On the morning of November 14, 2011, Yemen’s bitter rivals had finally agreed to come together in a discreet, closed-door meeting facilitated by the then-United Nations Special Envoy, Jamal Benomar, to negotiate a way out of the crisis. Sanaa, the capital, was divided, armed clashes had erupted and the country stood on the brink of civil war. The parties were discussing a UN-brokered transitional deal in the wake of the mass protests that had swept across the country calling for the departure of late president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Foreign diplomats from the permanent five member nations of the UN Security Council (UNSC), descended on the compound, where the meeting was being held, and were trying to burst in.
Benomar, who facilitated the meeting that was held at the residence of Abd Rabu Mansoor Hadi residence, who was then Saleh’s vice president, went out to see who the gatecrashers were. The United States’ ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, led the charge with the United Kingdom, followed by ambassadors from France, Russia, and China. Benomar told them firmly that the talks concerned only Yemenis, adding that he would withdraw from the meeting if they attempted to join. Hadi, under Saleh’s orders, and the opposition delegation, also made it clear the ambassadors weren’t welcome – the first and only thing they had agreed on since the crisis began.
The US and British ambassadors had demanded that Benomar return to New York immediately to report to the UNSC. Benomar refused. Unbeknownst to them, he had already contacted the president of the Council and obtained approval to postpone the date of the meeting so that he could mediate between the two sides.
The GCC’s paper-thin peace proposal
The peace proposal that was promoted at the time by the US/UK and the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, commonly called the GCC Initiative, was only one and a half pages long and just as thin in detail. Moreover, it excluded key players, including the Yemeni youth who were occupying the squares, women, Houthis, and the Southern Movement. It also lacked key details regarding the transition and the path forward.
After a week of meetings at Hadi’s, the parties agreed to a power-sharing agreement, facilitated by the UN, and a detailed road map for a political transition, ironically titled, ‘Agreement on the Implementation Mechanism for the Transition Process in Yemen in Accordance with the Initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),’ and that sharply contradicted the initiative in many respects.
The UN-mediated agreement wasn’t ideal, but it laid the foundation for a more inclusive national dialogue and a more inclusive political process that the UN continued to facilitate. The deal was the best alternative to an imminent violent conflict and it held, albeit with ups down, until Saudi Arabia waged its war in Yemen, with support from the United Arab Emirates, the US, and UK in March 2015, after the Houthis took over the capital and sent Hadi and his government into exile in Riyadh.
Failures of wartime conflict mediation
Since the Saudi military intervention in Yemen, all diplomatic initiatives to find a political solution to the crisis have failed for obvious reasons. There has been no credible inclusive political process and no credible impartial mediation at all. Two weeks into the Saudi-led war, the UNSC adopted a Saudi drafted resolution called Resolution 2216, that basically called on the Houthis to surrender to a government living in luxury in hotels in Riyadh. The UN attempted reviving talks in Geneva, and in Kuwait. In light of Resolution 2216, the Houthis attended those talks as rebels versus what has now been dubbed as “the internationally recognized government.” Those talks also lacked true representation of all political parties as they were required to participate under the umbrella of the Riyadh controlled “legitimate government.” Youth and women who participated in the ten-month long, inclusive national dialogue in 2013-2014 were simply ignored. Instead, Yemen envoys of UNSC’s permanent members plus the GCC’s were dictating the agenda. At one of the Kuwait meetings, the US envoy reportedly threatened the Houthis to make the bank note even cheaper than the ink on it if they didn’t accept some proposed deal. Furthermore, the UN and its new envoys were no longer viewed as impartial deal brokers, as they were implementing the views of UNSC’s permanent members that all supported Saudi Arabia’s intervention.
UN no longer seen as impartial
The UN has since failed to bring together the Yemeni rivals around the table to discuss a way out of the crisis. The recent talks held between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis were facilitated by Oman. Muscat’s recent facilitation of channels of communications between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis is a good step that has held the current truce. However, it has yet to outline a roadmap for an inclusive power sharing agreement, as most of the talks have focused on the humanitarian aspects of the war, rather than how Yemen should be governed and how power and resources should be shared.
A resolution to Yemen’s conflict shouldn’t really be that difficult if lessons were learned from past diplomatic mistakes. All foreign interventions in Yemen must end. The US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq failed dismally — the Taliban ended up in control and Iraq was a political disaster for many years and the human cost in both countries has been devastating. In addition to the destruction foreign intervention causes, it also often sets a stage for an exploitative political process that is shaped by external rather than local players.
Saudi agrees to negotiate with the Houthis
Sadly, the Yemeni parties were on the verge of signing a power-sharing agreement when Saudi Arabia launched its war in 2015. Eight years on, the Saudis have failed to reinstate their favored Yemeni elites and have ended up strengthening their Houthi rivals. With the UAE they have helped create more local warlords, who have further fragmented the country. Saudi Arabia has now opted for direct negotiation with the Houthis. This is a welcomed development, but it is doubtful these negotiations could succeed without an injection of impartial expert facilitation. If all regional players cut, or at least freeze their financial and military aid to their Yemeni allies, locally led Yemeni mediation initiatives may succeed where the UN and all foreign actors have failed so far.
The UN should support Yemeni led initiatives, rather than continuing to pretend that it is in the driver’s seat. The days of the UN’s assertive and impartial facilitation ended when the international body decided to play second fiddle to the Saudis and the US. How can the UN Secretary General arbitrarily delete Saudi Arabia from the list of countries who kill children and still expect the Yemenis to view him or his representative as an honest peace broker? The UNSC should find a way to revoke Resolution 2216 adopting different language in a new resolution that could reinstate some of its lost impartiality, that is yet another example of the collateral damage of Saudi Arabia’s war. With the support of a more impartial UN and Oman, some three to four well-respected Yemenis, who enjoy trust of all parties, could bring all warring sides together, to agree on a new road map for peace and reconciliation. But for such an initiative to succeed someone needs, as Benomar did, to keep the foreign ambassadors outside of the room. It’s time for Yemenis to determine their future free from foreign interference.
Diplomatic initiatives on Yemen over the past eight years haven’t worked. It’s time to change course and end the cycle of violence. Washington, Riyadh, and others should send diplomats keen on empowering Yemeni peace builders instead of supporting and legitimizing warlords whose only interest is to continue the conflict.
Shuaib Almosawa is a Yemeni freelance journalist who is based in Sanaa and whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Intercept, and other publications.