It’s Time for the UN to Regain Some Credibility in Yemen

While the United Nations officially advocates for inclusion and impartiality in its mediation efforts, it has not always upheld these standards in Yemen. This worrying pattern within the war-torn country is most visible in UN Security Council resolution 2216 that asks for Houthi surrender rather than compromise and sustainable peace, which has eroded Yemeni trust towards the institution and the peace process at large. 

Over the past decade, the UN developed an impressive body of standards for conflict mediation. This culminated in the publication of the United Nations Guidance for Effective Mediation in 2012, which sets the standards of impartiality, inclusivity, and coherence. However, there remains a large gap between theory and implementation. Despite this clear guidance on necessary conditions for effective mediation, the UN has deviated from this framework within Yemen, with lasting consequences, namely a bloody stalemate and increased distrust towards UN and western institutions. 

A Saudi-led Security Council resolution thwarts positive mediation efforts

From 2011 to 2015, the UN was the lead actor in conflict mediation in Yemen. In November 2011, its envoy Jamal Benomar facilitated the negotiations between former authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the opposition parties, resulting in a transition agreement. Then in 2013, it played a lead role in the national dialogue conference and supported the constitution making process. The UN Envoy also facilitated the Peace and Partnership Agreement in September 2014, and in March 2015, the he was also the facilitator of a new power sharing agreement that was aborted by the Saudi-led military intervention, which marked the beginning of a new chapter of UN mediation.

In April 2015, UNSC 2216 was passed, and with it, unrealistic conditions for negotiation were set. The Saudis drafted the resolution themselves with the British, French, and Americans supporting it to placate the Saudis over the Iran nuclear deal. Expecting a Russian veto, these countries felt confident supporting the resolution. This was a grave miscalculation that set the stage for the next eight years of failed negotiations. 

Unrealistic expectations of the Houthis damage possibilities of peace

As Waleed Alhariri, the Director of the Yemen International Forum writes, the resolution demands “the Houthis surrender all territory seized, including Sana’a, fully disarm and allow President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government to resume its responsibilities.” As the war drags on, these conditions have become increasingly unrealistic with the Houthis controlling the majority of the country, and the Hadi government remaining in Riyadh since 2015.  

The resolution marks a distinct departure in UN conflict mediation. Rather than impartiality, powerful nations on the Security Council made concessions to one side of the conflict, clearly motivated by their own economic and security interests. Saudi Arabia has been given effective control over how diplomatic efforts are addressed, and even discussed, within the Security Council. Following the adoption of resolution 2216, negotiations did not account for the diversity and fluidity of the conflict. Over the past eight years, warring parties have transformed and expanded, yet UN facilitation remains solely focused on Sanaa and Riyadh.

UN’s reputation damaged by lack of inclusion and impartiality

This lack of inclusion and impartiality has significantly damaged the UN’s reputation within Yemen. Furthermore, the removal of Saudi Arabia from the child killer black-list and blocking of an independent war crimes investigation has increased distrust towards the UN. While the UN’s own criteria states that “impartiality is a cornerstone of mediation – if a mediation process is perceived to be biased, this can undermine meaningful progress to resolve the conflict,” UN action — or lack thereof — within Yemen has undermined progress in a country with the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with 80 percent of the population requiring humanitarian assistance.

While I was in Yemen this July, I saw anti-UN street art painted on walls throughout the country. The messages ranged from accusations that the UN is blocking Yemeni self-determination, to claims that the Security Council is a tool of American and British interests. The common thread that underpinned all the artwork was distrust. In my conversations with Yemenis across the political spectrum, the UN was seen as a bad faith actor or inept, at best. Years of war have left Yemen ravaged, yet UN intervention has failed to alleviate the situation. Instead, by taking a stance in the conflict, it has entrenched unrealistic conditions that have prolonged the war. Thus, Yemenis have become disillusioned by the very institution that is supposed to bring peace.

Foreigners rather than Yemenis at the negotiating table in Geneva and Kuwait

While UN conflict mediation efforts continue, Yemenis remain sidelined. During negotiations in Geneva and Kuwait, foreigners were in the driver seats rather than Yemenis, namely the US and Saudi Arabia. Due to the high level of foreign intervention and interference, including arms sales and intelligence cooperation, within the country, there is much to be discussed with non-Yemeni parties. The conflict is international and cannot be settled by Yemenis alone. However, there still must remain room for Yemeni voices and perspectives. This entails creating the conditions for a Yemeni-led political process. For sustainable peace, there must be a wide range of participation, yet that is difficult to achieve under a blockade and with foreign funding of militant groups.

UN guidelines outline that mediations must “identify the level of inclusivity needed for the mediation to start.” While it is unrealistic to expect widespread civil society participation at this point, given the dire humanitarian crisis and economic collapse, by ending foreign intervention and the blockade, Yemenis will have the stability and independence to set their own agendas and priorities for building peace. 

In 2011, the UN was able to mediate a power-sharing agreement that laid the foundation for a more inclusive national dialogue and political process. This was largely thanks to centring Yemenis and removing foreign interference by only allowing Yemenis to participate in the talks.  In all negotiations prior to 2015, including the ones held in 2011 and the national dialogue conference in 2013, foreign ambassadors were not even allowed into the room. Now, foreign ambassadors are the ones setting meeting agendas and the conditions for peace, which prioritizes foreign interest and prevents reconciliation between Yemenis. 

In the National Dialogue Conference 2013-2014, the UN advocated for and ensured the participation of women, youth and civil society, which marked the first time they had participated in the political process. These gains are now gone.   

Locally led Yemeni mediation yields results on the ground

While UN negotiation has been failing, there have been high levels of success in local Yemeni mediations. While the largest UN-mediated prisoner exchange was 1,056, tribal mediation has resulted in the release of thousands of prisoners. Furthermore, the first Saudi delegation to visit Sana’a since the war was mediated by Oman, not the UN. Given the high levels of mistrust towards the UN and western mediators, regional and local actors have emerged as more effective actors in Yemen. Moving forward, there could be potential roles for other non-aligned countries in the region in mediating the conflict, such as Kuwait and Egypt. Kuwait already hosted dialogues and if flights from Sana’a to Cairo open that could also offer a path for Egypt to enter the mediation process. As of now, Yemen is hard to access and navigate for foreigners due to the blockade and being one of the most tribal societies in the world, but regional and local actors are better able to address these challenges. 

A new Security Council needed to re-establish UN impartiality

For UN mediation to succeed, the body must be perceived as impartial. That is no longer the case in Yemen. However, adopting a more balanced UNSC resolution superseding resolution 2216 would help bolster UN legitimacy within Yemen. This must be part of a wider UN strategy of change within Yemen. Over the past eight years, the UN has not pursued impartiality or inclusion within the country, but by creating realistic conditions for Yemeni led and centered dialogue to occur, there can be progress towards peace. As UN mediation guidelines note, “the premise of mediation is that in the right environment, conflict parties can improve their relationships and move towards cooperation.” This environment must include local parties setting agendas, not the UN or other foreign actors. After over eight years of failing efforts, it is time for the UN and international community to change course. And it’s time for Yemenis to be allowed the space to carve their own future free from foreign interference. 

Arwa Mokdad is an MPhil candidate at the University of Oxford researching conflict mediation within Yemen. Her work focuses on local, regional, and international peace-building efforts within Yemen. Arwa also works with Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation as a peace advocate. Through this work, she supports aid programs in Yemen while participating in policy efforts in the U.S.

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