UN peace efforts must be wary of Yemeni discontent
The UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, displayed unusual optimism after his three-day trip to Yemen, where he met the Houthi leadership in Sanaa. He described his discussions with militia leader Abdulmalek Al-Houthi “fruitful and supportive.”
Griffiths’ visit to Sanaa was preceded by meetings with the militia spokesman in Muscat, Oman, and with Yemeni President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi in Aden. This shuttle diplomacy has two objectives: First, to avoid an escalation of conflict in Hodeidah, and second, to ensure buy-in by Yemeni factions for political negotiations that the UN envoy is attempting to relaunch. While his efforts to communicate with all warring parties are commendable, his enthusiasm for the prospect of negotiations is disconnected from the realities on the ground, and could risk Yemeni trust in the UN process.
Since 2011, all UN delegates to Yemen have expressed initial optimism for peace and dialogue and praised the capacity of Yemenis for negotiations, but have eventually become frustrated. Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed worked to get all parties to an agreement, only for the Houthis to withdraw at the last minute. The Houthis also conspired with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh against the 2013 UN-backed National Dialogue Process and overthrew Hadi’s government, essentially igniting the war.
Part of the reason externally led negotiation processes in Yemen continually fail is that informal local tribal mediation methods are replaced with international mechanisms that tribal powers in Yemen consider meaningless. This has made breaking UN pacts and processes more likely, especially by the Houthi militia, who view formal negotiations as a political tactic rather than an actual process. The Houthis meet foreign dignitaries and envoys, discuss agreements and plans, and participate in dialogues not because they are keen on a peaceful and democratic political process, but because it serves their agenda to be involved and informed.
Part of the reason externally led negotiation processes in Yemen continually fail is that informal local tribal mediation methods are replaced with international mechanisms that tribal powers in Yemen consider meaningless.
Fatima Abo Alasrar
Additionally, the Houthis engagement in agreements is consistently self-serving; they often join negotiations facilitated by international actors for the sole purpose of demonstrating to their followers a false image of international backing and legitimacy. Houthi media have already reported favorably on the meetings with the UN envoy and the head of the EU delegation to Yemen, with reporting designed to portray their sympathy for the humanitarian situation in Yemen as tacit support for the Houthis.
The UN should continue pushing all Yemeni parties to negotiate, but it must be careful not to boost the position of the already weakened Houthi militia by giving it international legitimacy and ignoring its violations on the ground. The Houthi militia has lost the popularity and power it had when it overthrew the government in 2014, and is now at an all-time low. Almost all Yemeni parties now vehemently oppose them. Even tribes that had allied with the Houthis have been humiliated by sectarian and discriminatory Houthi policies over the past four years. Excessive attempts to placate the Houthis could alienate many Yemenis. They could also incite other groups to follow suit and use violence to gain a seat at the negotiating table.
For the UN negotiation process to succeed, it should pressure the Houthis to relinquish their control over Yemeni cities, and focus primarily on reconciliation. It must maintain connectivity to core conflict issues on the ground, especially violence among Yemeni groups. Independent civil society organizations and activists in Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city, last week condemned the Houthi shelling of residential areas in the city and urged the UN envoy to pressure the militia to halt their attacks and lift the blockade. They have also indirectly accused international human rights and protection organizations of “silence” on Houthi crimes and underreporting of offenses committed by the Houthis in Taiz, turning a blind eye to abuses to secure progress in peace talks.
Against a background of such discontent, the UN envoy has to demonstrate that he is not sweeping the Houthis’ conduct under the rug to attract them to the negotiating table. He has to offer concrete solutions for Yemenis after four years of war, and demonstrate a commitment to protecting civilians from illicit non-state actors. Yemenis under Houthi control are in a dire humanitarian situation as a result of the Houthis’ mismanagement of revenues and their inability to deliver essential services.
The UN-sponsored negotiations that Griffiths is attempting to relaunch are undoubtedly necessary and will shape the future of Yemen. The inclusion of the Houthi militia in the talks is prudent. However, the negotiations must be careful not to inadvertently strengthen or empower the already crumbling Houthis, lest they become more of an obstacle than a help. Leading up to the talks, the UN must improve its relationship with the Yemeni people at large, ensuring that the same effort extended to the Houthi leadership, who are significant spoilers, is also granted to peace-seeking Yemeni authorities and organizations in order to secure real buy-in from all participants in this process.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is a senior analyst for the Arabia Foundation in Washington DC. Twitter: @YemeniFatima