Yemen’s Prisoner Exchange Must be Depoliticized
Prisoners held by Yemeni government forces prepare to board a plane in Aden that will transport them to Sana’a as part of a prisoner exchange agreement facilitated by the UN and ICRC between the government and the armed Houthi movement, October 15, 2020 // Sana’a Center photo by Ahmed Mohammed Obeid Al-Shutiri.

Commentary by Nadwa Al-Dawsari

In mid-October, the Yemeni government and the Houthis swapped 1,056 prisoners as part of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement. The prisoner exchange sparked hopes, mainly among foreign observers, that this could be a first step toward peace in Yemen. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths called it a “very important milestone” while the UN Secretary General called upon all parties to engage with his envoy to agree on a “Joint Declaration encompassing a nationwide cease-fire, economic and humanitarian measures, and the resumption of a comprehensive, inclusive political process to end the war.”[1]

While the prisoner exchange is a positive development, it should not be interpreted as a sign that either the Houthis or Hadi’s government are interested in ending the war. Nor should it be hailed as a “breakthrough” that can improve Yemen’s chances at peace.

There is a reason it took nearly two years to complete this exchange. One of the Stockholm Agreement’s many flaws is that it linked the prisoner exchange issue to broader peace negotiations. This politicized the prisoner exchange process and jeopardized local mediation efforts that had already proven effective. 

Since the beginning of the Saudi-led military coalition’s involvement in the war in 2015, thousands of prisoners have been exchanged as a result of local mediation conducted by tribal leaders, community leaders, lawyers, military leaders, ordinary tribesmen and even local NGOs. 

For example, in 2015, tribal mediation led by Sheikh Yasser al-Haddi al-Yafi’i led to the exchange of 605 prisoners between the Houthis and Southern Resistance forces.[2] Since late 2017, the Mothers of Abductees Association, a women-led Yemeni NGO, successfully facilitated mediations that led to the release of more than 650 civilians who were forcibly disappeared by parties to the conflict. In Taiz, local mediators have managed to secure the release of over 1,200 prisoners.[3] Hadi Jumaan, a tribesman from Al-Jawf, secured the release of the remains of 1,000 dead fighters and mediated the release of 226 prisoners between the two main parties in February 2019.[4]

“The job of prisoner exchange is a humanitarian one. The UN envoy’s work is focused on political and military matters. Linking the prisoner exchange to the envoy’s negotiations made prisoner exchange subject to negotiations on political and military issues,” Rajeh Balleim, a local tribal mediator in Marib, told me. 

Balleim has negotiated the release of more than 350 prisoners since 2016 and he explained that local mediators can work freely and effectively because they are independent and apolitical. Each mediator relies on their social connections and relationships, local influence, and customary rules to reach deals.[5] That element is lacking in the UN-backed high-level negotiations. “Local mediators are not paid by anyone and the parties cooperate with them. Yemenis are brothers. Sometimes you exchange a man on one side for his cousin with the other side. It works because it is that personal,” he added.[6]

The “all prisoners for all prisoners” rule outlined in the Stockholm Agreement was both highly ambitious and highly impractical. The implementation mechanism stipulated that both parties present lists of names and information for all of the 16,000 prisoners, detainees, missing persons, arbitrarily detained, and forcibly disappeared persons within one week, and for the exchange of all the prisoners to take place within 40 days of signing the agreement.[7] This proved extremely challenging, not only from a technical perspective, but also in terms of parties’ willingness to follow through on their commitment to implement the swap. 

Negotiations frequently stalled over individual names with, for example, one party wanting a name included on the list but the other party denying that person existed. This became an excuse for parties to refuse releasing any prisoners.[8] “This ‘all-for-all’ rule obstructed many of the exchanges that used to happen locally and at the frontline level,” said Abdurabuh al-Shaif, a tribal leader from Al-Jawf.[9]

Sheikh Naji Murait, a tribal leader in Al-Hayma district, Sana’a governorate, shares this frustration. Murait has led negotiations that resulted in the release of more than 2,500 prisoners since the beginning of the war, and said that his and other mediators’ efforts came to a screeching halt as a result of the Stockholm Agreement.[10]

The chairwoman of the Mothers of Abductees Association, Amatassalam al-Haj, criticized the Stockholm Agreement for lumping in fighters with civilian abductees, which she said undermined the work of her advocacy body. “After Stockholm, all local mediation efforts that the Mothers of Abductees coordinated were rejected by the Houthis,” she said. “They said that the names [we submitted to them] are now part of the prisoner exchange process under the Stockholm Agreement and insisted on keeping the civilian captives. A humanitarian issue turned into a political issue and a bargaining chip.” 

According to Al-Haj, the Mothers of Abductees Association has documented more than 3,000 civilians, including journalists and human rights activists, abducted by the Houthi movement, the Yemeni government, and the Security Belt forces in the south. The UN Panel of Experts report for 2017 described this as hostage taking, which is prohibited under international humanitarian law.[11]

Indeed, the drawn-out negotiations over the prisoner exchange may have actually served to incentivize the abduction of civilians in order to exchange them for fighters. According to several sources, including Majed Fadhael, the Yemeni government member in the committee that negotiated the release of prisoners, nearly two thirds of those released by the Houthis were civilians, including five journalists. Houthi forces snatched civilians from homes and checkpoints based on their identity and geographic background. These civilians were then swapped for Houthi fighters.[12]

Al-Haj also warned against including women captives in any prisoner exchange effort led by the UN, saying that “it would legitimize taking women as hostages, prolong their abduction, and make their freedom subject to political and military bargaining.”[13] 

The prisoner exchange process must be depoliticized. It should remain a strictly humanitarian issue and should be delinked from the UN-led negotiations.  

The UN Envoy should absolutely call for the release of civilian captives and pressure parties to release them unconditionally. He should then remove the prisoner exchange file from the humanitarian measures proposed in the Joint Declaration as well as from cease-fire negotiations so that the fates of these individuals are not at the mercy of progress in peace talks. While the facilitation of the prisoner exchange by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is appreciated, no international organization should monopolize this process. If the ICRC continues to be involved on a purely humanitarian basis and away from the political negotiations, it should consult with local mediators to ensure no harm.  


Nadwa Al-Dawsari is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. She is a Yemeni researcher and conflict practitioner with twenty years of field experience in Yemen. She tweets at @ndawsari.

This commentary first appeared in The Riyadh Agreement’s Fading Promise – The Yemen Review, October 2020.


The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.


Endnotes

  1. Stephane Dujarric, “Statement by the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on the Yemen Prisoner Exchange Agreement,” United Nations, Office of the Secretary-General, New York, September 27, 2020, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2020-09-27/statement-the-spokesman-for-the-secretary-general-the-yemen-prisoner-exchange-agreement
  2. The exchange took place in Al-Hadd, an area on the border between Yaf’a and Baydha.
  3. Interview with Dr. Abdullah Shaddad, local mediator in Taiz, October 21, 2020.
  4. Interview with Hadi Jumaan, September 28, 2020; see also Nadwa al-Dawsari, “The unlikely diplomat bringing Yemen’s war dead home,” The New Humanitarian, February 13, 2019, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/feature/2019/02/13/unlikely-diplomat-bringing-yemen-s-war-dead-home.
  5. Interview with Rajeh Balleim, a local mediator in Marib, October 20,2020; Interview with Dr. Abdullah Shaddad, local mediator in Taiz, October 21, 2020; Amatassalam Al-Haj, “Sources of Failure in the international negotiations to release civilian prisoners in Yemen,” Alarabiya (Arabic), March 27, 2020, https://www.alarabiya.net/ar/politics/2020/03/27/مكامن-فشل-المفاوضات-الدولية-للافراج-عن-المعتقلين-المدني
  6. Interview with Rajeh Balleim, a local mediator in Marib, October 20, 2020.
  7. “Prisoners Exchange Agreement,” full text provided by the UN Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, https://osesgy.unmissions.org/prisoners-exchange-agreement
  8. Interview with Rajeh Balleim, a local mediator in Marib, October 20, 2020; Interview with Dr. Abdullah Shaddad, local mediator in Taiz, October 21, 2020; Interview with a local tribal mediator, October 20, 2020; interview with a source involved in the recent prisoner exchange, October 19, 2020.
  9. Interview with Abdurabuh Al-Shaif, October 19, 2020.
  10. Adnan Al Jabrani, “Yemeni tribal mediator hampered by Stockholm Agreement calls on UN to learn from the tribes,”  Almasdar Online, December 9, 2019, https://al-masdaronline.net/national/160
  11. Ahmed Himmiche, Fernando Resenfeld Carvajal, Dakshinie Ruwanthika Gunaratne, Gregory Johnsen, Adrian Wilkinson, “Final Report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen,” United Nations Security Council, January 26, 2018, p. 49, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/N1800513.pdf 
  12. Interview with a local tribal mediator, October 20, 2020; interview with Majid Fadhayil, member of the prisoner exchange negotiation committee, October 19, 2020.
  13. “Abductees Mothers Association: We reject exchange deals for kidnapped women [AR],” statement released by the Abductees Mothers Association, October 18, 2020, http://ama-ye.org/?no=1471&ln=Ar; According to the Mothers of Abductees Association, 157 civilian women were abducted by Houthis. See Alayyam, “More than 150 women abducted by Houthi during two years [AR],” July 14, 2020, https://www.alayyam.info/news/89OF07QI-NFQ78Q-08DC
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