Q&A with Anna Karin Eneström, Swedish Ambassador to the UN

Among the international community, Sweden has played an outsized role related to humanitarian relief, the peace process and gender issues in Yemen. Sweden has previously co-hosted the annual High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen. On the diplomatic front, Sweden hosted the Yemeni parties that negotiated the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, and regularly raised humanitarian and gender related concerns in Yemen during its 2017-18 tenure on the United Nations Security Council. Since December 2019, Ambassador Anna Karin Eneström has been the Permanent Representative of Sweden to the United Nations. On October 12, she spoke with the Sana’a Center’s Gregory Johnsen and Waleed Alhariri about, among other things, the importance of involving women in Yemen’s peace talks and why now is not the time to change the UN’s strategy. 

*Editor’s Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Sana’a Center (SC): Your Excellency, prior to your appointment as Sweden’s ambassador to the UN, you served as Sweden’s ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Do you see any similarities between the conflict in Afghanistan and what is taking place in Yemen?

Ambassador Eneström: I think that there are a couple of similarities. Both countries have had conflicts for a long time—for decades actually—where you have seen both the disagreement and conflict between national parties or actors and international involvement. Both countries are very poor, among the poorest in the region, but also when you look at the world, they are among the poorest countries in the world. I think also when we look at peace processes, the national actors in both countries need to compromise and make concessions, but are deeply split of course, so this would take a lot of effort from both sides. The humanitarian situation in Yemen is much worse now than in Afghanistan, but you have a lot of human suffering because of the conflict in both countries. Then I think also the regional context is very important in both situations. You have the conflict in both Afghanistan and in Yemen impacting the regional stability. You also need the regional actors to take specific responsibility for the peaceful developments in both countries. I think one aspect that I thought a lot about when I was in Afghanistan is the importance of regional integration. I mean, we are not there yet, but this is something for the future to look into; regional integration in both these areas is not only important for stability but also important for the potential economic development. The last thing I would say is the involvement of women in both conflicts. Sweden has, when it comes to Afghanistan and Yemen, pushed for more involvement of women (in the peace process). 

SC: Just to follow up on that, taking in mind what you just said about regional integration, are there any lessons you feel you learned in Afghanistan or Pakistan that would be applicable or useful in the Yemen context?

Ambassador Eneström: I think there might be a long way to go for true regional integration in Afghanistan and the region. But I come from one of the most integrated regions in the world, the European Union, and we have seen how important it is to start with economic integration, and that will then lead to further political integration as well. I think there is great potential for economic integration in the area.

SC: This summer, Sweden’s foreign minister, along with the foreign ministers of Germany and the UK, wrote that “Yemen is on the brink of collapse.” Analysts, scholars and diplomats have been saying this for more than a decade. What makes the current moment so acute?

Ambassador Eneström: I think we see as the conflict goes on that it is getting more complex. It’s getting more fragmented. It’s more difficult to get Yemen on the right track. We are seeing the institutions being weakened. But I think there were some positive signs when it comes to dialogue and de-escalation. We saw some stabilization in the south with the Riyadh Agreement. Unfortunately, we see that this is backtracking now. That’s one of the reasons why we see it as acute right now from the political point of view. We also saw that the UN Secretary General called for a humanitarian cease-fire in Yemen, as in other conflicts, and we have not really seen any results from that. So, that is on the political side, and on the humanitarian side, it’s looking really bad right now. It’s not only the humanitarian situation on the ground, but also the fact that the humanitarian appeal is funded I think around 40 percent and this is really worrying. I come from a huge humanitarian donor. We are trying to do everything we can to get more funds into the humanitarian situation. As you know much better than I do, the humanitarian actors have already been forced to close or severely restrict their activities on the ground. They have warned for a long time that the country might go into famine. Then of course you have COVID-19 that will, on top of all this, worsen the situation even more. So this is why leaders in my country and others have called for urgent action. And this is the reason why during the UN high-level week we took the initiative to the P5 +4 meeting – the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council + Germany, Sweden, Kuwait, and the European Union – covering both the political and humanitarian situation as well as a dedicated humanitarian meeting together with the EU/ECHO (European Commission for Humanitarian Aid).

 SC: I have a couple questions on the political side, and then I’ll return to the humanitarian side. So, first, to start on the political side, when Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015 it told the United States this was something that was going to take about six weeks. Obviously, the war in Yemen has lasted much longer than most anticipated with seemingly no end in sight. The UN has had three special envoys in five years, none of whom has been able to broker a comprehensive settlement. Given the lack of success on the ground and on the political track, is it time to rethink the UN’s approach through Resolution 2216, which has largely been the framing resolution for dealing with Yemen?

Ambassador Eneström: We strongly feel that the support to the UN special envoy is more important than ever. This is not the right time to change the strategy of the UN. What we can do is support the UN system but also do whatever we can as the international community to push the parties, because the responsibility is actually on the parties. Then of course, eventually I think it is important that the UN get a broader mandate as we go, hopefully, into a more consolidated process when it comes to peace and stability and building peace, which we of course hope we will end up in. Then you will need a more comprehensive mandate for the UN to act on the ground.

 SC: Following up on what you just said, Madam Ambassador, what leverage do you believe the international community, the UN, and Sweden have on the warring parties, particularly the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis, in Yemen? How can you put more pressure on them, or use the leverage that currently exists to bring them closer to peace?

Ambassador Eneström: I think it is extremely important for us and for others in the international community to keep Yemen high up on the agenda, both on the political agenda and on the humanitarian agenda. We think we need to continue with the messaging and the pressure on the parties. We have seen that has an effect when the international community continues to message and have meetings and continues to press the parties from different angles. I said already that we strongly believe that we should give the special envoy our full support, and it is important of course that he has the support of the Security Council. On this we see that there are a lot of questions about the unity of the Security Council at the moment, but when it comes to Yemen there is good common ground among the P5. When I talk about my own country, we sense that we have trust from all parties. We had the meeting in Stockholm a couple of years ago. We also have good relations with the regional actors. I think it is important that we, and others in the international community, make it clear that we will support peace and a UN-brokered peace agreement. We would do that financially, we would do that politically, and we would do that with good offices. And we would link that with the humanitarian support we are giving, and potentially development cooperation support. Of course this country will need huge investment after there is a peace agreement to build a stronger country.

SC: Yemen is sometimes described as having a “Humpty Dumpty” problem — that it is broken with little hope of ever being put back together. Given the political divisions among the Houthis in the north, Hadi’s government in exile, the Southern Transitional Council, and a multitude of armed groups, is the international community capable of holding together a country these various groups seem intent on breaking apart?

Ambassador Eneström: I think we don’t have a choice as an international community. We need to continue to push for that because, of course, we cannot accept that it will be the different armed groups in Yemen that will decide the future of the country at the expense of the welfare and rights of the broader population. We strongly believe that you need to have an inclusive peace process that brings together all the different Yemeni actors. This is what we need to support. As I said, we also believe [in] bringing women into that process. We see not only in Yemen but in other conflicts that if you involve women from the beginning of the implementation of a peace agreement, you will have a much more sustainable peace. But of course, we as the international community have a responsibility to continue to push, and to continue to be active, and to continue to push the parties. Ultimately, it is their responsibility. We cannot accept that they do not take their responsibility in building peace.

SC: If we turn to the humanitarian side, earlier this year the United States found itself in a difficult situation. That is, it wanted to continue to put humanitarian aid into northern parts of the country where the Houthis were in control, but felt that by doing so it was unnecessarily strengthening the Houthi’s political control in the north. That is humanitarian aid, which is supposed to be non-political, was having political ramifications on the ground by strengthening the Houthis. The US made a decision to partially withdraw its aid from Houthi-controlled territories. When Sweden is looking at humanitarian aid to Yemen, and is confronting similar questions, how does Sweden make a decision about where the money goes in Yemen and how to give life-saving humanitarian aid without unnecessarily shifting the battlefield or putting your finger on the scale?

Ambassador Eneström: When we give humanitarian support, we give it to the UN and we try not to earmark our support. We have great trust in the UN — and other organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross or NGO:s —  and their decisions when it comes to humanitarian support. The way we work is mostly through the UN.  For us, it is extremely important that this aid is reaching the people in need and that it’s done in accordance with humanitarian principles. Access, which is a problem, is extremely important, so humanitarian actors will get access to the people to deliver the support. We do not want to politicize any humanitarian support. It is important that it reaches the people on the ground. Sweden and ECHO are hence very active within the donor community for Yemen in trying to address the obstacles within the humanitarian response.

SC: It is kind of hard, isn’t it?  If you look at the US’s perspective, or even the World Food Programme’s negotiations with the Houthis up in the north, where if one side is keeping the aid non-political, and the other side is trying to manipulate it, then the World Food Programme or USAID is sort of held hostage. The only alternative they have is to withdraw aid, which no one wants because then you have preventable deaths.

Ambassador Eneström: I agree, but again, this comes back to the pressure we need to put on the parties. They have the responsibility for their own population. I totally agree with you that this is a difficult problem, which we have and will also face elsewhere with our humanitarian support. But I think here we need to continue to be strong on the messaging that we need humanitarian access, and that humanitarian assistance should be non-political. This is about people on the ground.

SC: It is fairly easy to imagine a scenario in which six years down the road the status quo remains in Yemen: The war has gotten worse while negotiations to end it remain at an impasse, while the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate and people continue to die of preventable causes. It’s a scenario that is quite frightening if you look at the humanitarian cost. What, if anything, can the international community do to avoid such a scenario, given the fact that all the things that have been tried — from sanctions on the Houthis to special envoys who have the full and undivided support of the UN Security Council — have not, at least to this date, resulted in any sort of change or a comprehensive cease-fire? In 2016 it seemed that the Kuwait peace talks had some positive momentum, and then they were scuttled by one side. And it seems like that happens most of the time; there is a little step forward, and then there are two or three steps back. In this scenario, does the international community, the United Nations, the Security Council, just continue to do what it’s been doing and hope that something changes on the ground, or is there something else that the international community can do to make sure we don’t have six more years of what’s happened so far?

Ambassador Eneström: Not an easy question to answer. I think we need to keep it high on the agenda, and I think we need to push for the Security Council to be united on this. What we have done is also to try to get a group together where we see that we join hands with the permanent members of the security council together with some countries that we hope can push and also build bridges. The regional context is extremely important. We see that countries like Sweden, Germany, and Kuwait, together with the European Union, can try together with the P5 to push. I think this is what we need to continue to do. I agree with you that this situation is very dire, but I think we need to continue with the strategy we have from the international community. We need to continue to push and have it high up on the agenda. We need to link the political situation to the humanitarian situation, and we need to work with the region.

SC: We are almost two years out from the Stockholm Agreement, and I am curious about how you evaluate the success, or lack thereof, of that agreement. Also, looking forward, what is Sweden’s policy toward Yemen beyond the Stockholm Agreement or co-hosting pledge conferences? Is there anything else that Sweden would be looking to be pushing to the forefront here?

Ambassador Eneström: I think the Stockholm meeting was a good meeting in the sense that we had the Stockholm Agreement, we had all the parties there and we averted hostilities in Hudayda which could have had disastrous consequences. Of course we had hoped that the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement would be faster than what we have seen. That’s also a part of what we and the international community are trying to do, to continue to push for the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement. I think we need to hang on to these agreements that we have and push for them. We are willing to use our good offices if that is what can help the process move forward. I think if we are looking ahead, we hope that there will be a peace agreement that will be negotiated by the UN. From a Swedish perspective, it is important that we continue to keep our attention to Yemen, because as we discussed before, there is not only the humanitarian needs on the ground, but there are also other needs when it comes to building institutions and looking into development cooperation and other support. I think this is one of the similarities we talked about with Afghanistan. To keep the international attention on the conflict I think is extremely important.

SC: How do you do that in a world that is in a pandemic with COVID, there’s the peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, there’s Iraq and what’s happening there, there’s Libya, there’s the ongoing war in Syria, and that’s just mostly in the Middle East? I have great sympathy for those at the UN who are trying to manage all these crises. All of these crises in one way or another should be at the top of the world’s attention list, and they are all fighting for space. When it comes to Yemen, how do we do what you’re advocating for, to keep the international attention on this conflict as a way of moving the parties towards peace?

Ambassador Eneström: I agree there are a lot of things where the international community needs to keep its attention right now. But I think when it comes to a country like Yemen, it is a shared responsibility of the international community and the regional actors. Those conflicts have a regional impact and a global impact, so when we look at how we can build stability, even for our continent, we need to sustain our responsibility. It’s not only the responsibility of Sweden; it’s the responsibility of the entire international community. Some countries will be more involved than others. We see that the European Union, with all its member states, is already a very strong actor. This is a shared responsibility for the international community to not leave these countries.

This article 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 and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.

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