Buried in the United Nations Charter is Chapter 5, Article 24, one of the most important sentences in the entire document. “In order to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations,” it reads, “its Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf.”
Translated from bureaucratese, that means: as the most elite body in the United Nations, the Security Council is responsible for ensuring that violent conflicts are prevented to the greatest possible extent, and when that’s not possible, for bringing the warring sides together in the hope of deescalating the fighting.
This is precisely what the UN Security Council has attempted to do in Yemen, where the Saudis and Western-backed forces have been in open warfare with the Houthi rebels for nearly two years, producing the worst humanitarian crisis on earth. The Security Council has passed resolutions demanding an end to the violence. They’ve passed an arms embargo on the Houthi militia to deprive it of weapons. And they’ve enacted sanctions and travel bans on rebel commanders who have flouted the embargo.
And yet the most substantive effort by the Security Council to resolve the conflict – Resolution 2216, passed last year – is having the opposite effect. Rather than pushing both Yemeni government representatives and Houthi officials towards compromise, it is enabling the worst instincts of both.
In the resolution, the Security Council demands “immediately and unconditionally” that Houthi militants withdraw from the territory they’ve occupied, return weapons and institutional control to the state authorities, free all political prisoners they have in their custody, and “cease all actions that are exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen.” In short: instead of being a neutral arbiter, the Security Council has thrown all its support behind the Yemeni government.
If the Yemeni government were prevailing on the battlefield, this wouldn’t be an issue. President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, backed by the Saudis, is the legitimately elected president of the country, and his government was established pursuant to other Security Council resolutions that were created to ease the country’s transition away from its previous strongman. State sovereignty is a bedrock principle for the United Nations, so demanding that an irregular militia outside of state authority stop acting like a state is a reasonable thing to do.
The problem is that the civil war in Yemen is not an ordinary conflict. In Yemen’s case, the Houthis are not a movement struggling to maintain an anti-government insurgency, but a governing entity themselves. Whether we like it or not, the Houthis are the sole authority in some of Yemen’s major cities, including the capital, Sanaa. The Security Council’s formula for Yemen refuses to take this reality into account, surpassing it with the ideal rather than the possible.
Resolution 2216 was passed at a time when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the rest of the Gulf states were just beginning their military campaign to drive the Houthis out of Sanaa. In March 2015, President Hadi had the momentum, and the Security Council likely calculated that Houthi fighters would opt to meet their unconditional demands if the alternative was military defeat.
A year and a half later, the situation has markedly changed. It’s time for the Security Council to pass a new resolution that takes these new realities into account. Unilateral surrender is no longer an option, and the Security Council should stop wasting its time trying to attain it. If they continue to do so, they’re only throwing gasoline on a fire.