Top UN officials warn against escalation in Red Sea after US-UK hit Yemen

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UNITED NATIONS, Jan 13 : Following US-UK strikes on Houthi sites in Yemen, a day after the Security Council adopted a resolution demanding that the Houthis cease attacking commercial vessels, a senior UN official on Friday warned the 15-nation body of the consequences of further escalation in the region and urged restraint by all parties. “There have been further alarming developments in the Red Sea,” Khaled Khiari, Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific in the Departments of Political Affairs told the Security Council which met to discuss the rising tensions in the Middle East.

Khiari noted that the military forces of the United States and the United Kingdom, supported by Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlandds, conducted over 50 air and missile strikes on targets across Yemmen. “We are witnessing a cycle of violence that risks grave political, security, economic and humanitarian repercussions in Yemen and the region,” he warned. In a separate statement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also urged countries to avoid an escalation in the situation in the Red Sea. The Secretary-General underscored that the Security Council resolution 2722 must be fully respected in its entirety, his spokesperson said in a statement. “The Secretary-General reiterates that attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea area are not acceptable as they endanger the safety and security of global supply chains and have a negative impact on the economic and humanitarian situation worldwide,” it said. Additionally, all member states defending their vessels from attacks must do so “in accordance with international law, as stipulated in the Resolution. He also called on all parties involved not to further escalate the situation in the interest of peace and stability in the Red Sea and the wider region. “The Secretary-General stresses the need to avoid acts that could further worsen the situation in Yemen itself. He calls for every effort to be made to ensure that Yemen pursues a path towards peace and that the work undertaken thus far to end the conflict in Yemen should not be lost,” the statement added. In his briefing, Khiari, the UN official, said that recent humanitarian improvements in Yemen are fragile and could easily be reversed. Further, progress towards reaching a political settlement to end the war in Yemen could be undermined, leaving its people to face the impact of continued conflict. Thursday’s air strikes, he emphasized, further demonstrate that the region is on a dangerous escalatory trajectory that could potentially impact millions in Yemen, the region and globally. Calling on all concerned parties to ‘do their utmost to avoid further escalation, reduce tensions and exercise restraint’, he also reaffirmed the need to ensure the safety and security of maritime navigation. In the ensuing debate, the Council’s permanent Council members who carried out the strikes, US and UK described them as necessary and proportionate and, while some members concurred given the threat posed to Red Sea shipping, others sounded the alarm over escalatory actions in an already fraught region. US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, claimed that the strikes aimed to disrupt and degrade the Houthis’ ability to continue their attacks and that they were consistent with her country’s right to self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Since November 2023, 2,000 ships have been forced to divert thousands of miles to avoid the Red Sea, affecting 50 nations — and commercial shipping has been attacked 27 times. She therefore called on Council members especially those with direct channels to Iran to pressure that State to reign in the Houthis. Echoing that position, UK Ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, stated that her country took limited, necessary and proportionate action in self-defence, with particular care taken to minimize the risks to civilians. Since November 2023, the Houthis have launched over 100 drone and missile attacks against vessels from a range of countries, putting innocent lives at risk, threatening the global economy and destabilizing the region — despite the Council’s demand in resolution 2722 (2024) foor such attacks to end. Meanwhile, Japaanese Ambassador to the UN, Yamazaki Kazuyuki, recalled that the Houthis’ illegally seized the Galaxy Leader, a vessel operated by a Japanese company and have held its crew for more than 50 days. Such actions, which jeopardize the freedom of navigation of commercial vessels and the safety of seafarers, cannot be justified for any reason. He therefore expressed support for the determination of the United States, United Kingdom and relevant countries to fulfill their responsibility to ensure the free and safe navigation of vessels. However, the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, pushed back on that narrative, stating that the exercise of the right to self-defence does not apply to commercial shipping, as freedom of navigation is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, stating that Washington cannot even get its story straight, he said that the concept of piracy does not apply in this case and pointed out. Even if we are talking about pirates, the Convention gives you the right to seize a pirate vessel and prosecute the crew and not to bomb yet another country back to the Stone Age, the Russian envoy added. Chinese Ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, said, “The last thing we need at this stage is reckless military adventurism, and the first thing we need is calm and restraint, warning that the Middle East is already on the brink of extreme danger. Observing that the latest military actions in Yemen destroyed infrastructure, caused civilian casualties, heightened security risks in the Red Sea and risked undermining the ongoing political process in Yemen, he emphasized that the Council resolution never authorized any State to use force. In this regard, Ambassador Zhang expressed grave concern over the launch of strikes against the Houthis by the US and UK. China, he said, had called repeatedly on the Houthis to immediately cease their attacks and harassment on commercial vessels and respect the navigation rights of the commercial vessels of all countries.