July 2016 in Review
United Nations efforts to resolve the Yemeni conflict were marked by disputes and setbacks during the month of July. Days before the originally scheduled conclusion of peace talks in Kuwait on July 31, the Houthi rebels and their allied General Popular Congress (GPC), led by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, unilaterally established a governing council in Yemen that both leaves out the internationally-recognized Yemeni government and undermines the UN-led peace process. Although the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, was subsequently successful in extending the peace talks through to August 6, they were concluded without having secured a peace agreement, prompting concerns about both a likely escalation in fighting and the ineffectiveness of UN efforts to help end the war.
Draft resolutions derailed
On July 5th the United Kingdom had circulated a draft presidential statement to other members of the Security Council. The draft presidential statement – which functions effectively as a press release by all members of the Security Council – made several requests:
- It urged the three delegations representing the main warring parties in Kuwait to utilize the break between negotiations to continue working on proposals for a roadmap towards peace, in consultations with their leaderships.
- Called on all parties to the conflict to return on July 15th to the negotiating table without preconditions, and to work in a more flexible and cooperative manner during the next phase of negotiations.
- Highlighted the dire state of Yemen’s economy and central bank, which has faced a decline in foreign currency reserves, contributing to the overall humanitarian crisis facing millions of Yemenis.
The procedure necessary to develop and adopt the UK draft statement was disrupted multiple times, however, first by the Egyptian delegation – acting at the behest of Yemeni President Abdu Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition backing him – and then by the Russians. In both cases, the member states raised unusually terse objections to language within the statement. The disruptions dragged the process out until it was almost time for the warring parties to return to Kuwait, making the potential statement mute and leading the UK to abandon the draft.
This represented a departure from the general consensus that had existed at the UN Security Council regarding the situation in Yemen, with past resolutions having been adopted unanimously (except for Resolution 2216 that came shortly after the start of the Saudi-led military intervention, on which Russia abstained from voting). The Security Council again failed to come into agreement on a new press statement on August 3 (which will be discussed in detail in the August “Yemen at the UN” report).
It should be noted that Security Council members have privately expressed growing anxiety regarding the increasing demands for amendments and political interventions in the council’s work coming from parties affiliated with President Hadi, with these interventions largely related to the security elements of Resolution 2216. This has prompted the council to consult on the possibility of adopting a new resolution with a humanitarian focus to respond to the humanitarian crisis amidst political gridlock.
Scuttled peace negotiations
After an official two-week break in negotiations from June 31–July 14, the peace talks in Kuwait resumed on July 16. Their continuation came following sustained efforts by the Special Envoy and pressure from regional and international powers to convince the main warring parties to return to the negotiating table. This entailed the Special Envoy meeting with President Hadi on July 12 to convince him of the need for the government to return to the talks, following a worrying statement by the latter threatening to boycott them altogether unless certain demands were met. In an unconventional move designed to ensure that the talks would resume, the Special Envoy also held his first meeting since his appointment last year with former President Saleh — who is under UN sanctions and whose loyalists are fighting with the Houthis against the forces allied behind the internationally recognized government of President Hadi.
The Special Envoy, supported by regional and international governments, was able to convince the three main warring parties to return to the talks, but from there was not able to mediate an agreement on a comprehensive roadmap to resolve the conflict. The Special Envoy thus implemented an incremental, phased approach to try and bring about agreement. The first phase during this second round of talks focused on the withdrawal of the Houthi-Saleh forces from three major cities – Sana’a, Taiz and Hodieda – as well as the formation of a security committee to handle the process of withdrawal and disarmament. These arrangements were being extensively discussed among and between the delegations as pressure mounted from the approaching July 31 UN deadline; additional pressure came from the Kuwaiti government, which informed the parties that beyond this date it would refuse to continue to host the talks, though many observers were expecting the Special Envoy to request an extension in hopes that the delegations would develop more conciliatory positions.
However, two days before the deadline, on July 28, the Houthi rebels and the Saleh-led GPC announced in a public signing ceremony the formalization of their alliance and the establishment of a 10-member governing council – divided evenly between both parties – charged with the state’s political, economic, military and security affairs.
While the Houthis stated that the decision had no relation to the ongoing negotiations, this unilateral action angered the Yemeni government, spurring them to withdraw from the Kuwait talks. They later returned demanding that the Houthi-Saleh delegation sign a UN proposed agreement that “provides for interim security arrangements, which would oversee the withdrawal and disarmament of the Houthi-Saleh forces, the restoration of state institutions, the release of detainees, and plans to resume negotiations to discuss the formation of a unity government.” The Houthis and GPC also drew harsh criticism from UN officials and the international community, who saw their action as a clear violation of the 2012 Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative and its Implementation Mechanism, and the UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which asks all parties – and specifically referring to the Houthis – to refrain from unilateral actions that could undermine the political transition.
President Hadi had himself instigated a similarly obstructive incident in early April, prior to the first round of Kuwait-based peace talks, when he unilaterally dismissed Prime Minister and Vice President Khaled Bahah. The international and regional community had regarded Bahah highly, seeing him as potential successor to Hadi should Hadi’s resignation be a required to reach a peace agreement. President Hadi replaced Bahah with two controversial figures: for prime minister he appointed Ahmed Bin Dagher, former secretary general of the GPC party and close ally of Saleh until the Saudi military intervention began in March 2015, and for vice president, former general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who still wields considerable military power. This came as a surprise to international, regional, and local observers, and was denounced by Bahah as unconstitutional and in violation of the 2012 Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative that required government consensus for such actions to be approved.
In private, many UN security council member states backing Hadi were critical of what they saw as the self-serving political agenda behind his action. United States Secretary of State John Kerry stated publicly that President Hadi had “complicated” the UN’s peace efforts significantly. UN officials leading the negotiations also privately noted their concern, seeing it as obstacle for the upcoming talks in Kuwait.
UN’s limited commitment to Yemen
It is also important to note that the international community, and UN Security Council specifically, have not shown the degree of political will and investment toward the crisis in Yemen commensurate with finding a solution. The Special Envoy himself stated at a February 17 press conference that his “team is very small when compared it to other UN missions.” Indeed, it was only on April 25, 2016, more than one year after the conflict began, that the UN Security Council asked the UN Secretary General to present a plan to expand and improve the capacity Special Envoy’s office to adjust to the war and help facilitate the next round of peace negotiations. On the humanitarian front, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has to date received only 27% of the US$1.8 billion it says it needs to implement its 2016 humanitarian crisis response plan in Yemen.
A larger institutional challenge exacerbating the UN’s limited attention toward Yemen is that the Security Council is dealing with more than triple the number of active civil wars compared to a decade ago – such as Burundi, CAR, DRC, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, to name some – and the capacities of many of the member-state missions to the Security Council have not been expanded in concert. On the Security Council’s scheduled agenda – which currently runs full days and most nights and weekends – the situation in Yemen is typically raised in the space allotted for “Any Other Business”. A contributing factor to this is also political pressure from Saudi Arabia, exerted through current Security Council members Egypt and Senegal, with the Kingdom recently going as far as threatening to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in UN funding to keep its actions in Yemen away from UN scrutiny.
The month ahead
For the rest of the month of August 2016, further UN actions regarding Yemen will likely include:
- There will likely be increased efforts to raise funds for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which to date has received only 27% of the USD $1.8 billion it needs to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen.
- The UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) will issue a report for the month of August 2016. In July, the UNVIM gave clearance to 47 of 53 cargo ships to offload in Yemen food, fuel, construction material and other non-military supplies.
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.