Yemenis are losing hope that the warring parties are capable of reaching a peace agreement that can pave the way for a new political transition process. Since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in late 2018, the United Nations special envoy has failed to convince representatives of the warring parties to meet face-to-face and agree on a more comprehensive peace pact. Even intensive US-led efforts since early 2021 have so far failed to jumpstart the UN-led peace process. The failure of these top-down diplomatic efforts involving the highest levels of leadership from each faction – known as ‘Track 1’ negotiations – is made worse by the fact that they remain the go-to approach even as the country has continued to break apart into smaller fragments.
Even among Yemenis, discussions about peace often revolve around the progress of these Track 1 political negotiations. But the focus on creating a political formula to end the conflict has so far proven a dead end. Indeed, the prospect of peace has become more elusive as the war has dragged on. UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths admitted as much during his final briefing on June 15 to the UN security council:
“Over the course of the conflict, armed and political actors have multiplied and fragmented. Foreign interference has grown not diminished. What was possible in terms of conflict resolution years ago is not possible today. And what is possible today may not be possible in the future. And I believe that possibly an international conversation of process may need to restate the realistic goals for a negotiation process.”
The pursuit of peace primarily through the office of the UN special envoy has proven to be a failed approach and has failed to prevent the further deterioration of the situation. In fact, the UN envoy has merely added another layer of complexity to addressing the country’s many conflicts. This is not to belittle the envoy’s efforts, whose mandate in Security Council resolution 2216 is largely restricted to Track 1 negotiations, but to suggest that eyes and efforts should also be directed toward the other approaches that can improve living conditions and contribute to a sustained peace.
With a new UN special envoy soon to take the helm, it is necessary to rethink the approach to achieving peace in Yemen in order to remind people that peace is not only possible but worth struggling for. Perhaps the first step is to recognize that the current approach is not working.
Why Have Peace Efforts Failed?
The warring parties have consistently blamed the UN envoy for the failure of the peace process, at times accusing him of being biased toward the other side. While I have not been a fan of the UN-led peace process and its chaotic approach, I understand that the UN does not have the magical wand. It is merely a mediation tool. The power to end the conflict lies with the warring parties. Unfortunately, both sides profit from continued conflict, and neither has much incentive to work toward achieving peace and all of the unknowns it will usher in.
In many cases, the warring parties have actively undermined peace-related work conducted by other peace tracks. The Houthis, for example, ban all peace-related activities in their areas of control while centralizing power in Sana’a to unprecedented levels using a brutal police state. The internationally recognized government, meanwhile, has struggled to establish a presence in non-Houthi areas. That has allowed non-state actors like the Southern Transitional Council (STC) to gain traction, which has fueled more conflict. In essence, the gun is the only legitimacy the belligerent parties have with the population under their control. That seems to encourage the emergence of more armed groups.
Although it is essential to continue top-down, Track 1 efforts to broker a political deal between the warring parties, this should not be the sole focus. Bottom-up, Track 2 and Track 3 approaches – involving mid-level and grassroots leadership, respectively – could help build the necessary leverage on the main combatants to push Track 1 negotiations toward a political deal. With Track 1 efforts stalled, Yemenis too must invest in Track 2 and Track 3 to push forward peace efforts. At the local level this could help prevent the widening of the conflict and halt further fragmentation by providing greater incentives for stability. These efforts could consist of supporting local peace initiatives and creating platforms for local communities to engage in active dialogue to address the issues they are facing. These efforts could contribute to local and regional peace while the two main warring parties drag their feet on an agreement at the national level.
But these alternative tracks need support. Past efforts have been limited. For example, many Track 2 programs have operated more like workshops, given their lack of structure and consistency. They lack synergies with other tracks, especially Track 1, due to pushback from the warring parties who tend to monopolize power and rob the local level of agency. Paradoxically, expanding direct engagement with local actors might pressure the warring parties to work more in the interests of the populace rather than profiting off of their misery. If anything scares the warring parties, it is stability and local cohesion.
In order to move toward a multi-track peace process, we must redefine what kind of peace Yemen wants. The current approach to peace has focused on what the Americans and the Saudis and the warring parties want. But it has become increasingly clear that peace in any meaningful sense features nowhere on the agendas of the warring parties. And neither the Houthis nor the internationally recognized government have even signaled their desire for a prosperous and united country. They have provided no vision of what the new and better Yemen should like after it emerges from the war – and that is unconscionable.
So is peace for the warring parties to define? Partially, yes. But the peace process goes far beyond that. The peace process in Yemen should be viewed through its various levels of society, from the hyper-local level all the way up to the national political leadership. Thus, a multi-track peace process is the way forward. Working locally is essential. That is where peace should be pursued. It is up to the local leadership and local communities to address the issues they are facing and not to wait for the national or international powers to reach a deal.