NEW YORK - The U.N. special envoy for Yemen said Tuesday that "time is not on Yemen's side" and urged Houthi rebels to come to the negotiating table to discuss a cease-fire and political settlement to the more than six-year-old conflict.
"Ending a war is a choice," Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council in his final briefing as envoy. "Yemeni men, women and children are suffering every day because people with power have missed the opportunities presented to them, to make the necessary concessions to end the war."
Griffiths has spent three years trying to mediate an end to the conflict between the rebels and the government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. Next month, the envoy will take up a possibly even more daunting challenge as the U.N. official in charge of global humanitarian crises, succeeding Mark Lowcock, who has held the post for four years.
In March, the Saudis, who militarily back Hadi, proposed a nationwide cease-fire. It included the reopening of Sanaa airport and joint access to taxes and fees from the country's main seaport at Hodeidah. Political talks would follow. The proposal was met with little enthusiasm from the rebels, who are in control of the majority of the country's territory.
Griffiths told the council Tuesday via videoconference that the Houthis are demanding separate agreements on Hodeidah and Sanaa airport as a pre-condition for starting negotiations on the cease-fire. Hadi's government insists the issues be combined and implemented as one package, with a focus on the cease-fire.
"Now we have offered different solutions to bridge these positions," he said. "Unfortunately, as of now, none of these suggestions have been accepted."
At the request of Saudi Arabia, Oman has recently undertaken a round of mediation with the Houthis. Griffiths told reporters he hopes to hear more from the Omanis on the outcome when he flies to Riyadh on Wednesday.
But the Iranian-backed rebels have repeatedly built up hopes of a truce over the years only to dash them.
Asked what is different now, Griffiths said a shift could allow the Houthis to move from being an international pariah to being part of a legitimate government. They would also be seen in a better light for helping to end the war, and might unlock the door to international support for post-conflict reconstruction.
"It is wrong to underestimate the human desire to do the right thing and to appear to do right thing," he added.
Yemen, the poorest nation in the Middle East before its civil war erupted, is now the world's largest humanitarian emergency. The United Nations says 16 million Yemenis are going hungry due to the war and economic collapse. Some 5 million are one step away from famine, while 50,000 people have already slipped into famine-like conditions.
U.N. humanitarian chief Lowcock told the council that international assistance was able to stop a major famine in Yemen in 2018 and 2019. He said there are some early signs that they may be able to avert a big famine again this year, but he cautioned that it is still too early to be certain and that a lot is riding on what happens in the next three months.
Lowcock said aid agencies help more than 10 million people every month in Yemen, but their operations are still not sufficiently funded. More than $200 million in pledges from a donors conference in March are still outstanding, jeopardizing programs.
"In August, UNICEF will cut fuel support for water and sanitation systems serving 3.4 million people," he said. "In September, the World Health Organization will stop providing the minimum-service package that enables health care for 6 million people. And the cuts will intensify from there."
Lowcock warned that the risk of famine, disease - including COVID-19 - and displacement have not gone away.
"And if more money doesn't come in, more people will die."