Why can’t the United Nations bring peace to Yemen?

Helen Lackner
Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Hundreds of children rally in front of a UN office in Sanaa on the World Children’s Day, demanding help to end the war and lift the blockade imposed on Yemen. Mohammed Mohammed/ Press Association.


By 2011 the international community had concluded that the Saleh regime needed to be replaced by one which would both implement the neo-liberal economic agenda and focus on counter terrorism.


Yemenis, speaking to journalists and other camera-bearing strangers, like many others facing disaster and the collapse of the world around them from war or environmental catastrophes, often ask ‘where is the International Community? Why isn’t the world helping us?’ While it is difficult to completely grasp what people in extreme distress mean by the phrase, for many the ‘international community’ is embodied in the United Nations and its institutions, ranging from political entities, primarily the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to its more independent development and humanitarian assistance organisations such as the World Food Programme, UNICEF, WHO etc….  But the UN has lost considerable credibility in recent years and its reputation has suffered as a result of many failures. Yemen is a case in point.


The roots of UN involvement: 2011-14


In Yemen, unlike other countries of what was optimistically called the Arab Spring, the UN’s political institutions have been actively involved since 2011. The popular movement opposing the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh had its own specificities: unlike the situation in Tunisia where the army was weak and in Egypt where it supported ending Mubarak’s rule, in Yemen the military effectively split. With fairly evenly matched forces on either side, clashes in 2011 left the country on the verge of a civil war.[1]


From early 2010, with the creation of the Friends of Yemen, including all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the main western States, the EU and the UN, a group of resident ambassadors met regularly in Sana’a to monitor and influence developments and in April 2011 the UN Secretary General appointed a Special Advisor on Yemen. This coincided with a fundamental change in the momentum of the popular uprisings, when military confrontations started. The international community, represented by these ambassadors, concluded that the Saleh regime was no longer viable and needed to be replaced by a regime which would both implement the neo-liberal economic agenda and focus on counter terrorism.


As the crisis deepened and Saleh refused to quit, the UNSC adopted resolution 2014 in October 2011 calling for ‘an inclusive, orderly, and Yemeni-led process of political transition’ [2] while still giving  much attention to the issues of ‘the increased threat from Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.’[3] Despite its claim of supporting a Yemeni-led process, UNSC Resolution 2014 gave little attention to the economic and social issues which were far more important for Yemenis. Alongside other pressures, Saleh finally signed what became known as the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement on 23 November in Riyadh.  Its ‘Implementation Mechanism’, signed by all parties on the same date, includes the provision that ‘the Secretary General of the United Nations is called upon to provide continuous assistance, in cooperation with other agencies, for the implementation of this Agreement.’[4] This justified the UN’s direct involvement in internal Yemeni politics.


The transition initiated by the GCC Agreement was due to last two years, starting with the election of Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi to the post of President on 21 February 2012. The UN Special Adviser, as well as the group of ambassadors, were active participants in the process in the following years, thus sharing responsibility for the outcomes of security sector reform, the government of national unity and the National Dialogue Conference. As the transition has been discussed in some detail elsewhere, here I will simply remind readers that the Special Envoy maintained a high profile throughout the period; most Yemenis considered him to be partisan and promoting his own policies.


The transition and the war


Hadi was elected president for the period of the transition; in early 2014 as its tasks remained far from complete, the Special Envoy extended his term until an unspecified future date when elections might take place, an action which has raised legal issues about the ‘legitimacy’ of Hadi’s regime since that time. With the unravelling of the transition in early 2015, Hadi and his government ended up in exile in Riyadh after having called for military intervention from the GCC to re-instate him to power in Sana’a and on 26 March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition launched ‘Decisive Storm’.


Readers should be reminded of the most disastrous features of this war: by early 2018 Yemen has the world’s worst cholera epidemic with more than1 million cases, and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with more than 8 million people on the brink of famine, thousands of whom may well have died already.


While Hadi may still be interested in being re-instated, the attention of his international supporters is now focused elsewhere. In rhetoric at least, this war has been reduced to being no more than one element of the US-Israeli-Saudi anti-Iranian campaign. The Huthi are described as mere pawns of the Iranian regime, ignoring both their internal political dynamics and the (up to now) very limited involvement of Iran in their support. Yemeni concerns are neglected in pursuit of geopolitical policies which are of limited, if any, concern to them. But they suffer the consequences: bombing, shelling and a deadly blockade causing disease and starvation.


So how has the UN addressed the Yemeni war? On 14 April 2015, three weeks after the start of Decisive Storm, UNSC resolution 2216 was approved by 14 of its members (Russia abstained). Ten days later, a new Special Envoy was named, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in the hope that a new face would facilitate the UN’s work, given that his predecessor had, by that time, lost credibility among all Yemeni parties.


Constraints imposed by UNSC Resolution 2216


Resolution 2216 determines UN actions in Yemen to this day, despite the fact that, more than 1000 days into the war, the UN has been unable to achieve any progress. Hence the need to understand both the constraints imposed by the resolution and the environment in which the UN operates. What does 2216 say?


It recognises the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition in support of the Hadi regime and ‘reaffirming its support for the legitimacy of the President of Yemen, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’ (p 1) it demands that the Huthis “withdraw their forces from all areas they have seized, including the capital Sana’a” and “relinquish all additional arms seized from military and security institutions, including missile systems”. It calls for a return to the GCC Agreement and the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference and requests further intervention from the UN Secretary General.


Most importantly and relevant to what has been happening in the past 1000+ days, it decrees an arms embargo against the Houthi-Saleh alliance which includes the requirement that states “inspect, in accordance with their national authorities and legislation and consistent with international law, in particular the law of the sea and relevant international civil aviation agreements, all cargo to Yemen, in their territory, including seaports and airports” (p 5). This is the justification used by the Saudi-led coalition for its blockade of Yemeni ports and for preventing the flow of essential commodities to the country. Finally it imposed sanctions on Abdul Malik al Huthi and Ahmed Ali Saleh.


A rapid analysis of this resolution demonstrates why it can’t be the basis for a solution. The Huthis believe they are on a winning streak: first, they have transformed themselves from a small marginal group in 2004 to an organisation which now controls two-thirds of the country’s population and the capital. They have sent the transitional government into exile and, most recently, they have killed ex-President Saleh, their original main enemy and, more recently, ally; for good measure they have even managed to fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. Given this record, they are unlikely to accept conditions which amount to surrender, namely the withdrawal of all their military forces and a return of their armoury to a regime which is in exile.


By insisting on the return of Hadi as President in Sana’a, Resolution 2216 ignores some basic facts:  first, since being ousted, Hadi has hardly set foot in Yemen despite his temporary capital Aden and much of the country’s area, if not population, having been ‘liberated’ since the end of July 2015. In 2017 he even failed to turn up in Aden for the 50th anniversary of southern independence. Of the 883 days between the liberation of Aden and end 2017, he spent a total of 167 days in Yemen!


Second, as discussed above, his ‘legitimacy’ is open to debate and third, his government simply does not govern as most of the ‘liberated’ areas are under the control of a wide range of community-based local authorities, including jihadis in some cases. When ministers visit, they rarely venture beyond their enclave in Aden.


What the UN and the international community could do better


The Special Envoy’s task is to achieve a negotiated settlement. But the constraints under which the UN has to operate are a guarantee of failure. First, UNSC 2216 only recognises two parties to the conflict (the Huthis and Hadi’s internationally recognised government) while in reality there are a multiplicity of relevant political entities throughout the country including tribal and other social groups, the General People’s Congress (likely to restructure and become an important political party after Saleh’s death), youth, civil society and women, southern separatists and others.


For any negotiations to be successful, all Yemeni forces must participate and their concerns be addressed. Second, as discussed above, currently neither of the two officially recognised parties is willing to compromise. Hadi’s insistence on the ‘three references’[5] is a formula to prevent negotiations from even starting, while the Huthis are not facing defeat. Third, the UK is the ‘pen holder’ for Yemen at the UNSC and is very responsive to Saudi positions, thus giving Saudi Arabia undue influence in this forum. The UK has not put forward any draft resolution in the past year despite increasing public pressure; Saudi Arabia fears that a more neutral resolution might question its role in Yemen. Fourth, Hadi, whose sole remaining claim to his position is that he is named as the ‘legitimate’ president of Yemen in UNSC 2216 is obviously fully determined to prevent any change which would most likely end his presidency.


The UN is further constrained by the fact that it deals with governments which are the embodiment of the states they represent. In Yemen, international recognition of the Hadi government, prevents it from taking initiatives which challenge his position. This has confirmed the Huthis’ belief that the Special Envoy is biased against them. The last months of 2017 have seen increasing pressure from different states, civil society and within the UN for a new UNSC resolution which  would be more balanced, recognising realities on the ground and thus enable the UN to help bring an end to what its own humanitarian coordinator has described as ‘this absurd war that has only resulted in the destruction of the country and the incommensurate suffering of its people, who are being punished as part of a futile military campaign by both sides.’[6]


Coming weeks present two opportunities for a new approach: the UK could submit a new draft resolution to the Security Council which addresses Yemeni reality and present options which would allow for dialogue between all the forces present on the ground. The forthcoming completion of the Special Envoy’s term of office is an opportunity for the new UN Secretary General to appoint an experienced envoy with a record of success in solving difficult problems. Between them, these two actions would offer some hope to the millions of suffering Yemenis. Success would also help restore the UN’s badly damaged reputation in the world.


[1] Details on this period and other aspects of Yemen’s political economy are discussed in my Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state published  by Saqi books in October 2017


[2] UNSC Resolution 2014 (2011), 21 October 2011 p 3

[3] UNSC Resolution 2014 (2011), 21 October 2011 p 2

[4] Agreement on the Implementation Mechanism for the Transition Process in Yemen in accordance with the Initiative of the Gulf Cooperation council issued on 23 November2011, para 29

[5] The three references are UNSC 2216, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference and the GCC agreement.

[6] UN News,  28 December 2017Statement on behalf of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yuemen, Jamie McGoldrick, on mounting Civilian Casualties.

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