UN adopts resolution demanding immediate halt to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea

Following what has been described as the ‘largest Houthi drone attack’ in the Red Sea on January 9, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution demanding that the Houthis immediately cease all attacks on merchant and commercial vessels.

UN Photo/Manuel Elías Members of the Security-Council gather for a meeting on the maintenance of international peace and security in the Red Sea (file photo).

At least 21 missiles and drones were launched toward international shipping lanes on Tuesday, which were predominantly intercepted by the U.S. and U.K. naval forces.

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Houthis control the capital Sana’a and large swathes of the country, including the Red Sea coast. They began targeting what they believe to be Israel-bound vessels in mid-November after first launching missile and drone attacks against Israel in response to the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip.

However, it appears that the targets have been widened, until, they say, Israel allows full humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza.

The adopted resolution demands the release of the Galaxy Leader and its crew that were captured back in November. The seizure of the car carrier has been followed by 26 attacks on commercial vessels in the area.

The UN further said that the resolution also ‘took note of Member States’ right, in accordance with international law, to defend their vessels from attacks — including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms.’

 It condemned the provision of material to the Houthis in violation of resolution 2216 (2015) and urged caution and restraint to avoid further escalation of the situation in the Red Sea and the broader region.

Additionally, the Council encouraged enhanced diplomatic efforts by all parties to this end, including continued support for dialogue and Yemen’s peace process. Specifically, the war-torn country managed to enter a ceasefire in December 2023 after over eight years of armed conflict between the Government forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi rebels.

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The resolution doesn’t include Gaza wording

The UN resolution was adopted by a vote of 11 in favor, none against, and with 4 abstentions from Algeria, China, Mozambique, and the Russian Federation.

Before the adoption, the Russian Federation proposed several amendments, including those that would have added language related to the conflict in the Gaza Strip.

All of these were rejected, with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a representative from the United States, claiming that the Russian Federation’s text would have ‘falsely suggested that the conflict in Gaza is cause for Houthi attacks, which would have emboldened the Houthis and legitimized their violations.’

“While this resolution calls out the clear violations of international law, we must not overlook the root of the problem. Iran has long encouraged the Houthi’s destabilizing actions in the region through both financial and materiel support that violates the UN arms embargo. We know that Iran has been deeply involved in planning operations against commercial vessels in the Red Sea. The United States does not seek a confrontation with Iran. However, Iran also has a choice: to continue providing or withhold its support for the Houthis, without which the Houthis would struggle to effectively track and strike vessels navigating shipping lanes through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden,” Thomas-Greenfiel said.

Vassily A. Nebenzia from the Russian Federation said that the resolution was seeking to get a green light from the Security Council for the U.S.-led creation of an “international coalition” in the Red Sea and choosing “a path of unilateral solutions to a problem by force“, to “legitimize the coalition’s actions in hindsight and achieve an open-ended blessing from the Council.”

“The resolution cannot be seen to legitimize the actions of the so-called coalition of the United States and its satellites in the Red Sea. Further, it cannot create a non-existent right for States to defend their ships from attacks,” Nabenzia noted.

Noting other serious implications for international law — along with what has been described as an inappropriate reference to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — he expressed regret that no reference was made to the context for instability in the region:  the situation in the Gaza Strip.

The resolution is being passed on the heels of the ‘final warning’ to Houthi forces in Yemen made by the U.S. and supported by 13 other nations in a statement issued last week.

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Fears have been raised that passing the resolution might actually endorse a potential military action by the U.S. and potentially the U.K. and other allies on Houthi-controlled targets in Yemen. However, these one-time or two-time actions are likely to further escalate tensions in the region and fail to deter Houthis from further attacks.

That being said, the U.S. sees any failure to act as a risk of not being taken seriously and deterring further attacks.

Amar Bendjama, a representative to the UNSC from Algeria, said that safeguarding navigation in the Red Sea is a crucial objective that transcends national borders. However, he underscored that any military intervention in the region — particularly in Yemen — must be approached with maximum precaution, as it risks undermining UN efforts to appease tensions.  

Further, the Council must not ignore the clear link between the Houthi attacks and the conflict in Gaza, or the emotions awoken in the Arab world by the massacres of innocent civilians, he added.

That is why his delegation abstained, he said, declaring:  “We cannot associate ourselves with a text that ignores the 23,000 lives that have been lost over the last three months in Gaza.”

Meanwhile, Israel is facing accusations of genocide ahead of the International Court of Justice, brought about by South Africa. The final ruling might be years away, however, the court could order Israel to end its deadly bombing of Gaza.

As reported earlier, the Houthis said that their targets were vessels linked to Israel and those headed to Israel as a means of expressing solidarity with the current situation in the Gaza Strip, demanding humanitarian aid and medicine be allowed into the war-stricken area.

“The Yemeni armed forces continue to prevent Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine from navigating in the Arab and Red Seas until the aggression stops and the siege on our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip is lifted,” the Yemeni Armed Forces said.

The Yemeni Armed Forces confirm their full commitment to the continuation of shipping traffic in the Red and Arabian Seas to all destinations except the ports of occupied Palestine.”

Nevertheless, shipping companies repeated on numerous occasions that their ships were targeted even though they were not heading to Israel.

Geopolitical analysts also see the attacks as a Houthi strategy to gain greater leverage for their objectives in further talks with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, following the recent deal on a ceasefire in the country which has been grappling with armed conflict since 2014.

A Houthi spokesperson said that the latest attack on January 9 was targeting an American warship as retribution for the sinking of their boats and killing of 10 of their fighters in December 2023.

On December 30, U.S. Navy helicopters fired upon and sank three of the four small boats that were chasing Maersk’s containership Maersk Hangzhou. The Houthis were reportedly trying to board the vessel. However, the attack was repelled by Marersk’s private security team with assistance from the U.S. Navy.

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The cost of rerouting

Maersk has since decided to refrain from further transits in the region, preferring to reroute its ships around the Cape of Good Hope. The move has been adopted by many liner companies in an attempt to ensure the safety of crews and vessels.

As a response to the ongoing situation, Chinese shipping firm COSCO has suspended shipping to Israel, as reported by Reuters. Israel’s Transport Ministry is reportedly working with relevant parties to clarify COSCO’s move.

Nevertheless, the rerouting of vessels has resulted in considerably higher bills for the companies due to higher fuel expenses, extended voyage durations, and additional maintenance requirements. What is more, African ports, which are known for poor performance and inadequate handling capacity, are reported to be overwhelmed by the influx of additional cargo as well as insufficient refueling capacity.

“From a shipper perspective, the transit times will clearly increase with the round of Africa routing. It will be a bit more than a week longer from Asia to North Europe, and up to two weeks longer into the Mediterranean. Whilst this is certainly a serious problem for many shippers, we should keep in mind that these disruptions are no way near to the ones caused during the pandemic,” Alan Murphy, CEO, Sea-Intelligence, said.

As disclosed by Sea-Intelligence, the current capacity outlook is fraught with a high degree of uncertainty. However, the present data shows that the shippers could expect a capacity crunch for Asian exports in the coming weeks.

The Copenhagen-based research and intelligence firm focusing on container shipping said that the impact is quite visible on Asia-North Europe service, due to a combination of some services being held back in departure from Asia in the short-term awaiting re-routing. Some services are arriving late into Asia, thereby causing a rapid shortfall in the middle weeks of January, with a steep capacity drop now expected for the week of January 22nd.

“The seeming capacity spike in late December/early January is more an artifact of origin delays and should be given less attention. A similar trend is seen on both Asia-Mediterranean and Asia-North America East Coast, but a week earlier.  That said, the temptation is to call this a disaster, but such language would be inappropriate, when the current crisis is placed in the context of what the supply chains had to endure during the pandemic disruptions,” Murphy pointed out.

Concurrently, South Africa’s Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) is addressing operational challenges in its ports by appointing a panel of service providers to oversee eight ports lacking a terminal operator and address operational gaps.

The majority state-owned business aims to mitigate disruption over the next three years as it seeks new long-term terminal operators for ports with suspended or terminated contracts. TNPA’s strategy aligns with its role as a port landlord, as mandated by the National Ports Act, to establish a globally competitive South African port system.

The TNPA’s tender covers all eight commercial seaports, including Richard Bay, Durban, East London, Ngqura, Port Elizabeth, Mossel Bay, Cape Town, and Saldanha, with the appointed panel overseeing import and export operations and cargo distribution to inland customers. This action follows a decline in cargo handling at the country’s ports, with 2023 expected to see lower annual totals.