Day: August 12, 2016

Yemen talks need rethinking

The most recent round of peace talks between the Houthis, supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Salih, Yemen’s government in exile lead by Abd Rabbuuh Mansur Hadi, and the regional powers involved in the GCC campaign in Yemen has gone nowhere. Hadi’s government in exile has departed from Kuwait. They signed a recently proposed UN deal and left it up to the Houthis to ratify the agreement and keep the talks moving.

The Houthis have not, and will not. This should come as no surprise. The Kuwait talks in their present form cannot lead to a political solution for three reasons:

1. The assumptions and structure that underpin the talks preclude an equitable settlement. On April 17, 2015 the Security Council adopted Resolution 2216, which has served as the basis for all Yemen peace talks since then. Then UNSC president Jordan (a party to the GCC coalition that has supplied planes and arms to pro-Hadi forces) proposed the resolution. It calls for the Houthis to withdraw from all territory they have seized since 2014 and to surrender their weapons.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Particularly troublesome is that unconditional Houthi surrender has become a precondition for further political negotiations, not an end goal. Once the Houthis surrender their weapons and retreat from seized territory, they lose their bargaining chips in the negotiations. The Houthis initiated the current conflict because they felt they were not being heard in the political process. They aren’t going to trust Hadi to include them in Yemen’s future without the threat of force. The UNSC resolution also reiterates the legitimacy of the Hadi government and extols the GCC Initiative that removed Salih from power, led to the National Dialogue Conference, and created a draft constitution.

Widely credited with helping to avoid civil war in Yemen after the 2011 uprising, the National Dialogue Conference failed to represent the demands of the groups that had fought for Salih’s removal. Women, young people, the Houthis, and representatives of the movement for southern independence were all marginalized. Despite an initial unanimous agreement to a federal structure for Yemen, the process fell apart when it came to deciding the precise terms. A small, unrepresentative committee Hadi hand-picked redrew Yemen’s 21 governorates into a 6 regions. Criticism was widespread: the Houthis, southerners, the salafi Rashad Union, and others questioned the new map.

This led to the Houthi take over of Sana’a in September 2014. Going back to the GCC Initiative without addressing the grievances of young activists, Southerners, and especially the Houthis will accomplish nothing. A new starting point for a more representative political process is needed.

By far the most damning aspect of UNSC 2216 is its exoneration of the Saudi-led campaign. The Resolution makes no mention of a multilateral ceasefire, even while noting the deteriorating humanitarian situation. In fact, the GCC air campaign is not mentioned at all, even though the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, reported the day prior that the majority of casualties were civilians. Demanding that only  the Houthis put down their weapons without asking the same of “pro-Hadi forces” will never work.

2. The Kuwait talks do not represent the forces fighting on the ground. The war in Yemen is widely portrayed as a war with two sides:

  1. the Houthis and forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Salih;
  2. Allegedly “Pro-Hadi forces,” who include southern secessionists, tribes in central Yemen who are fighting more to remove the Houthis than to reinstate Hadi, and people in the  Houthi stronghold of Sa‘ada who oppose the Houthis on religious and political grounds.

A large portion of the forces fighting the Houthis share many of their grievances and also felt side-lined by the elite-dominated GCC Initiative, but oppose the Houthis’ turn to violence and effort to dominate opposition to Hadi. Many do not want to see Hadi re-installed as president, but none of them have been represented at talks in Kuwait or Geneva. While “pro-Hadi forces” are united for now by a common enemy, if the Houthis retreat Hadi will lose what little influence he commands on the ground.

3. The war has stalemated on the battlefield, but both sides still believe they can use force to extract more concessions at the negotiating table. When the Yemeni government in exile walked away from the talks the first time, the Houthis escalated their shelling of the Saudi border. There is no genuine commitment on either side to reaching a political solution for the sake of the Yemeni people.

Throughout all negotiations, Hadi has not budged an inch. He demands a full return of his government and has offered no concessions to his opponents. He sees the negotiations as a zero-sum game. Any power-sharing deal with the Houthis and other groups in Yemen would come at a cost to his monopoly. With the GCC and much of the international community behind him, Hadi has no reason to accommodate Houthi interests.

The Houthis, on the other hand, lost international legitimacy when they violently chased the Yemeni government from Sana’a. Their most recent proposal, to form a joint body to oversee a political transition to a national unity government, went nowhere. Their subsequent move to form a governing council with supporters of Ali Abdullah Salih lost them any sympathy they might have enjoyed from the international community.

Peace talks in Yemen need rethinking. The international community needs to stop seeing the GCC as an impartial arbiter when it is in fact a party to Yemen’s war. The negotiations need to include all the stakeholders, including southerners and civil society actors. Then it might be possible to begin talking about trust-building measures that could lead to partial Houthi and Salih withdrawal and disarmament as well as aid delivery to besieged Ta’iz. Without these changes, Yemen’s war will continue and its abysmal humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate.

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