Shortly after the 26 March 2015 start of the Saudi-led military intervention seeking to reinstate the Hadi government and roll back Houthi/Saleh territorial advances, the Security Council adopted UNSCR 2216 (14 April 2015) expressing support for the legitimacy of President Hadi and imposing targeted (individual/entity) arms imports embargo, as well as asset freeze and travel ban, on the Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi and the former Commander of the Republican Guard and former President Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Although the resolution demanded that all Yemeni parties refrain from violence and unilateral actions that could undermine the political transition in the country, it singled out the Houthis in particular, on whom it also imposed a specific set of demands, including ending the use of violence, withdrawal of forces from all seized areas, relinquishing of additional arms seized, release of all political prisoners, and cessation of actions exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen. The resolution also expanded the designation criteria to include violations of the arms embargo and obstruction of humanitarian assistance in Yemen and called for the inspection of all cargo to Yemen when reasonable grounds for sanctions violation exist. Beyond calling on all parties to comply with their obligations under international law and noting the commencement of the campaign at the request of Hadi, the resolution did not make specific demands of the Saudi-led military intervention, leading to the subsequent perception of the document as rather one-sided.
The shift in focus of the sanctions regime to the Houthis had been foreshadowed by UNSCR 2201 (15 February 2015), which also placed specific demands on the Houthis but was not adopted under Chapter VII, and by the 22 March 2015 Presidential statement supporting the legitimacy of President Hadi and condemning Houthi unilateral actions (S/PRST/2015/8). Both documents, like UNSCR 2216, were drafted by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members via Jordan, which held a seat at the Security Council in 2015. In May 2015, the UK resumed its position as the penholder on Yemen in the Security Council and the influence of the GCC on the Council's statements began to wane. The change came as a result of a worsening humanitarian situation in the country (reaching the highest UN level of emergency, with 80% of the population in need of some humanitarian aid, by mid-2015) and the hardening of negotiating positions of the two sides of the conflict. The intensification of fighting following the internationalization of the conflict and the de facto naval blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, claiming to act under the authorization of UNSCR 2216, significantly hindered the delivery of humanitarian assistance and commercial goods, including basic commodities such as food and fuel, to Yemen. Since then, the focus of the Security Council has been primarily on supporting the mediation efforts of the UN Special Envoy (Ould Cheikh Ahmed was appointed on 25 April 2015 to replace Jamal Benomar who resigned on 15 April 2015), encouraging humanitarian pauses, and renewed negotiations without preconditions, rather than pursuing further sanctions measures.
Since the beginning of the intervention, significant progress on UN-led mediation was hindered by the availability of regional support for the two sides of the conflict (Iran provided limited support to Houthis, while Saudi Arabia and the rest of the coalition backed exiled Hadi) and the military developments on the ground. During the initial phase of the conflict, when the Houthi/Saleh forces continued to expand southwards and the Hadi government enjoyed strong international support, the parties refused to meet face-to-face and participated in the June 2015 UN-sponsored talks in Geneva primarily to make demands. The situation changed substantially in July 2015 after the Saudi-led coalition recaptured Aden, which presented the first major Houthi/Saleh military defeat and led to the return of the exiled President Hadi and the subsequent establishment of two competing governments on Yemeni soil. In August 2015, the Houthis and Saleh's GPC party offered significant concessions in line with the demands of UNSCR 2216, including withdrawal from cities. Encouraged by the victory, the Yemeni government rejected the proposal and the Saudi-led coalition escalated the military operation by deploying ground troops to push the Houthi/Saleh forces back north. However, coalition advances stalled in September 2015, reaching a military stalemate and increasing both sides' willingness to negotiate. The parties subsequently agreed on a common basis for future talks (Muscat principles) and a new round of direct talks on a number of substantive issues was convened in Geneva in December 2015. However, no agreement was reached and former President Saleh subsequently declared that he would not negotiate with President Hadi but with Saudi Arabia, for the first time publicly announcing that he was fighting side by side with the Houthis. While fighting between the two loose coalitions continued throughout 2015, southern separatist and Islamist groups like AQAP and ISIL increasingly gained footholds in the south and the humanitarian situation in the country continued to worsen, largely as a result of the coalition’s de facto naval blockade. Although the establishment of a UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) to increase food and fuel imports to Yemen was agreed in August 2015, it did not become fully operational until May 2016.
In the beginning of 2016, fighting intensified and the asset freeze and travel ban sanctions measures were renewed for another year by UNSCR 2266 (24 February 2016). The January 2016 Panel of Experts report documented specific instances of international law violations on both sides and recommended the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry. An earlier attempt to create an investigation body via the Human Rights Council, as well as a later reference to Saudi-led coalition's responsibility for 60 percent of child casualties and almost 50 percent of attacks on hospitals and schools in Secretary-General's June 2016 annual report on children and armed conflict, were unsuccessful.
A new round of UN-led negotiations began in Kuwait on 21 April 2016. In preparation for the talks, a nationwide cessation of hostilities was declared on 10 April 2016 and a De-escalation and Coordination Committee (DCC), including representatives from both sides of the conflict, to address reported ceasefire violations was established. On 25 April 2016, the Security Council issued a Presidential statement that welcomed the launch of the peace talks and the cessation of hostilities, calling on all Yemeni parties to cooperate with the DCC, negotiate without preconditions, and develop a roadmap for implementation of interim security measures, withdrawals, handover of heavy weapons, restoration of state institutions, and the resumption of political dialogue in line with the relevant UNSCR, GCC Initiative and Implementation Mechanism, and the outcomes of the NDC (S/PRST/2016/5). In May 2016, the Secretary-General strengthened the Office of the Special Envoy for Yemen to support the ongoing negotiations (S/2016/488). The Special Envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed presented a roadmap to return to a peaceful political process in June 2016, but the two parties disagreed on the sequencing of the steps. The Houthis/Saleh's GPC wanted an agreement on a unity government before withdrawing and disarming, while President Hadi insisted on them taking these actions first (in line with UNSCR 2216 demands), threatening to boycott the talks if the creation of a unity government was part of the roadmap. On 28 July 2016, the Houthis and Saleh's GPC announced an agreement on the formation of a new joint governing body, the Supreme Political Council, to replace the Houthi’s Revolutionary Committee ruling Yemen since February 2015, in direct violation of UNSCR 2216. Although the Yemeni government conditionally agreed to the UN proposal that postponed the discussion on the formation of a unity government until a later stage and the Houthis/GPC held off on establishing the new governing body, the talks collapsed on 6 August 2016 with the Houthis backing out last minute from signing an agreement (S/PV.8191).
Fighting subsequently intensified and the humanitarian and economic situation in the country deteriorated as the Saudi-led coalition imposed a ban on commercial flights from Sana’a and the Yemeni Central Bank faced depleted reserves and liquidity crisis, leaving it unable to pay civil servant salaries. In an effort to establish facts on the ground, the Houthis/GPC formed the Supreme Political Council and Hadi ordered to move the Houthi-controlled Central Bank to Aden, effectively fragmenting the authority in the country between two competing power-centers. In October 2016, the Special Envoy presented a new roadmap for negotiations that envisaged the replacement of Hadi by a mutually accepted Vice-President. Despite the pressure exerted by the mediator as well as the US, which together with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the UK formed a so-called “Quad” in July 2016 to push forward the Yemeni political process (later joined by Oman to form a “Quint”), both parties rejected the new roadmap. The UK, as penholder on Yemen, initially signaled its intention to pursue a resolution to support the mediator’s efforts but withdrew it following Saudi pressure, even as the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien warned in late October that the country was “one step away from famine” and 80% of the population was in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.
In 2017, fighting further intensified and the parties’ positions hardened. In January 2017, the coalition launched a new offensive to capture the Red Sea port of Mokka, while preventing the World Food Programme’s efforts to increase the capacity of the port of Hodeidah, the main entry point of food, fuel, and humanitarian assistance destined for Houthi-controlled areas, through the delivery of cranes that would speed up the off-loading of cargo. The following month, the Houthis sought the replacement of the Special Envoy by the Secretary-General and Hadi sought the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization by the Security Council, while the US – under the Trump administration – started to decrease its active pro-mediation role, focusing on targeting of terrorist organizations operating in Yemen and highlighting Iran’s support of the Houthis instead. The Special Envoy sought to broker an agreement on Hodeidah in May 2017, but was unable to meet with Houthi/GPC representatives and faced an attack on his convoy following his arrival in Sana’a. On 5 June 2017, the Houthis announced they would no longer engage with the Special Envoy, accusing him of bias.
The Security Council renewed asset freeze and travel ban measures on 23 February 2017 (UNSCR 2342) but otherwise remained relatively inactive under strong Saudi pressure not to shift the terms of reference away from UNSCR 2216. The situation began to change in June 2017, when – following Special Envoy calls for support and frustration of some members with Council’s inaction – the Security Council adopted a Presidential Statement supporting the efforts of the Special Envoy, calling on the parties to engage in peace talks “in a flexible and constructive manner without preconditions,” and expressing concerns about the threat of famine, encouraging the strengthening of UNVIM, increasing the capacity of ports, access to Sana’a airport, as well as mobilization of pledged funds (S/PRST/2017/7). The Statement also called on the Houthis/Saleh forces to stop attacks on Saudi Arabia and called on all states to fully implement the UNSCR 2216 arms embargo “as required by the Security Council resolutions.” Although the resolution authorized member states to inspect cargo coming to Yemen, it limited it to cases where reasonable grounds for sanctions violations existed and imposed a subsequent reporting requirement. The Saudi-led coalition has routinely gone beyond the authorization and inspected vessels without providing reports or regard for their clearing by the UNVIM. The humanitarian situation was further worsened by a cholera epidemic, which erupted in April 2017 and quickly became severe. The Security Council reiterated its concern over the threat of famine in Yemen in 9 August 2017 Presidential Statement (S/PRST/2017/14) and the Human Rights Council approved the creation of a Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts to monitor and report human rights situation in Yemen in its 29 September 2017 resolution (A/HRC/36/31). The group was created two months later, followed by the coalition’s agreement to allow the delivery of cranes to Hodeidah, a deposit of $2 billion in the Central Bank of Yemen, and a contribution to the UN’s Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan.
Although the areas controlled by the two sides had remained largely the same since the outbreak of the conflict in March 2015, significant political shifts on the ground took place in 2017. In the south, Hadi’s dismissal of Aden’s governor led to the creation of the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council (STC) in May 2017. An ensuing series of defections among government units and the creation of UAE-proxy forces loyal to the STC left Hadi without effective control over the military or security forces in the south. In the north, the Houthi/Saleh alliance began to unravel in August 2017 and a full scale conflict between the former allies erupted on 1 December. Saleh was killed by the Houthis on 4 December 2017, after he publicly indicated his willingness to turn a “new page” with the Saudi-led coalition. The Houthis subsequently moved to consolidate their hold on power, crushing or coopting Saleh’s network in the north.
In response to missile launches against Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-led coalition tightened its control over Yemen’s land, air, and sea ports in November 2017. The January 2018 Panel of Experts report identified widespread violations of international law by all parties, warned that the Yemeni state has fractured into “warring statelets,” found Iran in non-compliance with UNSCR 2216 over missiles fired by Houthis at Saudi Arabia, and asserted that the Saudi-led coalition blockage was “essentially using the threat of starvation as a bargaining tool and an instrument of war.” The internal Security Council dynamic also shifted towards more active, critical, and balanced standpoints on the conflict under the influence of a number of non-permanent members since late 2017.
The first half of 2018 was marked by rising concerns about an impending Saudi attack on the port of Hodeidah, which the Security Council previously described as “a critical lifeline for humanitarian support and other essential supplies” (S/PRST/2017/7). Despite significant efforts of the new Special Envoy Martin Griffiths (in office since March 2018), as well as the Council’s call for “sustained and full opening” of the Hodeidah port in its March Presidential Statement (S/PRST/2018/5), the Saudi-led coalition launched an attack on the port on 13 June 2018, justifying it to the Security Council as “the most effective way to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table and end the conflict” (S/2018/607). The attack began less than one week before the Special Envoy was due to brief the Council on his new framework for negotiations. The coalition offensive was paused on 23 June 2018 to give Griffiths time to negotiate a Houthi withdrawal. Fighting resumed after the September 2018 talks between the parties in Geneva failed over the Houthis refusing to attend. However, following the increase of international pressure on Saudi Arabia over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the parties met in Sweden in December 2018, reaching an agreement on (1) the city of Hodeidah and the ports of Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Issa, (2) a prisoner exchange between Houthis and the Hadi government, and (3) a statement of understanding on Taïz. The 13 December 2018 Stockholm Agreement (S/2018/1134) was endorsed by the Security Council in UNSCR 2451 (21 December 2018), which also authorized the deployment of a team to monitor and facilitate the Agreement’s implementation. The ceasefire in Hodeidah went into effect on 18 December 2018 and the Security Council authorized the establishment of a UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) on 16 January 2019 (UNSCR 2452).
Despite international support for the Stockholm Agreement, its implementation remained limited and follow-up talks planned for January 2019 were postponed indefinitely. A plan for the redeployment of forces from Hodeidah was agreed on 17 February 2019, but progress remained stalled over the definition of “local security forces” that were to take control over the city and authorities to manage the port’s revenues. The Security Council renewed the individual travel ban and asset freeze for another year on 26 February 2019 (UNSCR 2456) and repeatedly called on parties to implement the Stockholm Agreement as well as the agreed Hodeidah forces redeployment (SC/13713 and SC/13785), while the Sanctions Committee conducted its first visiting mission to the region since the establishment of the sanctions regime in 2014. Encouraged by the UN, the Houthis began to unilaterally withdraw from Hodeidah in May 2019, but simultaneously increased their drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. The Hadi government protested the Houthi withdrawal as insufficiently monitored and raised formal objections to the Special Envoy with the Secretary General. The Security Council reiterated its full support for the Special Envoy, called on the parties to engage with him, and urged them to implement the Hodeidah Agreement in June 2019 (SC/13834) and extended the mandate of UNMHA in July 2019 (through UNSCR 2481, and periodically every six months thereafter).
In August 2019, the UAE-backed STC took over Aden, Yemen’s interim capital since the outbreak of the conflict, fracturing the anti-Houthi coalition and further weakening the Hadi government’s position in the country. Saudi Arabia-mediated talks between the government and the STC culminated in the 5 November 2019 Riyadh Agreement that outlined a number of political, economic, military, and security arrangements, including a power-sharing agreement and the unification of government and STC forces. According to the January 2020 Panel of Experts report, the agreement also effectively granted Saudi Arabia, which following the UAE’s withdrawal of forces in mid-2019 expanded its operations to the south of Yemen, “direct supervision over military decisions that would otherwise be within the exclusive prerogative of the Government of Yemen.”
In the north, the Houthis continued their drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. The cross-border strikes culminated in the 14 September 2019 attacks against two Saudi Aramco oil facilities, which were claimed by the Houthis, but judged by the Panel of Experts as unlikely to have been perpetrated by them, with the US, UK, France, and Germany pointing to Iran as the likely culprit. On 20 September 2019, the Houthis announced a halt on attacks against Saudi Arabia and the two parties subsequently entered into bilateral talks, which led to a decrease in hostilities, mutual release of prisoners, and the opening of a UN operated air bridge out of Sana’a airport for medical flights.
However, the talks broke down and fighting resumed in January 2020. The Security Council called for an immediate cessation of the hostilities on 30 January 2020 (SC/14094) and renewed the individual travel ban and asset freeze for another year on 25 February 2020, adding a case-by-case exemption provision (UNSCR 2511). In March 2020, the Houthis seized new territory in the north and fighting continued despite SG and Security Council calls for Covid-19-related ceasefire, as well as the unilateral cessation of hostilities declared by the Saudi-led coalition between mid-April and mid-May 2020. The domestic situation was complicated further after the STC declared self-rule on 25 April 2020, in violation of the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement between the STC and the Hadi government. With the government and the Houthis fighting in the north and the government and the STC fighting in the south, the Security Council condemned the escalation of violence and called on all parties to agree to mediated proposals on 29 June 2020 (SC/14233). While the coalition airstrikes as well the Houthi drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia continued, the STC rescinded their demands for self-administration and recommitted to implementing an adjusted Riyadh Agreement on 29 July 2020.
Coerce all Yemeni parties to reach an agreement and return to the implementation of the agreed upon political transition process (in line with the GCC Initiative and Implementation Mechanism, outcomes of the NDC, the PNPA, and the Stockholm Agreement) and coerce the Houthis to end the use of violence, withdraw forces, relinquish seized arms, release all political prisoners, and cease actions exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen.
Constrain all Yemeni parties from engaging in unilateral actions undermining the political transition in Yemen.
Signal support for the agreed upon transition process, legitimacy of President Hadi, and international humanitarian and human rights law.
Ongoing travel ban and asset freeze.
Newly imposed targeted arms imports embargo (on designated individuals / entities).
Current and maximum number of designees during the episode: 5 individual designees (former President Saleh, his son Ahmed, the Houthi leader, and two Houthi military commanders).
UN sanctions should have little impact on the general population since they are focused exclusively on specific individuals and entities.
Sanctions from previous episode imposed for a limited time period (1 year) and renewed periodically. Newly imposed targeted arms imports embargo in place indefinitely. Sanctions Committee and Panel of Experts in place. Designation criteria were specified and targets designated. Enforcement authorities specified.
Despite participating in UN-mediated consultations, there was little progress on returning to the agreed upon political transition or implementing any of the UN-mediated political agreements. The Houthis repeatedly offered significant concessions in line with the UNSCR 2216 demands, but did not comply with them or agree to any of the proposed agreements; President Hadi, for the most part, refused to negotiate without preconditions. Both preferred to improve their positions militarily.
Introduction of targeted arms embargo had little effect on conflict dynamics or parties’ decision to engage in negotiations. The parties’ international backing, military developments on the ground, and UN-led mediation efforts were more important to the outcome.
Fighting between the Houthis (and until December 2017 also allied Saleh forces) and the various Yemeni anti-Houthi forces (backed by the Saudi-led military intervention) continued and both parties tried to influence the conditions for returning to talks regarding the transition process through unilateral actions and the use of force. According to the January 2020 Panel of Experts report, the Houthis were not only able to bypass the arms embargo by importing parts for uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) used for attacks against Saudi Arabia, but also seize the Saleh family’s assets inside Yemen and use them to fund the group’s military activities.
Military developments and a more balanced push on both sides to return to talks without preconditions via the mediation efforts of the UN Special Envoy were more significant in constraining unilateral actions and influencing parties' positions on returning to the political process than sanctions.
The need to return to previously agreed upon political transition and comply with international law were clearly articulated. However, the subsequent use of UNSCR 2216 by the Saudi-led coalition to validate its naval blockade (which contributed to the worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen) and by the Yemeni government to justify its maximalist positions (which help undermine UN-mediation efforts), as well as the initially muted criticism of the coalition's humanitarian law violations, diffused the signal. The legitimacy of President Hadi was clearly articulated but his domestic support has become virtually non-existent.
Mediation efforts to reach a political agreement and negotiate humanitarian pauses by the UN Special Envoys and the results of military confrontations have been more important to the outcome.
Increase in human rights violations, increase in international enforcement capacity, humanitarian consequences, decline in the credibility and/or legitimacy of UN Security Council.