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The UN still refuses to address the core of the Yemen conflict

June 18, 2016 at 12:29 pm

Thus far, the Kuwait-sponsored UN peace talks for Yemen have been fruitless, although earlier this week UN Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced a “comprehensive peace plan” to end the war, leaving some hope that hostilities could soon be over. The plan has three key points: Dissolving the Houthis’ takeover of Yemen, meaning that the constitution that they drafted in February last year is to be declared null and void; withdrawing forces from Sana’a and setting up a military council consisting of parties who have not been involved in the war to monitor a two-month transition with the aim of allowing the Hadi government-in-exile back into power; and to oversee a transition period which would eventually allow the resumption of national politics.

In hindsight, all of this seems to be ideal. Disarming and reintegrating seems to be the perfect tools for national reconciliation. In reality, though, there are many obstacles to the success of this plan within a political context that is so complicated that thinking that Yemen’s problems can be solved in this way is naïve.

The UN envoy has also called for a general amnesty for those participating in the peace talks. This may seem like a good idea as it suggests a fresh start for the parties to enhance trust-building and allows them to forgive and progress for the sake of the nation. However, one only needs to examine the effect of the last time that a similar initiative was taken to realise why this is wrong.

In November 2011, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council that ended his rule. Sharing a border with Yemen, Saudi Arabia did not want to witness domestic instability because of the Yemeni revolution and sought to broker a regional deal in which Saleh stepped down as president and allowed the transition for the then Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to become president. In this deal, Saleh was granted immunity from being held accountable for the corruption that stemmed from his decades’ long rule. He was able to stay in Yemen without fear under the basis of trust that he would allow the political process without him to continue. The result of this was that he allied with the Houthi rebels — against whom he had fought a number of wars — to orchestrate a coup to depose Hadi.

Realistically speaking, a general amnesty will most likely continue the cycle of distrust. The Hadi government has threatened to quit the talks repeatedly on the basis that the Houthis are not cooperating. The Houthis in turn have been using the peace talks as a mechanism to stay in power diplomatically, as well as having a force on the ground in Yemen. In the beginning of June, the Hadi government rejected a Houthi proposal in which it was claimed to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2216 in exchange for forming a unity government. The resolution calls for the disarming of the Houthis, withdrawal from the occupied territories and giving power back to the Hadi government.

Following his return from a visit to the Houthi heartland of Sa’ada, the leader of the Houthi delegation Mohamed Abdel Salam told the Yemeni media that the militia would reject any peace deal that does not include their participation in the political, military and national security transition. Over the past month and after his visit, it is clear that the Houthis are only becoming less likely to conform with 2216 and are more interested in keeping a grip on as much power as they can.

The talks are also focusing too much on the internal dispute between the warring parties and not so much on the situation on the ground. In Hodeidah, there is currently an extreme electricity shortage, with no access to AC, or working refrigerators to store food, so many people have fallen victim to heat-related illnesses and deaths, and they can’t find food. In Taiz, the siege persists and poverty, violence and instability is plaguing the region. There has been much frustration in the latter about the Hadi government’s initiative to arm and support the local resistance in the efforts to end the siege and the Houthi-Saleh occupation.

The Central Bank of Yemen is also enduring a crisis. It is located in Houthi-controlled Sana’a and it is desperately trying to keep its neutral status in the war to the extent that it pays the salaries of the fighters of the government and the Houthi-Saleh militia. In May, Foreign Minister Abdulmalik Al-Mikhlafi announced that $4 billion is missing from the Central Bank, dwindling the country’s resources even further. There have also been claims coming from the Ministry of the Interior that the Houthis are planning to establish a bank illegally to increase their autonomy over the country’s economy. Though it is questionable about whether they will be able to do so, it clearly marks their intention to extend their illegal power grab.

It is obvious to observers that this proposal is flawed and is ignoring the present context and recent history. For the talks to be successful, a more robust approach needs to be taken which must also reflect local grievances and voices. The priority must be to allow justice for the Yemeni people rather than coming up with a minimal deal that offers the same kind of immunity to those in positions of power and influence who allowed the current instability to develop and over which they are fighting. The UN really must address the core of the issue, not just the periphery.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.