A United Nations expert on Yemen reveals how he was fired over Russia's power politics with the United States.
Gregory Johnsen, tasked by the United Nations as an "expert on mission" covering Yemen, was responsible for briefing the Security Council. But he received a Whatsapp message from New York, asking for "a minute" to talk, which unsettled him just minutes after a contest period for his renewal as a consultant.
UN experts are nominated by the under-secretary-general for political affairs, and then appointed by the secretary-general without question. But 15 members of the Security Council also have a say, among them the five permanent members which provide approval. Any permanent member of the Security Council can put a "hold" on or "block" a candidate for any reason up until a seven-day contest period for approval.
"Twelve days earlier, the US had placed the nomination of a new Russian expert to the Sudan panel on hold, citing his lack of experience and asking for more information about his qualifications. Russia retaliated, as it often does these days, with a tit-for-tat response. They decided to place a hold on the next American nomination: me," Johnsen said.
"Russia used the exact same language as the US, citing my lack of experience and asking for more information about my qualifications, even though they had already confirmed me twice."
Johnsen has over 15 years' experience travelling and studying in Yemen, including a Fulbright fellowship to Yemen. His PhD was focused on Yemen, and he has even written a book on Yemen and Al-Qaeda. Adding to this, Johnsen's experience has been seen through the US senate via expert briefings and hundreds of interviews on the subject to the media.
"I was pretty sure that's what the WhatsApp message was about. The 'no-contest' period for our panel had expired 11 minutes earlier, at 3 p.m. EST, and it looked like a country had challenged my nomination at the last minute. And I was pretty sure I knew who: Russia!", Johnsen wrote in Politico.
"It's ridiculous," one UN staffer told Johnsen. "We think that if the US lifts its hold, the Russians will lift their hold on you. But you'd probably have to wait an extra 12 days."
"So if the US lifts their hold I would have to wait another 12 days for the Russians to lift their hold on me, just so the responses are reciprocal?" he asked.
Johnsen was one of the UN experts on Yemen that had previously concluded Iran was in non-compliance with the UN Security Council resolution related to arms smuggling in Yemen. Their ally Russia attempted to "weaken" the report. Russia even met the UN experts to reiterate "strong doubts" over the case that Iran is smuggling missiles into Yemen. Since then, Johnsen withdrew his application to be reconsidered for the post, and when he did, was sent an intermediary message from a Russian diplomat apologising for the mess. "It was great power politics," the Russian diplomat told Johnsen.
The conflict in Yemen escalated in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-Arab allies launched a massive air campaign aimed at rolling back Houthi gains from Saada to Sana'a. The Yemen National Army – including foreign mercenaries – supported by the Saudi-led coalition have made considerable territorial gains inside northern Yemen over the past year.
Three years on, more than 15,000 Yemenis have been killed according to the UN and millions continue to suffer in what it has declared to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.