June 2016 in review
United Nations efforts to bring about a cessation of the conflict in Yemen witnessed limited progress in June, and were marked by setbacks and controversies. It is uncertain whether any major breakthroughs will be achieved in the near term. That being said, the UN continued to play a role in a number of conflict-related issues, such as prisoner exchanges, facilitating commercial imports and confidence building measures between the belligerent parties.
On June 30th, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, adjourned the two month long peace-talks between the main warring parties in Yemen. These parties are constituted by the forces fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi on the one side, and on the other by the Houthi rebels (also known as Ansar Allah) allied with the General Popular Congress party, loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
This third round of peace-talks in Kuwait failed to achieve a comprehensive peace accord or an end to the hostilities, while all warring parties continued to violate the Cessation of Hostilities agreement that was created in advance of the talks. According to Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the delegations involved in the talks have been requested to return to Kuwait on July 15 for follow up meetings. Doubts remain over the commitment of the parties to return to the negotiating table, however, given the severe deadlock and lack of trust present throughout the peace negotiations.
Despite these shortcomings, some progress was made at the discussions. The parties came to a general agreement on a roadmap to peace, mainly in regard to the principles by which to create new governing bodies in Yemen, mechanisms to hand weaponry and territory back into the control of the state, and ways to address the humanitarian and economic challenges the country faces.
The parties to the conflict, however, continue to disagree about the order in which the components of the roadmap should be implemented. The government demanded that the Houthi rebels hand over their weapons and territories under their control before their place in a new national unity government is determined, while the Houthis insisted on an agreement regarding their place in a new government before any handover of weapons and territory. Along with the overall lack of trust between the parties, this dispute remained the main obstacle to peace, according to UN mediators.
In a press conference on June 30th, Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed noted progress in other areas, namely, the release of a number of prisoners and detainees, the strengthening of the cessation of hostilities, and improvements in the ability of various humanitarian agencies to reach previously inaccessible areas. While these were indeed significant developments their impact was somewhat overstated, and generally limited in scope and application:
- According to the press conference statement by Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the Kuwait-based peace talks have led to the release of more than 700 prisoners. While the number of detainees released during the peace talks is accurate, reports from the ground indicate that the process through which most were released occurred outside of the UN peace process, often through tribal mediation. In a recent example of a locally-mediated prisoner exchange in the city of Taiz, local tribes acted as mediators between the pro-government fighters and Houthi rebels. The Houthis freed 76 prisoners, while government forces released 118. Since the start of the conflict, Yemeni tribes have been far more effective than international mediators at negotiating the release of prisoners (for examples, please see here, here, here, and here).
- The peace talks in Kuwait were accompanied by a relative lull in fighting, especially along the Yemeni-Saudi border. However, there were major violations of the Cessation of Hostilities agreement in Marib, al Jawf, and Taiz. A number of these incidents resulted in civilian casualties, such as the June 4th attack on a popular market in Taiz that killed 18 civilians and injured many more (as was reported by Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed during his briefing to the UN Security Council on June 21).
- The official operational launch of the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) in early May of this year helped speed the flow of commercial goods to Yemen after two years of restrictions by the Saudi-led coalition. These restrictions had regularly delayed, and in many cases completely blocked, the importation of commercial cargo, with the areas outside the control of the Hadi government being most heavily impacted. In the month of June, 37 out of 46 shipments received clearance by UNVIM to enter Yemen. The main challenge, as reported to the UN Security Council in a closed briefing by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is the inability of cargo ships to disembark and discharge goods because many of the Yemeni ports are damaged from the fighting and airstrikes.
Broader disputes within the UN and the international community last month also contributed to the slow pace of Yemeni peace negotiations. Earlier in June the Office of the Secretary General (SG) released its annual report on Children in Armed Conflict around the world. The report included a section on Yemen that presented a list of parties deemed responsible for placing children in harm’s way during the war. The Saudi-led coalition was among the groups named in the list of transgressors.
Representatives of Saudi Arabia immediately disputed its inclusion in the list, and met with members of the SG’s office. Soon afterwards, the Secretary General announced that the Saudi-led coalition was being removed from the annexed list of transgressors, disturbing many in the international community, who saw this action as inappropriate pressuring by Saudi officials.
Mohammed bin Salman, who is both the Saudi Minister of Defence and the deputy crown prince of the Kingdom, visited the United Nations and met with the Secretary General on June 27. During this visit both individuals stated their support and appreciation of the other, indicating that the conflict over the Secretary General’s report has subsided.
The month ahead
In the month of July 2016, the following are issues the UN will likely pursue regarding Yemen:
- The UN Special Envoy for Yemen will seek to bring the main warring parties back to Kuwait on July 15th for follow up meetings to the peace talks, as agreed before their adjournment.
- Facilitating confidence-building measures between the Yemen’s warring parties through (1) mediating the release of unlawfully-held detainees and prisoners by both sides, (2) lessening the severity of the humanitarian crisis, and (3) activating the De-escalation and Coordination Committee – composed of military representatives from both sides – which is tasked with overseeing adherence to the cessation of hostilities, identifying breaches and finding ways to address them.
- Work on expanding and improving the capacity of the Office of the Special Envoy for Yemen, following a request from the UN Security Council on April 25 for the UN Secretary General to present a plan to the council outlining how the Office of the Special Envoy could support the next phase of its work with the parties.
- Raise more funds for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which to date has received only 25% of the US $1.8 billion it says it need to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen.
- Help find immediate solutions to the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in coordination with the Government of Yemen, relevant Member States, and the Central Bank of Yemen.
- Report on the work of UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) for the month of July 2016.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.