Diplomacy Is Back to Yemen, What Next?

By: Jamal Benomar*

After the death of nearly a quarter of a million Yemenis, the displacement or forced displacement of more than three million others, and after war crimes became wide, and more than half a decade lost in a futile conflict, US President Joe Biden declared that ”diplomacy is back” to Yemen.

It is clear that the announcement is welcome; it has a different beat to it in Sanaa and Aden than in Washington, when we remember that a number of senior foreign policy advisers to President Biden held – six years ago – similar positions in the administration of President Barack Obama, and provided support for the war Led by Saudi Arabia.

As a special envoy of the United Nations to Yemen, I was at that time in Sana’a trying to facilitate complex negotiations aimed at drafting a power-sharing agreement that would put an end to Houthis takeover of the state, and prevent the outbreak of a civil war. After ten hard weeks, a compromise was reached that reflects the parties’ agreement on the shape of the executive and legislature, security arrangements and a timetable process for the transitional process. The deal was on the table. The U.N. Security Council was briefed and I was in discussions with Saudi officials regarding the venue for a signing ceremony.

Two days later, without warning, the airstrikes began. From the window of the hotel where the United Nations team was staying, I watched bitterly the scale of the destruction to one of the oldest cities in the world.

Unfortunately, Security Council Resolution 2216 provided a cover for the atrocities that followed. A resolution drafted by the Saudis, and quickly carried by the United States, Britain and France to a council that was supposed to be concerned with ensuring international peace and security.

Their Gulf ally was in need of appeasement after the nuclear deal with Iran was concluded. It must have seemed to be a fair diplomatic bargain. However, the western side in the swap also knew demanding the surrender of the advancing Houthis to a government living in elegant hotel exile in Riyadh was not realistic or acceptable. But that was of little importance to them because they were certain that the Russians would block the decision.

They miscalculated. Moscow felt an opportunity for her, to take advantage of the trade deals with Saudi Arabia, it abstained from the vote, removing the only obstacle to the adoption of the resolution. Ironically, this impractical decision continues to form the framework for all mediation processes supervised by the United Nations. Mediation failed as testimony to the six years of this war.

It seems necessary for American diplomacy today to make its first mission change is to replace the template. Washington should promote a new Security Council resolution that provides a different framework for a broad and comprehensive negotiation process that guarantees a seat for all Yemeni parties, including civilian actors who have distanced themselves from the fighting.

To start, this must include Houthis. However repressive and reprehensible the role they have played, they remain powerful: hundreds of billions in weapons sales to the Saudis later and they control more than half the country, and today are still advancing.

The new negotiating formula should also include Islah party, the Yemeni version of the Muslim Brotherhood. One might argue that peace negotiations in this format will only serve to legitimize both – Houthi and Islah – but peace mediators necessarily need space to engage with all parties, including controversial actors. Peace is made with enemies, not between friends.

Western countries should encourage those they describe as friends to return to areas under their control in Yemen. Sitting at the negotiating table cannot take place remotely or over the phone from luxury exile, but rather requires a presence on the ground.

Neither can a new cast of warlords and armed groups, including UAE funded separatists in the south, who emerged during this war be ignored–nor those profiting from the conflict with no interest in cessation.

The political field in Yemen has become more diversified and segmented than ever before. In addition to the traditional parties and armed factions, there are also democratic and civic youth and women groups. And they all have every right to a seat at the new negotiating table.

This process may sound complicated, Yemenis have already seen what a full-spectrum, local-led process should look like during the 2013-14 national dialogue conference. It took all the political components about six months of preparation and more than ten more months of daily deliberations to agree on a formula for democratic governance and political transition.

After that, it was the turn to draft a constitution with the same comprehensive consensus mechanism with national leadership. Today more than ever, this consensual approach seems necessary to bring Yemen to the land of peace.

To achieve consensus among all the disparate Yemeni parties in talks that have become urgent today, the United States cannot adopt an approach based on dictates. It may be human nature to try to correct the mistake, but Washington should not in any way lead the process. Rather, it should play the role of facilitating sponsor and try to bring all parties to the table, and then will find that those sitting for negotiation will not lack options in creating prominent Yemeni personalities with ties to all parties.

Personalities who can help all parties meet and seek compromises, as Yemenis have always done for thousands of years. The time has come for Yemeni political elite to assume its responsibilities and stop relying on external parties only to blame them in the end of all ills that have afflicted their country. Yemeni elites have contributed, to varying degrees, to thwarting what until recently was considered a promising political transformation.

I stated in my final report to the Security Council in April 2015: “Yemenis must be given the opportunity to freely determine their future without interference or coercion from outside forces.” This is still true today..

Nobody can deny that the US decision to end its military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen is good news. We hope that Britain and France will follow suit. But this will not stop the fighting in Yemen or bring peace to its people.


* The writer served as UN Special Envoy to Yemen between 2011 and 2015 and as the United Nations, and former U.N. under secretary-general.