Tomorrow marks the sixth anniversary of the brutal war in Yemen. The Biden administration has made several positive policy shifts on Yemen so far to help bring this conflict to an end, including lifting the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation on the Houthis, imposed at the last minute by former President Donald Trump. The new administration also has moved to halt U.S. military participation and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for offensive operations, and appointed a special envoy to Yemen. But if President Joe Biden is serious about delivering on his promise to “step up diplomacy to end the war in Yemen,” more must be done.
An urgent first step to prevent millions from dying of famine in Yemen is for the international community to press Saudi Arabia for an immediate, unconditional lifting of the blockade on Yemen. And an essential next step, for successful peace negotiations, is for the Biden administration to push for a new, more balanced United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) to replace UNSCR 2216.
That resolution was drafted by Saudi Arabia in 2015 to provide international legitimacy for its blockade and military operations, assuming that it would meet the objectives of driving the Houthis out of Sana’a and reinstating President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi within a few weeks. Six years into a war in which the Houthi rebels now control areas of the country that are home to 80 percent of Yemen’s population, UNSCR 2216 is outdated, most notably in its call for the Houthis to “immediately and unconditionally withdraw their forces.”
The Saudis just this week seized on the resolution in their ceasefire proposal, demanding the Houthis give up their weapons and abandon their territory. Unsurprisingly, the Houthis rejected the recent Saudi proposal, stating that it offered “nothing new,” and they continue to insist that the U.S.-backed Saudi blockade on Yemen be lifted before they will agree to a ceasefire.
“The Worst Place on Earth”
In promoting the need for offensive operations, code-named Operation Decisive Storm, in 2015, Saudi Arabia contended that continual airstrikes and an impenetrable naval blockade were necessary to combat the Houthi rebels in the north (bordering the kingdom) and restore Yemen’s ousted, internationally recognized government. With early and generous U.S. military support and weapons sales to the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, this war has created the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet, with 400,000 children expected to die from hunger this year. Just this month, the Chief of the U.N.’s World Food Programme declared that Yemen’s humanitarian situation amounts to “hell,” and that the country is now “the worst place on earth.”
The Saudi-led coalition has used UNSCR 2216 to legitimize its offensive operations and maintain international military support. Section 15, which calls upon “Member States, in particular States neighbouring Yemen, to inspect…all cargo to Yemen, in their territory, including seaports and airports,” has been used as justification by the coalition for their six-year blockade on the country, which has been a key driver of disease and starvation that has ravaged millions.
Since January of this year alone, Saudi Arabia has blocked vessels carrying desperately needed fuel from docking at Yemen’s key port, Hodeidah, including 13 vessels carrying over 350,000 metric tons of commercial fuel. This means higher fuel and food prices, less availability of clean water due to limited fuel for transport, as well as less electricity and no power for health facilities during a global pandemic.
An Updated Resolution
A new, more balanced UNSCR must allow for all warring parties to engage in a dialogue on a more even playing field. This new resolution should call for an immediate nationwide ceasefire that includes ending the blockade, conducting an inclusive peace process with the Houthis at the table, an end to humanitarian obstruction by all parties, and a call for the international community to stop military support and weapons sales to all parties to the conflict.
The U.N. Security Council has considered several ceasefire proposals in recent years, though none have brought an end to the conflict. The Biden administration must now lead these efforts at the U.N., especially given the more favorable political environment in the United States for ending the war. Over the past several years, bipartisan support has grown in Congress to end U.S.. complicity in the war and address the humanitarian crisis, as demonstrated in successful votes in the House and Senate, as well as joint letters, and public statements.
U.S. lawmakers and policy experts alike have highlighted the need for a new UNSCR. In February, the former U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, wrote, “Today this unworkable accident remains the basis for all the mediation pursued by the U.N. The past six years show it failed. The first task of American diplomacy must be to replace the template. Washington should promote a new Security Council resolution, providing a different structure for a negotiated process that ensures a seat for every side in the conflict.”
After six years of unimaginable human suffering, Yemen can’t wait any longer — the U.N. has reported that, at the current pace, 2.3 million children will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2021. On March 11, addressing the Security Council, World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley said, “Most hospitals only have electricity in their intensive care units because fuel reserves are so low. I know this firsthand because I walked in the hospital and the lights were off.” He pleaded: “It is hell on earth in many places in Yemen right now,” and concluded, “That blockade must be lifted, as a humanitarian act. Otherwise, millions more will spiral into crisis.”
Biden must fulfill his promise with urgency, to help end the war and prevent Yemen from plunging further into famine. A fair and just U.N.-led peace process is paramount. That requires calling on Saudi Arabia to end the blockade and working at the United Nations on a new, more balanced approach to diplomacy.