Yemen: where is the UN Security Council?5 December 2018 Par: Paul Lesperance
by Joy Gordon, 6 November 2018
Source: Le Monde Diplomatique
The brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has put the policies of the Saudi monarchy under crown prince Muhammad bin Salman under the spotlight, drawing rare criticism from the kingdom’s western allies. Perhaps in consequence, the US called for a ceasefire to the four-year war in Yemen, which has been fuelled by the military actions of the Saudi-led coalition. Yet only two days later, the coalition launched new airstrikes on the stricken country. And as the death toll continues to rise, it seems doubtful that the western powers will put a halt to their lucrative arms supplies to Saudi Arabia.
If the world has looked the other way during Yemen’s ‘forgotten war’, the role of the UN Security Council (SC) (1) in authorising the actions of the Saudis and their allies has also escaped public attention. The Council’s failure to respond to these well-documented actions in what is now the world’s most urgent catastrophe is disturbing, particularly since UN investigators said in late August that these may amount to war crimes, committed by all sides. Since three of the Council’s permanent members are allies of the Saudis, or supply them with arms, or both, UN silence may not be surprising.
Less apparent is the Security Council’s role in the famine and cholera epidemic gripping Yemen. This has largely come about through the UN body’s apparent authorisation of the Saudis and their allies to act on its behalf. Security Council resolution 2216 ‘calls upon Member States, in particular States neighbouring Yemen,’ to inspect cargo to Yemen ‘in their territory’ if the state has information that provides ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe the cargo contains weapons prohibited by the resolution. The state can then seize and dispose of these weapons ‘and related materiel of all types’. It need only provide a report explaining the grounds for their inspections and seizures.
If the world has looked the other way during Yemen’s ‘forgotten war’, the role of the UN Security Council in authorising the actions of the Saudis and their allies has also escaped public attention
The Saudi-led coalition has invoked this resolution as authorising the blockade of Yemen’s ports and a major airport, as well as inspections well beyond any legitimate concerns about weapons. All this has delayed the delivery of humanitarian goods, contributing to severe shortages of food and other critical needs.
The coalition has also failed to comply with the resolution’s (very modest) requirements for monitoring and reporting; and the Security Council has done little to clarify the resolution’s scope or intent, or address the Saudis’ failure to comply with it.
Since the end of the cold war, the Security Council has often used a kind of ‘proxy authorisation’, inviting member states to take on these tasks directly, without any clear oversight by the Council, and enabling states to serve their own interests. Through this mechanism, the Security Council could in effect authorise the indiscriminate killing of civilians or blockades resulting in widespread famine. That is what has happened in Yemen. And although Saudi Arabia has sometimes cited self-defence or other justifications for its interference with maritime shipments, it has also consistently cited Security Council resolution 2216 as its authority.
De facto blockades
Shortly after resolution 2216 was adopted in April 2015, the Saudi-led coalition restricted access to Yemen’s ports, detaining and inspecting all ships seeking entry. They did so at the request of the Yemeni government under Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, but also invoked resolution 2216. But they failed to comply with the resolution’s requirement that they provide a report to the Council explaining their inspections or seizures.
The Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen (POE) reported that this ‘undermine[d] the safeguards placed to ensure that the sanctions regime is not misused to achieve unilateral objectives.’ The Security Council has done little in response.
UN reports have called the Saudi naval intervention ‘de facto blockades’. Before the civil war, Yemen had relied on imports for 90% of its food, medical supplies and fuel; so these blockades have had a catastrophic impact, causing delays in the delivery of food, fuel and critical humanitarian supplies. By June 2015, imports had dropped by 85%. Only one-tenth of the fuel needed each month was able to get through the coalition blockade of the ports.
In November 2017, after the Houthi rebels fired a missile into Saudi Arabia, the coalition imposed a total blockade on Yemen, citing self-defence. The restrictions in November 2017 resulted in the delay or diversion of over 750,000 tons of commercial and humanitarian goods. In January 2018, the POE reported that the Saudi-led coalition ‘continued to obstruct the entry of humanitarian and commercial goods to Yemen.’ In May 2018, aid imports were allowed through, but commercial food and fuel imports were still well below the level before the coalition’s naval blockade.
Yemen relies heavily on imports, especially with the destruction of farms and domestic food production by the Saudi-led airstrikes. So the reduction in shipments of food and fuel created severe food shortages, leading to famine conditions. In October 2016, UN agencies stated that more than half the population was short of food. UNICEF reported that 1.4 million children were going hungry, 370,000 of whom were severely malnourished. And half of Yemen’s children under five had their growth stunted by chronic malnutrition.
And so the crisis continued, with little improvement.
In September 2018, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that Yemen was now ‘facing one of the world’s deepest humanitarian crises with 22.2 million people in need of lifesaving assistance, including food, safe water, nutritional support and basic medical care.’ It said 18 million people — two-thirds of Yemen’s population — were uncertain where their next meal would come from.
While the human cost of the coalition blockade is clear, the justification of its naval blockade (preventing weapons from entering Yemen) is dubious at best. In May 2016, the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) was set up to inspect commercial ships entering Yemen’s Red Sea ports for compliance with the arms restrictions contained in resolution 2216. But even after ships had been inspected by UNVIM, the coalition often detained them for several weeks before granting clearance. This has continued to be the practice, even though no weapons have been found by either UNVIM or the coalition in the three years these inspections have been going on.
This process has resulted in losses and risks to shippers and suppliers; delays can cost ship owners up to $30,000 per day. Since the coalition may delay a ship for weeks, the losses could easily be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, resolution 2216 grants enormous power to member states to confiscate and dispose of any goods they discover to be in violation of the arms embargo. The ship itself may be confiscated, even on questionable grounds.
The Liberia-flagged tanker MV Androussa was confiscated in April 2017. When the POE visited the tanker, they were shown ‘some steel pipes next to a workshop’. While Saudi Arabian officials considered them suspicious, the POE thought them to likely be related to the ship’s maintenance. The confiscation of the ship sent a chill through the shipping industry: while delays may be costly, no ship owner or insurer can risk the loss of the ship.
The coalition also makes it difficult for shippers to comply with its requirements and obtain clearance. In August 2018, the UNHCHR report noted that in its inspections (of the same ships UNVIM had already cleared), the coalition ‘has denied entry to vessels on a seemingly arbitrary basis. The coalition has not produced a written list of prohibited items, and items are sometimes blocked without warning.’
The Security Council confers the imprimatur of an institution of global governance on the Saudis and their coalition
As a result, traders and shippers are reluctant to supply goods to Yemen. One trader reported that three planned cargo deliveries were cancelled in 2017 as a result of the risks. And there are far fewer requests to enter the ports to deliver cargo. Between March and June 2018, requests had fallen to between a half and one-third of that before the November 2017 blockade. In effect, the coalition’s naval restrictions are extended even further, as the arbitrariness of their decisions results in a further chill in commercial shipping. Ship owners say, not surprisingly, that the risk of their vessels being detained for days or weeks, or even impounded, has made them reconsider delivering goods to Yemen.
These measures have been widely criticised as violations of the laws of armed conflict. The report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights arrived at ‘the conclusion that the coalition naval restrictions cannot be reasonably expected to achieve the concrete and direct military advantage of preventing Houthi arms smuggling. Even if such a conclusion was not knowable in March 2015, it became increasingly obvious as the months and years passed.’ The report noted: ‘No possible military advantage could justify such sustained and extreme suffering by millions of people.’
Hijacking of the Security Council
The Security Council has throughout its history often failed to intervene in situations involving aggression, war crimes or human rights violations, where the interests of the permanent members or their client states were implicated. But there is another practice that is far less obvious: the hijacking of the Council, by circuitous means, for the particular agenda of its permanent members and their allies.
The Security Council confers the imprimatur of an institution of global governance on the Saudis and their coalition. Supplied with weapons from three of the Council’s permanent members — the US, the UK and France — the Saudis and their allies can pursue their own political interests. Having initially authorised the Saudi-led forces with resolution 2216, the Council failed to hold them to its own very minimal mechanism for oversight and accountability. It is not just that the Security Council has failed to take action in a crisis. In fact, it did much to set it in motion.
Proxy authorisation, it would seem, is used in situations where agreement could not be secured if a member of the Council were to be transparent in its intentions. It is hard to imagine the Security Council adopting a resolution that explicitly proposed to blockade a civilian population and prevent deliveries of food, fuel and equipment for water treatment, since that would clearly violate the most basic principles of international human rights law. To the contrary, the Council’s stated goal — preventing arms transfers — is legitimate and within its mandate, while the authorisation for the enforcement of the arms embargo is framed in innocuous and vague terms. All permanent members of the Council are expected to agree, or at least not object; and most of the elected members can be expected to agree too. There is no reason to dispute such a measure, which on the face of it seems unobjectionable.
But in this case, the outsourcing of authority, and the discretion granted in interpreting the scope of that authority, has provided the machinery to maximise human damage while allowing disavowal. The list of prohibited goods is opaque and arbitrary, so compliance is nearly impossible. And the costs and delays of the inspection process are unpredictable; combined with the risk of arbitrary confiscation, a ship owner, supplier or insurer would be foolish to do business with Yemen.
The decision to cancel trade with Yemen then becomes attributable to other actors — not to the Security Council or the coalition, but to suppliers and shipping companies. So Security Council members can distance themselves from the growing famine and rapidly spreading cholera epidemic. After all, it is not technically their doing. But it is the likely and predictable outcome of the conditions they have deliberately created.
Joy Gordon is the Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ Chair in Social Ethics in the Philosophy Department at Loyola University-Chicago