We mustn’t turn a blind eye on Yemen

The war and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is one of those that tend to be forgotten in public debate in the West over other pressing issues such as the wars in Ukraine and Syria, and their consequences for Europe. On February 18 this year, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect noted that “One year after the escalation of the conflict in Yemen, the world is witnessing the erosion of respect for international humanitarian and human rights law on a daily basis in the country. Civilians and civilian infrastructures continue to be targeted by all parties to the conflict, to the point that the attention of the international media has largely become saturated”. In a press release dated the same month, the UN Security Council called the situation in Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis worldwide, based on the number of people in need. Since the start of the Saudi-led military intervention against the Houthi forces in March 2015, more than 10,000 people were killed, among them at least 4,000 civilians. Furthermore, 2.8 million people fled their homes and overall, about 14.4 million are dependent on some form of humanitarian assistance.

However, Yemen is the only country in the Arabian Peninsula which ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention. Despite the dire humanitarian situation in the country, Yemen thus continues to be a destination for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing over the Gulf of Aden, especially from Ethiopia and Somalia. In the first four months of 2016 alone, 40,000 people arrived from the Horn of Africa, joining the 250,000 international refugees already in the country. The UNHCR and other international organizations are providing humanitarian assistance, but suffer from a severe lack of funding and have difficulties accessing conflicted areas.

The current war began with clashes between the Houthis and the central government in 2004, which escalated in 2009. The Houthis belong to the shiite sect of the Zaidiyyah that held the power in the country for more than 1,000 years until the revolution in 1962. In 2014, the Houthis seized the capital Sana’a. After the government under President Hadi had fled the country in March 2015, they took de facto control over large parts of Yemen. On March 26, 2015, a Saudi-led coalition first launched  a massive air campaign against Houthi positions, called Operation Decisive Storm, followed by Operation Restoring Hope one month later. While Saudi Arabia intervened in support of President Hadi, Iran allegedly provided the Houthis with  politically support and weapon shipments. Despite a recent EU-wide (but non-binding) arms embargo to Saudi Arabia, several Western states continued to sign arms deals with the kingdom, while the latter allegedly also supplied Yemeni militants with these weapons.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, there have been numerous attempts by the UN to facilitate a peace process between the major conflict parties. Jamal Benomar served as the United Nations Envoy to Yemen starting in 2011 and he facilitated the transition of power from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to now-President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in the heights of the so-called Arab Spring. Benomar resigned on April 15, 2015, after the Yemeni government, the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition had become increasingly impatient with his handling of the conflict. Others, such as the new Yemeni Vice President Khaled Bahar, backed Benomar, saying that if someone is to blame for the deterioration of the situation, it would be the political parties that are not helping in the process. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon appointed the Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to succeed Benomar as Special Envoy to Yemen on April 25, 2015.

The first round of negotiations after the Saudi-led intervention was held in Geneva from June 15 to 19, 2015. However, in order to understand the current negotiations and their limitations, it is necessary to go back at least until 2011. Special Envoy Cheikh Ahmed stressed at the beginning of the consultations that it was agreed “that there would be three main principles that we need to follow: first is the Gulf initiative and the mechanism to implement it; the second issue relates to the National Dialogue and its details; the third issue includes United Nations Security Council Resolutions, including 2216”.

The so-called Gulf initiative dates back to the 2011 uprisings and centers around the transition of power from former president Saleh to his then Vice President Hadi in exchange for immunity for Saleh and his family. Hadi was elected on January 21, 2012 with 99.99 percent of the votes and a reported turnout of 65 percent. The second central aspect to the Gulf initiative was the establishment of a National Dialogue Conference, which was held from March 18, 2013 to January 24, 2014 and in which representatives of all societal groups would come together and discuss the central topics. However, important representatives of the Youth Movement, the Southern Movement, and the Houthis were underrepresented or abstained. There has also been criticism that the Gulf initiative degraded a public uprise over government legitimacy and living conditions to a mere dispute among parties. The initiative initially succeeded in easing the tensions but failed to bring lasting peace.

Finally, the Yemeni government especially stresses the importance to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, which first and foremost requested the Houthis to “withdraw from all seized areas and to relinquish all seized arms”. These preconditions were rejected by the Houthis who in turn demanded the Saudi air raids to stop before they would agree to a ceasefire. During the first negotiations in Geneva, the two sides did not even meet face-to-face.

The second round of peace talks were held from December 15 to 20, 2015, again in Switzerland. One of the main achievements of this round was that the two parties met for the first time and agreed on several trust-building measures, including the release of prisoners. The ceasefire that accompanied the talks has been broken severely from all sides. While the peace process further stalled in the beginning of January 2016, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran grew after the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran was stormed. Peace talks did not continue in January and tensions between both sides escalated further.

With some delay, the last round of negotiations was held in Kuwait, starting on April 20, 2016. In August, the talks ended after three months with the Houthi installing a 10-member governing body to run Yemen after they regarded their explicit call for a unitary government and the removal of President Hadi as not being met.

Overall, there are four points to consider. Firstly, all peace negotiations so far failed to produce a roadmap for a long-lasting peace in Yemen. The main opposing demands are the Houthis’ call for the election of a unitary government without President Hadi at the top, on the one side, and, on the other, the government’s demand to implement Resolution 2216 which requested the Houthis to withdraw from major cities and surrender heavy weapons.

Secondly, the idea to reduce the conflict to a Saudi Arabia-Iran proxy-war or to merely another manifestation of the Shia-Sunni divide, falls significantly short of the complex interdependence of several societal cleavages, power struggles and intertwined conflicts in Yemen.

Thirdly, the humanitarian crisis in the Yemen and the ongoing attacks from all parties in the conflict against civilians and international humanitarian organizations are a slap in the face of humanity and international law alike. With the devastating air-strike on a funeral ceremony on October 8, that killed 140 civilians and left another 525 wounded, as well as the first direct US action against the Houthis, peace seems to be more further away than ever.

And lastly: The power vacuum and instability in large parts of the country are exploited by jihadist groups that managed to expand their sphere of influence over the time of the conflict. Apart from its operations in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also provided training to the attackers of the Charlie Hebdo raid in Paris. Furthermore, the so-called Islamic State has announced the founding of three provinces (Wilayah) in Yemen in November 2014 and carried out several devastating attacks since. Without an agreement on a long-term political solution that includes all actors in the country and provides the ground for thoughtful administrative and economic reforms, the war is unlikely to come to an end in the near future.

Photo by Ibrahem Qasim (CC BY-SA 2.0 license)