Yemen – A commentary of UN Special Envoy’s NYT Article

The 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is opening today and Yemen will most probably be widely discussed during this week, especially after the Houthis claiming responsibility for the drone attack on Saudi oil installations (an attack which most probably involved both drones and cruise missiles and which was launched from southern Iraq). With this annual event the UN Special Envoy for Yemen needs to create some kind of momentum on the question of the Yemen peace process, which he just did through a New York Times article.

The article’s title is optimistic (The Secret of Yemen’s War? We Can End It) and the different steps highlighted by Martin Griffiths are ambitious. But formulated the way they are, these steps are not taking into account the reality on the ground, nor are they reflected in current UN actions towards an inclusive peace process.

“First, the monopoly on force must be returned to the government of Yemen. No Yemenis outside the state should be allowed to use violence to achieve their ends. This is a simple but absolute requirement. The militias that fight over Yemen’s land must be replaced by the exclusive authority of the state. This can be achieved through a process overseen by the United Nations of gradually transferring weapons from the militias to the new government.” This is like saying that Yemenis need to stop chewing Kat! Disarmament of militias can certainly be a long-term objective but peace will have to be achieved first. There are more weapons per inhabitants in Yemen than there are in the United States. All Yemeni men, as early as 10 or 12 years old, are used to carry a weapon. Tribal militias have been armed for centuries and thinking that the tribes will just hand over their weapons to the UN is simply unrealistic and naive.

“Second, the government must be more than a coalition. It must be an inclusive partnership among the political parties that now take different sides.” It is interesting to see the UN Special Envoy promoting inclusive partnership as for now UN peace efforts have been focused on Hodeidah port and limited to two belligerents: the Houthis and the Internationally Recognized Government of Yemen (IRGY). The limited success on Hodeidah has at least stopped a potential deterioration of the humanitarian situation in country but the process is now stalled. Other parties to the conflict have so far been kept out of the discussion and inclusion will necessitate the participation of the southern groups such as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) but also the Islah party and others smaller groups. It should also include traditional tribal leaders who are still playing a major role in the conflict.

Moreover, the reference to a centralized government raises an important question: is a central government the adapted model for a country like Yemen? Unified Yemen is a result, firstly of a long civil war and, secondly, the result of the years under the regime of Ali Abdallah Saleh who managed to keep a balance between the most important tribes in country through bribes, corruption and nomination. It would be interesting to see the UN, within an inclusive peace process, developing new governance models which can answer the long term issues in Yemen. Maybe a federal governance model could satisfy the different interests at stake.

“Third, the government must ensure that its country will not be used for attacks on neighbors or even those beyond. This must be a compact between Yemen’s new leaders and its neighborhood.” This is directed at the Houthis, who have significantly increased their military operations against Saudi territory mainly through drone attacks. As seen with the recent development in the relation between the Houthis and the UAE (the second main actor within the coalition), if Saudi Arabia was changing its strategy then the Houthis might halt this kind of operations.

“Fifth, the people of Yemen will eliminate and outlaw from its territory the terrorist threat that even now we see.” The problem of Al Qaeda in Arab Peninsula (AQAP) existed prior to the current conflict and will be a difficult one to solve. AQAP has complex ties and alliances with the Tribes in Hadramout, Shabwa and Abyan, their historic strongholds. The group is also used at times by the different actors within conflict dynamics at the local level. Only a peaceful and stabilized Yemen can produce a conducive environment for discussions around the elimination of AQAP in country.

“Sixth, Yemen’s neighbors will guarantee the prosperity and stability of its population through trade and the generosity that will remove the scars of this war.” This is certainly one of the most ambitious objectives set by the UN Special Envoy. While Oman has and will continue to play a neutral and diplomatic role in the Yemen conflict, other neighbors have obviously pursued very specific strategic and economic objectives. The UAE with an eye on the control of ports and of the Bab el Manded strait; Saudi Arabia with plans to export oil through eastern Yemen ports to avoid the Strait of Hormuz. There is very little chance that these two powerful regional actors will just drop these economic interests with nothing in exchange.

One thing we can all agree on with Martin Griffiths is that “The future shape of Yemen can, and indeed should, be determined only by Yemenis free of the duress of war and willing to negotiate the future of their country in good faith.” And that’s what a UN-led peace process should be focusing on, bringing all relevant parties to the table, supporting local initiatives to create confidence building measures, supporting a dynamic Yemeni civil society in an effort to reach peace. All of this will need international and regional buy-in but if the Special Envoy can propose an honorable exit strategy to Saudi Arabia, then it might work.

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