Across the globe, there are several regions that differ not only geographically and politically, but also in terms of their dynamics, problems, and actors. Since this policy paper focuses on Yemen, it is the Middle East region that is being examined. There is no exaggeration in saying that this region is one of the most dynamic in the world, due to various armed conflicts present and two major powers vying for supremacy – Iran and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry between these two foes has been setting the direction of the Middle East and, to some extent, shaping relations within the region for many years.
As In addition to the armed conflicts mentioned previously, the Middle East region has been ravaged by several conflicts, which also apply to the country examined in this paper – Yemen. From the beginning of Yemen’s political crisis in 2011, which was catalyzed by the “Arab Spring” spreading across the MENA countries, Yemen, with its paralyzed political and social system, quickly fell into a quagmire and has not recovered since. All the dissent and turmoil culminated at the beginning of 2015 when a civil war started in this region’s poorest country, and, shortly after, it attracted multiple external actors to get involved in Yemen’s war. The analysis of the conflict in Yemen is not the main focus of this paper, but it is important to mention the involved actors in order to understand the analysis related to the UN’s role and efforts in the conflict.
As the conflict in Yemen expanded, multiple external actors became involved, resulting in the internationalization of the conflict and, naturally, increasing its complexity. To shortly present the internal situation, there are two opposing actors fighting each other in order to gain more power over Yemen. On one side, there is the internationally recognized Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) which has been led by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi since 2012. On the opposing side, there is the Houthi movement which can be described as a revivalist political and insurgent movement formed and situated in the north of the country. The start of the civil war in 2015 is associated with the Houthis due to their insurgency against ROYG and the following seizure of the capital of Sanaa in 2014. Shortly after the civil war broke out, Saudi Arabia got involved in the conflict by leading a military coalition consisting of several GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states backed up by The United States. It is important to mention that Saudi Arabia, hence the whole coalition, has been supporting ROYG and President Hadi as the legitimate body holding power in Yemen. To follow up with the above-mentioned rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, there have been claims about Iran’s indirect support of the Houthis as a strategic move to tackle the regional ambitions of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, and Saudi’s involvement can be also perceived as an opportunity to challenge Iran’s regional ambitions.
As Yemen’s war spiraled out of control on an internal level, the United Nations and its relevant departments could not just ignore the worsening conditions in the country. In an effort to stabilize Yemen’s worsening situation, the world’s supranational institution had no choice but to become more involved. This leads me to the purpose of this article- to analyze the UN’s Efforts in Yemen between 2015-2018. The UN has stood by Hadi’s office and ROYG since the political turmoil erupted.
It is important to state that the options of the UN, in general, are constrained mainly due to two factors: the Permanent Five members that prioritize their national interests over the welfare of other nations, and the limited means this institution has to enforce some decisions. The last procedural matter worth mentioning is that any resolution issued by the UN Security Council (UNSC) can be vetoed by any one of the Permanent Five. For the purpose of the analysis, I will narrow my scope to the two main resolutions issued in the analyzed period as it would be barely possible to cover all the UN’s activities profoundly within those three years in one policy paper.
UNSC Resolution 2216 and the Years 2015-2016
As the civil war evolved into an internationalized conflict in April 2015, The UN set a strategy for a peaceful solution in Yemen in order to avoid even greater violence. UNSC Resolution 2216 confirms support for the legitimacy of the President of Yemen Hadi and was issued under Chapter VII demanding (a) end the use of violence, (b) withdraw their forces from all areas they have seized, including the capital Sana’a, (c) relinquish all additional arms seized from military and security institutions, including missiles systems, (d) cease all actions that are exclusively within the authority of the legitimate government of Yemen, (e) refrain from any provocation or threats to neighboring states, including through acquiring surface-surface missiles, and stockpiling weapons in any bordering territory of a neighboring State, (f) safely release Major-General Mahmoud al Subaihi, the Minister of Defense of Yemen, all political prisoners and all individuals under house arrest or arbitrarily detained, and (g) end the recruitment and use of children and release all children from their ranks.
Besides the above-mentioned points, the resolution also established an arms embargo on Yemen to reach a certain decrease in violence in the country. The resolute position of this UN’s resolution to adhere to Hadi’s legitimacy opposing the Houthis was initially criticized and confronted by Russia which called on all parties to cease violence, rather than only blaming the Houthis. Since the Resolution was put into effect, the UNSC struggled with the problem of surrendering. The Hadi Government relied on the Resolution which demands the Houthis surrender, while the Houthis refused to recognize the legitimacy of the official government and demanded power-sharing principles. The search for a peace agreement intensified on the brink of 2016 when the humanitarian situation in Yemen significantly worsened.
Between 2015 and 2016, the UN managed to bring the warring parties together three times in total: Geneva in June 2015, Biel in December 2015, and Kuwait in 2016. The Kuwait negotiations took the longest time (from April to August) and addressed mainly the withdrawal of militias and armed groups, restoration of state institutions, the handover of heavy weapons to the state, and the establishment of a committee on prisoners and detainees. However, all the areas of the Kuwait talks failed because of the unwillingness of the warring parties to compromise. On top of that, even the environment within the UNSC was also disunited as Egypt and Senegal (both members of the Security Council at that time) held some disagreements with each other, and, finally, there was a dispute with Russia and its calling for recognition of the real situation on the ground – validation of the Houthi forces. All this led to a failure to bring peace. Nevertheless, bringing the two warring parties “bore some fruit” because it produced a temporary cessation of fire.
In 2016, there was one very important change in the game as the Quad of states (the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) was established and it basically ruled out the UN from any peace negotiations. The Quad became the main body for further attempts to reach a peace agreement and held multiple meetings of their own.
Starting in the middle of 2017, most of the UNSC efforts revolved around preventing, and, later, containing the coalition offensive on al-Hodeida. The USNC changed its temporary members and some of them (particularly Sweden and the Netherlands) called for a new resolution, but there was prevailing a certain reluctance from other members, such as the UK. All this resulted in 14 full months without issuing any official resolution while the crisis in Yemen continued. This confirms how the structural and procedural setting can be an obstacle paralyzing even the world’s supra-national institution and more or less doomed all the attempts for peace negotiations to failure from the outset. When it comes to Resolution 2216 in particular, we can conclude that it failed because of the reluctance to recognize the realities on the ground accordingly.
The Stockholm Agreement and the year 2018
Before I get directly to the Stockholm Agreement, it is important to briefly describe what preceded it. After Houthi militants took control of Sanaa in 2014, they also seized control over Yemen’s main cargo port located in Hodeida which provided access to the Red Sea and was a pivotal strategic area for the Houthis to supply the capital of Sanaa. On top of that, the port is located north of the Bab Al Mandab strait – one of the world’s maritime chokepoints transporting global oil supplies.
In June 2018, the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Golden Victory in order to change the balance of power in the area and turn the tide of the war in their favor. But every coin has two sides and, besides possible territory gains, the fighting seriously threatened the other crucial function of the port – supplying Yemen with food, and basic supplies for Yemeni people. Thus, there was a serious threat that could have exacerbated Yemen’s humanitarian crisis even more and caused a catastrophe that would have cost many more lives. This fragile setting and international pressure led the UN to take action. Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for Yemen, repeatedly tried to broker a cease-fire and prevent a coalition strike against Hodeida.
On December 6, 2018, the warring parties met in Sweden under the patronage of the UN to negotiate various de-escalation proposals and peace negotiations. The result of those negotiations was summed up in the Stockholm agreement, which consists of three main parts: a cease-fire around the port of Hodeida, a prisoner swap, and an impulse to form a committee to discuss the war-destroyed city Taiz. The UN agreed to chair a Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) to monitor the situation. In addition, the UNSC passed Resolution 2452, which authorized the creation of the United Nations Mission to support and monitor the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA) for six months. The talks in Sweden can be thus perceived as a major breakthrough in the attempt to end the war in Yemen.
Theoretically, this UN’s action sounded very promising and represented a significant step, but the reality was different. Even months after the signing of the agreement, its implementation stalled because it was too vague. One of the issues was the imprecise language and shallow specification of how the cease-fire should be implemented, or the agreement to hand over weapons to ‘local forces’ without specifying who those local forces were, for example. This led to an opportunity for the warring parties to make their own interpretation of the agreement in their favor. Another point was the “fading action” of the agreement as none of the to-be meetings took place. We can conclude then that the Stockholm Agreement can be considered more symbolic than effective. Another fact pointing to the failure of the Stockholm Agreement was the UN’s negligence of the other major issue linked to the port in Hodeida – control of the Central Bank. Port incomes were to be used to finance the salaries of civil servants, thus proving living for survival to approximately one-third of Yemenis, but none of it happened as the Central Bank had gotten under the power of the Houthis after their seizure of the capital of Sanaa.
The war in Yemen has been a very complex political issue and it has been affecting the Yemeni people in an extremely lamentable way. Due to the conflict, the situation in Yemen has become one of the most serious humanitarian crises, and the various dimensions of the war and warring parties only exacerbate the catastrophe happening on Yemen’s ground. The UN, and particularly the Security Council, has been aware of the critical situation and has attempted to take measures in order to either facilitate the impacts of the war on the Yemeni people or to prevent escalation that would have deepened the whole problem. I have pointed out and analyzed two major actions of the UN between 2015 and 2018 – Resolution 2216 and The Stockholm Agreement. Their theoretical intentions could have been more effective if it was not for the UN’s institutional functioning and the misreading of the realities on Yemen’s ground.
Both Resolution 2216 and the Stockholm Agreement hold partial success but mostly only in the temporary and short perspective. The UN proved to be a good negotiator and mediator between the warring sides but when it came to the implementation of the negotiated agreements, their efficiency stalled. It would be unfair to state that the UN was not successful in Yemen at all, but the potential of their efforts and attempts could have had a greater positive impact on Yemen if the complexity of the conflict had been analyzed better. Also, the involvement of several external actors in the conflict acting and negotiating on their own might have made things for the UN and its efforts even more complicated.
The fact is that many challenges and obstacles stand in the way of the UN’s efforts in Yemen. When I focus on the prospects for the UN’s involvement in Yemen, many of the obstacles would have to be addressed and, perhaps, solved before the UN would implement some of its mechanisms. One of the obstacles is the large number of players involved in the Yemen war which has intensified the violence and exacerbated the humanitarian situation. One of the hypothetical solutions to it would be a withdrawal of the individual external actors involved in the conflict which would allow the UN to maneuver more effectively on the ground. From the UN’s perspective, it is the issue of vague and ambiguous agreements, like The Stockholm Agreement, that weakened their potential impact already on the paper. A solution to it would be making more concrete and straightforward agreements that already include a focus on implementation mechanisms. A crucial point related to the agreements in order to make them more realistic and increase their chances of success is to analyze the realities on the ground objectively and make the agreements based on those realities. The last recommendation I would like to mention is the internal challenge that weakens practically any international efforts that attempt to elevate the humanitarian impact of the war on Yemen – the war economy. The UN should be more active in combating this major economic issue. The future of the UN’s efforts should definitely involve restoring the functions of the Yemeni Central Bank which might, consequently, as a chain reaction, lead to stabilizing the country, decreasing the humanitarian crisis, and, perhaps, pulling Yemen out of the ongoing turmoil.
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Source of the picture: https://cartoonmovement.com/cartoon/yemen-vs-un
Written by Filip Lukeš