcock’s updates regarding progressing talks about the on the Safer oil tanker, she nevertheless sounded alarm that international inspectors still have not been able to access it. “The responsibility for this matter rests on the Houthis’ shoulders,” and if they do not act, the Council will need to discuss what further steps to take, she said.
The representative of India, citing reports about the growing presence of Al-Qaida in Marib and its attacks in southern Yemen, said the Council must not overlook the threat posed by terrorist groups in that country and the wider region. Given the dire humanitarian situation, the international community must fully support the Government and people of Yemen to prevent a famine. Humanitarian aid agencies must get the funding they need, he said, adding that humanitarian deliveries cannot be linked with other issues. Restrictions on the flow of essential commodities must also be removed. Noting the delivery of made-in-India vaccines to Yemen on 31 March, he said that the fight against the coronavirus will not be effective without enhanced testing capacities and full details on the number of cases, especially in the north. Another issue that needs to be de-politicized is the Safer oil tanker, he said, expressing hope that that all pending issues will be resolved urgently and that Ansar Allah will provide the United Nations with early access to the vessel.
The representative of Norway underlined the need for inclusivity and the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in the United Nations-led consultations on Yemen — including when the parties are choosing the members of the two negotiation teams. Joining other speakers in expressing concern about the offensive in Marib and continuing cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, which threaten stability across the region, she said the emergence of new frontlines could lead to a serious escalation. Also describing the humanitarian situation as deeply troubling, she welcomed the recent announcements by the Government allowing some fuel vessels into the port. However, more steps are needed. She voiced concern over reports of human rights violations, including attacks on camps for internally displaced persons, and the denial of humanitarian access leading to malnutrition and starvation. The Riyadh Agreement on Yemen and the creation of the new Government in December 2020 were important steps that must be maintained, as fragmentation will only undermine peace prospects. Noting that Ramadan has just begun, she called on all the parties, especially the Houthis, to show mercy and compassion through an unconditional nationwide ceasefire and political talks.
The representative of France called for an immediate end to the attacks in Marib and against Saudi Arabia, urging the parties — especially the Houthis — to respond positively to the Special Envoy’s appeal for a nationwide ceasefire and to open up Yemen’s ports and airports. Only a political solution that ensures Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity will end the conflict, he said, also calling for efforts to combat impunity and voicing concern over reports of ongoing child recruitment in Marib. More efforts are also needed to prevent an environmental catastrophe related to the Safer oil tanker, he stressed, adding that the Houthis will be responsible for such an outcome if they continue to prevent international actors from accessing the vessel. Welcoming efforts to ramp up the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, which has been possible thanks to the global COVAX facility, he said it is more urgent than ever to ensure humanitarian access to all those in need. Violations of international law will not go unpunished, he said, demanding that all parties abide by their humanitarian obligations. “Even war has rules,” he concluded.
The representative of Mexico said humanitarian efforts in Yemen remain nearly impossible without a cessation of hostilities. In that context, he expressed deep concern about, and strongly condemned, the recent escalation by the Houthis in Marib, as well the opening of new fronts in fighting. Noting the increase in the numbers of African immigrants transiting through Yemen, he expressed his delegation’s condolences to the families of the victims of the recent incident involving migrants off the Djibouti coast. Welcoming the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines in Yemen, he nevertheless said it is clear that the number of doses reaching the country remains insufficient and called for a cessation of hostilities to support the vaccination efforts. The recent proposal by Saudi Arabia is a welcomed development, he said, expressing Mexico’s support for any project aimed at ending the suffering of Yemen’s people. He joined other speakers in urging the parties to take steps towards a broad, inclusive, United Nations-led negotiation process, in line with Council resolution 2216 (2015), and insisted that the Houthis immediately allow United Nations inspectors to access the Safer oil tanker.
The representative of China, welcoming Saudi Arabia’s recent initiative, said that while momentum towards a political solution has been strengthened, it has yet to lead to a political process that would ease the plight of the Yemeni people. However, positive developments in other hotspots demonstrate that solutions can be found. Noting the five-point initiative for the Middle East put forward by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of China, he called on countries in the region to strengthen dialogue and improve the security environment to create favourable conditions for peace to return to Yemen. The international community must step up humanitarian assistance and donors must honour their pledges as soon as possible. All parties must ensure safe and unhindered humanitarian access as well as the unimpeded importation of food, fuel and other essential goods. Turning to the urgent issue of the Safer oil tanker, he hoped that the Houthis will continue to communicate with the United Nations and allow a United Nations technical team to board the vessel as soon as possible.
The representative of Estonia called upon all parties to immediately de-escalate the situation and to end hostilities, including the Houthis’ assault on Marib and cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia. He also urged all parties to refrain from indiscriminate attacks against civilian objects. With humanitarian needs growing fast, more needs to be done, including a sustainable solution for removing obstacles to the importation of fuel and commercial items. He called on all parties to protect civilians, particularly the most vulnerable, and to halt sexual violence, the recruitment of child combatants and the systematic repression of journalists. He welcomed tireless diplomatic efforts to end the war, including Saudi Arabia’s recent announcement on ways to end the crisis, and encouraged all parties to engage with the Special Envoy and agree on a ceasefire immediately in order to start an inclusive political process.
The representative of Niger, condemning the recruitment of child soldiers in Yemen, said that rising hostilities in Yemen are pushing the prospects for peace further out of reach. He urged the Yemeni authorities to permit the reopening of ports and airports for fuel and basic goods. He added that a solution to the crisis will inevitably involve an inclusive dialogue among Yemenis with support from the international community. Resolving the crisis requires a paradigm shift and a new creative diplomatic approach from both the United Nations and Yemen’s international partners, he said, welcoming Saudi Arabia’s proposal to end the fighting and relaunch the political process as well as Oman’s mediation efforts. Niger urges other regional players and those Council members with influence on the parties to the conflict to spare no effort to help Yemen along the difficult but unavoidable path to dialogue, reconciliation and peace, he said.
The representative of the United States said diplomacy can and should bring the parties together towards the goals of implementing a nationwide ceasefire, upholding the terms of the Stockholm Agreement, opening Yemen’s ports and airports and launching political consultations. Welcoming Saudi Arabia’s announcement of its commitment to ending the conflict, as well as the commitments expressed by the Government of Yemen, she urged the Houthis to now engage constructively. She condemned the latter for their violence against internally displaced persons sites in Marib and their attacks on Saudi Arabia, also calling for an end to obstruction regarding the Safer oil tanker. Outlining a range of Houthi violations of human rights, she recalled that one Yemeni Jew has been detained for years with no cause except for his religious beliefs. More recently, numerous Yemeni Jews were summarily deported from the country. Calling on all the parties to allow the flow of commercial and humanitarian commodities, she said that until the war ends the global community must step up its funding for the humanitarian response. Citing a real opportunity to address the humanitarian crisis and compel the Houthis to join the peace process, she urged the Council to seize it without delay.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the protracted conflict in Yemen continues to deny the population of its basic rights and freedoms. Voicing concern about the stark resurgence of COVID-19 against the backdrop of a strained health-care system and a lack of adequate supplies, she said more must be done to combat the spread of the virus. Calling for a rapid disbursement of the funds pledged by Member States to Yemen in March, she stressed that while many countries find themselves in difficult economic situations, “financial aid is what maintains humanitarian operations and makes the difference between life and death for many Yemenis”. She called for a durable solution to the challenges posed by chronic fuel shortages in the country, which necessitates a lifting of the blockade, and condemned the continued hostilities on the ground — including the cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia. Ongoing fighting threatens to reverse any political progress previously made, and further risks the lives of many internally displaced persons. She concluded by welcoming renewed international engagement, including among the United States Special Envoy and Germany’s Foreign Minister, and warned against politicizing the issue of the Safer oil tanker.
The representative of Tunisia stressed that no viable military option exists to end the suffering of the Yemeni people. Peace can only be achieved through the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, the outcome of the National Dialogue Conference and the implementation of relevant Security Council resolutions. Urging the parties to put the interests of Yemen’s people above all other goals and respect their obligations under international law, he also called for full respect for that country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The initiative recently announced by Saudi Arabia is an important step, as is the continued engagement of Oman and the support of the new United States Special Envoy. Noting that more than 2 million people remain under a blockade that put their lives at risk, he condemned the Houthis’ continued targeting of Saudi Arabia and its civilian infrastructure. Two-thirds of Yemenis currently need humanitarian aid to survive, millions are facing famine and countless children are suffering from malnutrition. Against that backdrop, he demanded unfettered access to all those in need and called for steps to deploy United Nations experts as soon as possible to inspect the Safer oil tanker.
The representative of the Russian Federation said that regrettably, it has not been possible to reverse negative trends in Yemen. He welcomed Saudi Arabia’s initiative, which would see the resumption of flights at Sana’a airport, the docking of ships at Hudaydah and the start of political talks under United Nations auspices. It is possible to achieve a long-term and comprehensive settlement if the interests of all leading Yemeni forces are considered. Hopefully, implementation of the 2019 Riyadh agreement will help focus minds on resolving problems in the south of the country. Going forward, he said that the sea, land and air blockade of Yemen must be lifted, in tandem with other practical steps to resolve the dire socioeconomic situation. Yemen also needs large-scale assistance from the international community, he said, calling on donors, including those in the region, to step up their funding for United Nations humanitarian efforts. He also said that a mutually acceptable solution — one without political overtones — should be found to address the Safer issue.
The representative of Ireland said that now, more than ever, the international community and the Council must stand united behind efforts to end the conflict, which cannot come soon enough for the people of Yemen. A nationwide ceasefire is urgently needed, she said, adding that only then can work begin to build a comprehensive political settlement, with the full, equal and meaningful participation of women at every step of the process. Ireland is extremely concerned by the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases and shocking reports of high levels of fatalities. The Safer oil tanker situation continues to threaten a new catastrophe, she added, calling on all parties to quickly conclude discussions so that United Nations teams can access the vessel and carry out the necessary repairs.
The representative of Kenya, strongly condemning Houthi attacks in Saudi Arabia, said that all parties must refrain from actions that would jeopardize peace efforts. He expressed deep concern over the deteriorating situation in Marib and urged the international community to provide more COVID-19 vaccines to Yemen. Reports that former combatants affiliated with Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) are being equipped to fight in Marib must be acted upon urgently. Terrorist groups should not be rewarded with political legitimacy, he said, adding: “The world will rue attempts to build peace and security on actors who have undertaken terrorist atrocities to sit at the negotiating table”. Hopefully, the Special Envoy will consider that viewpoint carefully, he said.
The representative of Viet Nam, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, joining other speakers in voicing concern about military escalations and cross-border fighting in Yemen. Echoing the Special Envoy’s calls for the international community’s full support for a comprehensive political settlement, he welcomed efforts by countries of the region — including Oman’s recent mediation activities — in promoting an inclusive political process under the auspices of the United Nations. All concerned parties should immediately cease hostilities and resume the political process, and the conflict parties must stop attacking civilian infrastructure and neighbourhoods and protect the most vulnerable. Turning to Yemen’s dire humanitarian situation, including a deadly second wave of COVID-19, he expressed concern about the prolonged negative impacts on humanitarian efforts and reiterated his call on all parties to provide prompt, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access to and facilitate humanitarian operations. While it is encouraging to learn that the Houthis and the United Nations have reached a verbal technical agreement on the Safer oil tanker issue, he called for a written deal to be finalized to avoid any further delays, stressing: “We are running out of time.”
The representative of Yemen reiterated the Government’s support for the efforts of the United Nations and the Special Envoy, and for proposals — including the one put forward by Saudi Arabia — to end the war. The Saudi initiative enjoys broad international consensus and marks an important step towards ending the crisis. However, the Government has no real partner that wants peace, he said, emphasizing that the Houthi militia rejects any initiative to end this absurd war. He urged the Council and the international community to condemn brutal attacks — such as the recent bombing of three displaced persons’ camps north of Marib that left several dead, most of them women and children — and to put as much pressure as possible on the Houthi to end violations against civilians and respect, among others, the Stockholm Agreement.
The Government knows the scale of the suffering of the Yemeni people due to the unfair war imposed by the militia, he said. So far in 2021, the Government has facilitated access to fuel in militia-controlled areas, but the militia is hampering the official export of fuel and using funds to finance the war effort rather than to pay civil servants. The Government has issued permits for more than 40 vessels to dock at Hudaydah, but the militia has confiscated fees paid by those ships. He underscored the Government’s commitment to allow oil imports, including for delivery to Houthi areas, and called for pressure to be put on that group to stop siphoning off oil revenues. He also urged the Council to help ensure that the perpetrators of the Aden airport attack on 30 December 2020 are brought to justice, and for the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 2140 (2014) to investigate crimes committed by the Houthis, including a fire at a displaced persons camp housing African migrants.
He went on to say that the extent to which the Houthis reject negotiations or the Saudi initiative reflects Iran’s hand in the conflict and that country’s attempt to undermine regional peace and security. The international community must bring an end to such irresponsible acts. He urged the militia to transparently report the number of COVID-19 cases in areas under its control, and the international community and international organizations to ramp up their assistance as the second wave of the pandemic takes hold. Regarding the terrible situation of the Safer tanker, he said that any oil would have a significant environmental impact and harm the livelihoods of Red Sea fishing communities. It is high time for the Council to take decisive action and ensure that the United Nations technical team gains access to the tanker, he said, noting that the Houthis have yet to respond to a request to do so.