Start of Hodeidah Offensive Reinforces Humanitarian Concerns
One week into the offensive to seize the strategic port city of Hodeidah from Houthi rebels, pro-government Yemeni forces have taken control of the city’s airport nine miles south of the city center. The advance follows days of fighting that included dozens of airstrikes from Saudi and Emirati jets, strafing runs by Apache attack helicopters, and Houthis armed with tanks defending the area. The intense battle has already displaced tens of thousands of people, according to the United Nations, and it could prefigure a worse humanitarian catastrophe as pro-government forces approach the port. As fighters continued their approach yesterday, workers at the docks scrambled to unload supplies from the U.N. World Food Program, not knowing when additional aid might be able to enter the critical port.
Emirati officials said last week that they have made plans to mitigate disruptions to aid that enter Yemen through Hodeidah, including maintaining a shipping lane and flying in humanitarian supplies “once the situation allows for that.” But rights groups and the United Nations have warned that Hodeidah is a vital lifeline to a population that is heavily reliant on aid and that the Gulf states’ assurances are insufficient—the International Rescue Committee called the proposed plan “insincere” and “a publicity stunt ... meant to draw attention away from the undue suffering the attack is causing.” More than three-quarters of Yemenis receive food aid, most of which passes through Hodeidah, and the country has been teetering on the brink of famine for more than a year as the civil war has dragged on. On Monday, Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, called again for the Houthis to withdraw from the city and port and ruled out further diplomatic talks to facilitate a peaceful handover. If the Houthis do not “withdraw unconditionally,” Gargash said, “be assured we are determined to achieve our targets … This is not the time to negotiate."
The Guardian reports that approximately 40 Houthis rebels were killed in the attack on the airport, but that most have retreated to fortified positions in the city to brace for more fighting. They have also barricaded the road from Hodeidah to the Houthi-controlled capital of Sanaa.
U.N. officials said that 25,000 Yemenis have fled Hodeidah so far as the pro-government advance approaches the city of 600,000 residents. Displaced residents described to Reuters how they have tried to leave the city on foot, looking for breaks in between helicopter attack runs targeting Houthi snipers, to find shelter in a fish farm and an abandoned school. “Now we’re in this school, no mattresses, no electricity, no water, no bathrooms, nothing. And we have children who need medicine, need food, need anything, but we don’t have anything,” one man, Yehia Tanani, said. Others have died trying to escape. The New York Times reported that a man and two of his four children were killed by an explosion as they tried to leave the city by motorcycle; two of his daughters survived the blast and then traveled for 12 hours to reach a hospital.
U.S. Withdraws from U.N. Human Rights Council
The Trump administration said this week that it would withdraw the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The decision, announced by U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, comes after years of criticism that the organization unfairly targets Israel in its condemnations while providing political cover for rights-abusing states, and follows an unsuccessful bid by Haley to reform the 47-country organization.
Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson first floated the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal more than a year ago; critics of the UNHRC have advocated for the policy for years and opposed the Obama administration’s joining in 2009. In a letter circulated in March 2017, Tillerson noted that many member countries—including China, Cuba, and Egypt—are human rights violators themselves and wrote that the Council “requires considerable reform in order for us to continue to participate.” Haley has reiterated these critiques since and quietly worked on plans to address the UNHRC’s disproportionate focus on Israel. But late last month, European diplomats declined to support a U.S.-drafted General Assembly resolution that would have removed the Council’s standing agenda item on Israel—the only country to be singled out for such treatment in each meeting. “They seem to be headed for the exit,” one European diplomat told Foreign Policy at the time.
The discussion of the UNHRC reform resolution coincided with the development of another contentious resolution that criticized the shooting of Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces along the Gaza-Israel border. U.S. diplomats had pushed for an amendment also condemning Hamas for “inciting violence,” and used its veto to strike down the resolution when the new language did not pass. After the resolution failed at the Security Council, it was brought to the General Assembly last week and passed by a vote of 120 to 8 (with 45 countries abstaining). The resolution is non-binding, though a U.N. spokesman described it as expressing the assembly’s “political will.”
In remarks at the State Department, Haley excoriated the UNHRC and the countries that she said had scuttled U.S. efforts to reform it. “Russia, China, Cuba and Egypt all attempted to undermine our reform efforts this past year,” she said, calling the organization “a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.” But critics of the decision warn that the U.S. withdrawal will only further undermine human rights as an international norm and clear the way for more resolutions targeting Israel. As Mark Leon Goldberg wrote for the U.N. Dispatch blog, analysis of UNHRC resolutions by the Council on Foreign Relations found that U.S. membership on the Council has sharply reduced the number of resolutions targeting Israel and helped guide attention to issues that have been stalemated on the Security Council, including atrocities committed in Syria. The decision to withdraw can also be seen as another instance of the Trump administration’s unilateral approach, which has alienated U.S. allies. Richard Haass, president of CFR, tweeted that, though the administration has a strong case regarding the UNHRC’s hypocrisy, it is undermined by “its pattern of walking away from multilateral arrangements that deserve US participation,” including the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iran nuclear deal.
With the U.S. withdrawal imminent, the UNHRC has not shied away from criticizing the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families when detained at the border. Earlier this month, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said that it “amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child.” That prompted an angry rebuke from Hailey, who once again accused the UNHRC of hypocrisy for “calling out the United States while it ignores the reprehensible human rights records of several members of its own Human Rights Council.” She also doubled down on the administration’s unilateral approach. “Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders,” she said. That has not stopped criticism of the policy. On Monday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein described the policy as an “unconscionable” abuse inflicted on children.
Turkey Prepares for Critical Election
Turkey is closing in on its June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, which will mark the implementation of constitutional reforms that will grant its winner sweeping new executive powers. The snap election was only announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in April, leaving opposition candidates little time to organize their campaigns against the man who has dominated Turkish politics for more than 15 years. But Erdogan appears vulnerable. At least part of the reason for moving up the elections seems to have been concerns that Turkey’s faltering economy could decline, and Erdogan’s chances of re-election with it.
The opposition has largely coalesced around Muharrem Ince, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party, the vanguard of the secular establishment associated with Ataturk’s legacy and that has consistently opposed Erdogan’s campaign to shift Turkey towards political Islamism. Ince has the support of a coalition of three other parties and is rallying voters around a platform of inclusive governance in line with a political partnership that has made allies of secular, Islamist, and nationalist parties. He has criticized Erdogan’s economic policies and aggressive regional posture that has alienated Turkey’s allies, including the United States; he has also challenged Erdogan’s relationship with Israel, which Ince says is too cozy despite severe strains. The groundswell for Ince is a surprising turnaround given that he was not the opposition’s first-choice candidate; that would have been former Erdogan lieutenant Abdullah Gul, who announced early on that he would not be a candidate due to a lack of consensus within the opposition, though he may have been bullied out of running by senior government officials.
As the Washington Post notes, the Kurdish vote could be decisive. Kurdish support for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) infused the parliament with a reinvigorated opposition in 2015, and since then the HDP has been the target of a sustained government crackdown that has included the arrest of the party’s leaders. One of the party’s co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtas, is now running for president from prison. A strong Kurdish showing at the polls could prevent Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) from reaching the majority necessary to win the election outright. If that happens, the top two candidates would advance to a run-off election—or at least, that’s how the system is supposed to work. One AKP official suggested that the new constitutional reforms could allow a do-over of the presidential election if there is a party split between the president and parliament.
Tensions are running high. Three people were killed when violence broke out during an AKP campaign stop in the Kurdish-majority town of Suruc; government officials claim a parliamentary candidate was attacked by Kurdish militants, but members of the local opposition say AKP security guards opened fire on pro-Kurdish protesters. Erdogan has tried to invigorate his base with a new military campaign against Kurdish militants along the Turkish border, including expanded operations in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq. There are also concerns that Erdogan may try to rig the vote to secure the expanded powers he has campaigned for years to secure. After two years of purging political dissidents and tilting towards authoritarianism, ballot stuffing seems like a possible, and even likely, response from Erdogan to an electoral challenge.