Karen Dabrowska

Originally published: 15th July 2021

by Friends of South Yemen

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What can the new United Nations Envoy
to Yemen realistically do?

Hans Grundberg
Hans Grundberg is a career diplomat and Sweden’s point man on the Gulf Region. During Sweden’s EU presidency in 2009, he chaired the Middle East and Gulf working group at the European Council in Brussels. He subsequently headed the Gulf Division in the Swedish Foreign Ministry before becoming the EU Ambassador to Yemen in 2019.

In 20 rules to live by for the new Special UN Envoy to Yemen, Farea Al-Muslimi, Chairman of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, suggested making it a condition for accepting the post that there is a new UN Security Council Resolution to replace 2216. “Without it, you’re just wasting everyone’s time. Don’t ignore the Southern issue or the economic file. Every one of your predecessors did and all of them failed. Know that you’ll probably fail, but don’t let that stop you from trying new things. You have to hope that the future can be brighter even when everyone else says it will only get darker.” As the outgoing special envoy Martin Griffiths said: “Hope is the only currency a mediator has.”

Yemen’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak admitted that Yemen is on the brink of collapse, however, he expressed his belief that the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG) succeeded in securing livelihood in liberated areas, including Shabwa, Hadramawt, Marib, and Mahra, despite challenges. So can the new envoy, Hans Grundberg, realistically achieve anything or is the UN rearranging chairs on the Titanic with its latest appointment?

The Chairman of Friends of South Yemen (FOSY) Dr Abdul Galil Shaif believes that changing the special envoy to resolve the conflict in Yemen is not the answer to the Yemeni crisis. “The UN, must seriously consider changing its policy towards the Yemen conflict, accelerate the diplomatic process and genuinely help this new envoy to succeed. The UN secretary-general must ask the simple question: why did the UN fail to achieve anything with all the other envoys?,” Shaif said.

FOSY has raised the issue of UN diplomatic failure in Yemen in many forums and for any envoy to succeed, the UN must be certain about three things:

Firstly a review of the current UN resolution and the practicality of its implementation and the introduction of a new resolution that deals with the realities on the ground; Secondly, the UN should admit that they continue to be part of the problem rather than the solution because of the incompetent way in which they have professionally handled the situation. The UN must be fair, impartial and transparent in all their dealings with all the relevant parties in this conflict; Thirdly and most importantly the country’s political elite should face punitive measures for those Yemeni politicians who have clearly hindered the political process for their own narrow political and economic interests.

Shaif went on to say that unless those three steps are taken seriously, any new envoy will fail before beginning the difficult mission of stabilising a genuine peace process. “Two things Yemen does not need: new envoys without a proper mission and more weapons. It needs united international and regional communities speaking with one unified voice, otherwise any envoy is doomed to fail.”

What Yemen desperately needs now is a grand bargain, such as the one proposed by FOSY’s road map (2021 – 2030) which provides a way forward for the Yemeni parties now in conflict and for the regional powers supporting them. (Click here to see FOSY’s roadmap). The envoy will be in a good position to spearhead the grand bargain and prevent the collapse which Bin Mubarak spoke of.

Dealing with Iran will be a major challenge for the envoy. The Houthis do not take orders from their Iranian partner even though the Houthis and Iran largely agree on key strategic issues and there is no serious prospect of driving a wedge between them. Engaging Iran in the peace process is unlikely to be a viable channel to pressurize the Houthis to make concessions. But not engaging Iran will provoke Iranian spoiling.

But in a bleak environment Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiations identified three new elements that should help Grundberg which were not there when his predecessors were appointed: In March the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan announced a new initiative to end the war. It included a UN supervised ceasefire, the relaunch of political talks, an easing of restrictions on imports through Hodeidah and the reopening of Sanaa airport. Second the US in February through the appointment of Timothy Lenderking as US special envoy to Yemen re-energized the peace process and he has been working closely with the UN, the government of Yemen and regional actors as well as reaching out to the Houthis. Early last month an Omani delegation arrived in Sanaa as part of renewed efforts to mediate. In their June 17th meeting in Riyadh, the Gulf Co-operation Council foreign ministers, fully endorsed Oman’s efforts.

Grundberg can also push for the establishment of a UN peace mission in Yemen. Starting with ceasefire observers the mission could extend to peace keeping and peace building. He should also make it very clear that aid may not be used as a tool for political bargaining or self-enrichment.

A new UN resolution is essential. The current resolution names the Houthis who seized Sanaa in 2014 and the Saudi-backed government of President Abdroba Mansur Hadi who they ousted as the conflict’s primary belligerents and demands that the Houthis surrender to Hadi whom it affirms as Yemen’s legitimate president. Hadi and his backers and the Houthis argue that the resolution restricts the UN’s mandate to a two-party negotiation framework but the situation on the ground has changed and the Southern Transitional Council, the political wing of Tariq Saleh’s National Resistance Forces and the Tehama Council now have to be included.

The Leader of the Southern Transitional Council Aidaroos Al-Zubaidi announced in a statement that the “restoration” of the Southern state is nearing, adding that the STC “opened all doors in front of the people’s cause and the extraction of the adversaries’ recognition of a fully sovereign independent federal state that is based on the pre unity border of 21 May 1990. The STC will refuse any unilateral decisions taken by the Yemeni government.”

So without involving the STC and the southerners any deal the UN envoy brokers will come unstuck. Martin Griffiths side-lined the STC but they are now an equal partner in Hadi’s Internationally Recognised Government (IRG) control Aden and can no longer be ignored.

Women are also totally absent from the IRG but women have in fact released more prisoners than all the UN envoys combined. It is vital that the new envoy seeks their help, assistance and advice. It is also essential he speaks to Yemenis themselves rather than spending too much time in regional capitals.

The senior analyst on Yemen at the International Crisis Group, Peter Salisbury, pointed out that since 2015 international co-ordination has been spotty at best, leading to infrequent meetings at which diplomats discuss tactics far more than strategy. To be successful the new envoy will need consistent international support in word but critically also in deed. A good way forward would be for key countries, starting with the Security Council’s permanent five to form a contact group that works with the envoy to ensure that issues like the economy and women and civil society’s inclusion in talks receive proper attention.

But it must never be forgotten that an envoy is only a mediator. He cannot create peace when one or both of the parties themselves do not want it. Over the past three years Martin Griffiths the outgoing envoy emphasised that he seeks common ground for agreements. “That is my job. With the support of the international community we persuade, we facilitate, we encourage dialogue and we try to get past the events of war. There is nothing anybody can do unfortunately to force the warring parties into peace unless they choose to put down the guns and talk to each other and that is their responsibility.”

Yemen needs a new vision and a new approach. Without it the next special envoy will produce the same results as the previous three, the war will go on and the country will further fracture into autonomous political zones held by whichever warlord is strongest.

Former United Nations Special Envoys to Yemen

Jamal Benomar
Jamal Benomar
Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed
Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed
Martin Griffiths
Martin Griffiths