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Yemen is now in the seventh year of its high-level conflict, which the UN estimates has killed more than 233,000 people through both direct and indirect means. Around 80% of the population (24 million people) were in need of humanitarian assistance in 2020 and 4 million were internally displaced. The UN has described it as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

The conflict has its origins in 2011, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to resign following popular protests. Following an UN-backed transition negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council, President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi took power in 2012. Despite attempts to negotiate a new political settlement, conflict broke out in 2014 and the capital, Sana’a, was captured by Houthi rebels. The following year, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in support of the internationally recognised Hadi Government.

This briefing provides a summary of key events in the conflict, an update on the current offensive around the strategic city of Marib, concerns for human rights, and peace negotiations during 2021.

Current military situation

Yemen is now divided between the Houthi rebels in the north of the country, which includes the Yemeni capital, and the Hadi Government, which controls much of the south and east of the country. The US and Saudi Arabia judge the Houthis to receive military support from Iran.

Authority in the south is split between the Hadi Government and the Southern Transitional Council, a UAE-backed separatist group. In 2020, the two agreed to enter into a coalition Government. However, much of their agreement remains unimplemented, with a lack of integration between their forces.

In 2021, fighting has focused on the city of Marib, which is the last northern stronghold of the Hadi Government. The Houthis have also been blamed for several missile and drone attacks on areas within Saudi Arabia. Despite Saudi offers of a ceasefire in March 2021, fighting has intensified in September.

Human rights abuses and arms sales

The UN, NGOs and UK Government have raised concerns about human rights abuses committed by all sides in the conflict. These include indiscriminate shelling of civilians and air strikes against civilian areas.

UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia have proved controversial, as the Saudis have been accused of committing breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL) during its military operations in Yemen. The UK Government has argued there is “not a clear risk” that UK military exports to Saudi Arabia are used to violate IHL.

Negotiating a ceasefire and political settlement

The UK, as penholder for Yemen at the UN Security Council, is amongst those who have supported UN resolutions calling for a nationwide cease-fire and for continuing sanctions against those committing human rights abuses and obstructing the peace process. Acting as a penholder means the UK often takes the lead on Council activities relating to the country and the drafting of relevant resolutions.

While Saudi Arabia proposed a ceasefire to restart negotiations in March 2021, the Houthi rebels have said they will not negotiate unless the Saudi blockade of air and sea ports is first lifted. The Houthis have so far refused to meet the new UN Envoy, who was appointed in August, citing the same request.

Oman, which did not join the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 and whose Foreign Minister attended the inauguration of the new Iranian President in August, has expressed optimism that its negotiations may bear fruit. However, the newly-appointed UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, warned in September that there will be “no quick wins.”

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis

A summary of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is described in the separate Library briefing:Yemen’s humanitarian crisis (CBP09326). This also includes details on UK aid spending in the country.

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