Opinion | Give peace a real chance in Yemen

The time is now to redraw outdated UN plans to end the war

Stephen A. Seche

Executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Seche served for 35 years in the US Foreign Service. His posts included US Ambassador to Yemen (2007-10) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for US relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Yemen (2011-13).  

After more than three years, the conflict in Yemen that has brought about a man-made humanitarian disaster affecting 22.5 million people remains without a military solution. A negotiated peace is desperately needed.

 

On Tuesday, 17th April, the new UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, will give his first briefing to the UN Security Council. His appointment brings with it a fresh opportunity to reset attempts to forge a political solution. Yet if Griffiths is to succeed, the Security Council must consider a new pathway to peace and scuttle the current framework that makes his already difficult task even tougher.

 

That framework was set out in Resolution 2216, adopted by the Security Council in April 2015; it was never designed to reach a third birthday.

 

The binding resolution established an arms embargo on Houthi rebels, imposed sanctions on leaders in their alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and reaffirmed the legitimacy of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi – a provision the Saudi Arabian-led coalition interprets as legal backing for its intervention.

 

Resolution 2216 was intended as a short-term fix to rescue the fragile authority of Hadi, then the transitional president. It also provided international legitimacy to the Saudi-led military campaign aimed at reversing the illegal usurpation of power by the Houthis. The Saudis apparently believed they could achieve this goal in a matter of weeks.  

 

Three years and more than 16,000 Saudi coalition airstrikes later, the Houthis still control Yemen’s capital and most of its strategic highlands. President Hadi remains in exile in Riyadh, Saleh is dead, and Saudi Arabia is under increasing threat from ballistic missiles launched by the rebels, who enjoy growing support from Iran. As the complexities of the war have grown, Resolution 2216 has become at best increasingly irrelevant. At worst, it is an obstacle to peace.

 

If Security Council members want to offer Griffiths the chance to succeed where his predecessors have failed, they would do well to examine closely how Resolution 2216 in fact dissuades key players from negotiating peace and how much the conflict has changed in the three years since it was adopted.

 

First and foremost, it impedes peace negotiations by placing unrealistic preconditions to a political agreement on one party. It requires the Houthis to withdraw all forces from areas they have seized (including the capital, Sana’a), lay down their arms, and cease all government-like actions before any political agreement takes effect. Let’s be clear: it is realistic and right for the Security Council to require the Houthis to surrender control of Sana’a and the other territory they seized, in favour of either a transitional or multi-party governing body. However, it is not realistic to tell the Houthis that they must retreat and disarm – in a word, capitulate – before talks on an agreement even get underway.

 

Second, Resolution 2216 disincentivises the Hadi government from coming to the negotiating table. Hadi was elected in 2012 for a two-year term as transitional president, with his mandate extended another year in 2014. But since fleeing Yemen in 2015, his status as the country’s recognised president is based exclusively on explicit references to that effect in Resolution 2216. Since it is clear that Hadi will not remain president under any peace deal, he is incentivised to maintain the status quo lest he be disenfranchised.

 

The principal legal basis for the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen is the consent granted to them by Hadi; once he goes, the Saudis and their partners would find themselves on shaky ground to continue bombing. Riyadh thus has a stake in perpetuating Hadi’s otherwise-expired status.

 

In addition to creating disincentives for peace among key actors in the conflict, Resolution 2216 also fails to take into account the dynamics on the ground today. In 2015, fighting in Yemen was largely between the Houthis and Hadi’s government. Over time, the war has metastasised into a more complex conflict featuring a multiplicity of actors. Forces that had been loyal to Saleh, southern secessionists, and myriad tribal leaders and militias supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other regional powers all hold sway in ways not anticipated by the terms of Resolution 2216.  

 

With more and more evidence of Yemen fragmenting into what UN analysts recently described as “warring statelets”, a new Security Council resolution must acknowledge today’s multitude of powerful groups and stakeholders rather than perpetuate an outdated, two-sided concept of the conflict. It must also factor in engagement with women’s groups, youth movements, and other sectors of Yemeni society that have peacefully campaigned for change since before the Arab Spring, which in Yemen included mass protests and the eventual transfer of power from Saleh to Hadi.

 

Resolution 2216 has contributed to the absence of progress toward peace in Yemen, and to the continued fruitless push for military victory at the expense of millions of suffering civilians. Saudi Arabia, the Houthis, the UAE, and the Hadi government all stand accused of widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Yemen’s protracted conflict and state collapse have also provided fertile ground to terror groups, including al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.

 

Earlier this month, states from around the world gathered in Geneva and pledged over two billion dollars to help respond to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, including large contributions by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But neither money nor aid alone can resolve a humanitarian crisis that has been spawned by war. What is urgently needed is a realistic and amended plan for a political solution to the conflict, including a formal and vocal demand by the UN Security Council for a full cessation of hostilities by all parties, leading to peace negotiations without preconditions.

 

Drawing on his deep experience in diplomacy and the impartial authority of his office to gain the trust of the many parties on the ground, Griffiths is well positioned to finally get things moving in the right direction. However, Security Council members must be willing to scrap their outdated plans and look to provide a viable pathway to peace. In so doing, they can help ease what the UN has called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.

 

(TOP PHOTO: A boy stands in the middle of destroyed buildings in Sana'a. CREDIT: Yeyha Arhab/ICRC)