With few advances in Yemen’s formal peace track since the 2016 Kuwait negotiations, the UN-led effort to achieve a sustainable peace must be better integrated with Yemeni initiatives if it is to succeed. This was the premise of the Yemen International Forum (YIF), held on June 17-19, 2022, in Stockholm, Sweden, which brought together international actors with Yemeni political stakeholders, individuals involved in parallel initiatives to the formal political process, youth and civil society representatives, experts and academics. By providing a platform for these 205 stakeholders, 71 percent of them Yemeni, to envision a post-war Yemen and explore creative solutions for the many challenges en route to it, the forum aimed to ensure progress in six critical areas: Political Settlement, Political Life, The Southern File, The Economy, Reconciliation & Justice, and Security.
YIF participants widely viewed ending the war as the overarching requirement for significant progress across all themes; while a series of truces have instilled relative calm nationwide since April and allowed for piecemeal progress in some areas, even these gains will remain tentative unless integrated within formal peace negotiations. Track I settlement actors, including UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg and regional, American and European envoys, briefed YIF participants in plenary sessions and held focused, private bilateral discussions on the sidelines of the forum.
Political Settlement sessions acknowledged the need for a final framework to address regional security concerns, especially those of Saudi Arabia. However, Yemeni and international participants generally agreed that, for a lasting peace, Yemenis must decide Yemen’s needs. Doing so requires localizing peace by seeking out, supporting and adapting promising local-level initiatives nationwide, and ensuring inclusivity in shaping the final settlement. Beyond those actors with forces on the ground, inclusivity means drawing in political parties outside the internationally recognized government’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), along with civil society actors, tribes, marginalized groups and others. Several of these actors, focusing on the specific themes of the forum, explored what work could begin prior to a settlement deal that would both ease socio-economic burdens on Yemeni civilians and prepare the way for post-war stability.
The Yemeni government body now primarily responsible for guiding the war to a close is the eight-member PLC, led by Rashad al-Alimi. Formed in April in Riyadh as a replacement for the Yemeni presidency, its members represent the main political-military factions on the ground fighting Houthi forces. Creation of the PLC was generally supported by Yemen’s political parties, the international community and by many YIF participants, despite concerns about its exclusion of non-military civil-political actors.
Yemeni political life encompasses a wide array of actors and organizations, many of which have been fundamentally weakened by the prolonged conflict. Representatives of political parties, civil society organizations (CSOs), syndicates, trade unions and tribes used YIF sessions to look at how they can rebuild internally, the roles they can play now and in the future, and how they can influence the parties to the conflict and the UN peace process to ensure their concerns and interests are taken into account. Post-war Yemen will be defined in large part by how well these sectors of society reform and engage. Civil society, trade unions and professional syndicates were early victims of Yemen’s war, with most unions closing and many of the surviving CSOs shifting their activities to the humanitarian response. During the YIF, civil society actors focused on how to prepare to shift again, to participate in Yemen’s reconstruction and reconciliation.
Formation of the PLC brought with it a formal role at the highest level of decision-making for southern actors, which was broadly welcomed — with caveats — by YIF participants in sessions focused on southern Yemen. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), strengthened by its affiliated, Emirati-backed fighting forces, has cast itself as the sole representative of the south, but other southern actors present agreed the PLC cannot be effective if it marginalizes 0ther southern constituencies. They advised the PLC to be transparent about its appointments, end armed groups’ control of population centers, act quickly to provide public services and support an intra-southern dialogue, which participants saw as critical to unifying southern positions ahead of peace talks. Another key issue of consensus among southern leaders present was the desire for local control of the south’s natural resources and to begin a structured decentralization of public revenue collection and decision-making.
Within the economic file, YIF participants engaged in discussions on how to ameliorate the country’s economic deterioration, with a focus on the central bank and commercial banking sector, development and humanitarian aid, Yemen’s private sector and missed opportunities. Banking and financial sector actors from throughout Yemen hammered out a three-pronged initiative to: restore the banking sector’s capacity to facilitate foreign trade and reduce the cost of imported goods; restore currency stability, narrow the divergence of old and new rials and prepare the groundwork for reunifying the currency; and address the country’s liquidity crisis. To succeed, participants agreed technical and financial support is needed from the international community along with the direct involvement of the UN special envoy’s office.
YIF participants identified short-term socioeconomic improvements that could help support a peace settlement and provide the foundations for a stable political and security environment. These included supporting local food production, improving service delivery and preventing further deterioration of state institutions. Participants also noted the obstacles to such projects, such as insecurity, endemic corruption and water scarcity.
Once the war ends, Yemenis will not only be left to rebuild their state structures, economy, institutions and organizations, they will also need to reckon with the deep divisions, personal trauma and scars to the national psyche created by wartime abuses and crimes. YIF participants, including torture survivors, relatives of victims and victims’ advocates, sought ways to ensure reconciliation and justice are incorporated into the peace process, despite the reluctance of political actors and warring parties.
In examining the imbalances within the military and security sectors, YIF participants considered how a post-war restructuring of Yemen’s armed forces could ensure national security and the specific needs of individual governorates. These discussions focused on the need to develop national defense and security strategies, the challenges of integrating fighters into the armed forces and the private sector, and salary payment schemes to incentivize accountability and professionalism among fighting forces before and after the war ends. Participants also sought to shift security priorities on the ground away from the battlefield and toward human security by, for example, emphasizing community policing.
Potential areas for follow-up discussions, research and refinement identified through the YIF sessions:
- A common vision of a secure future for Yemen, established through dialogue between the warring sides, could facilitate intermediate steps en route to a final settlement.
- For the best chance at security and stability, a settlement agreement must:
- address the national security concerns of regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia;
- dismantle non-state forces and require them to give up their weapons; and
- deter external threats by grounding a deal in international law; and
- be shaped in an inclusive manner, considerate of Yemen’s political, societal and regional diversity.
- Tap tribal leaders to document truce violations, secure roads and public spaces, and ensure stability within their local areas. Consult directly with tribal figures on how they can best support peace efforts in local and regional contexts.
- Assess changes needed to party leadership, organization and programs in light of the recent truce and the new PLC governing structure.
- Address the insufficiency of data available for defining the scope of community needs in areas such as electricity and infrastructure.
- Invest in virtual tools for communication between party members and officials in and outside Yemen, and among parties more broadly.
- Address the lack of meaningful representation of women in the political sphere by:
- assisting women in attaining positions of decision-making authority, locally and nationally;
- creating zero-tolerance gender discrimination policies to ensure a unified response from civil society to harmful gender-based policies;
- pressuring the international community to integrate women into decision-making processes in all areas rather than bringing them in only to discuss “women’s issues”;
- protecting women peace-builders from security threats; and
- ensuring wartime gains, such as the broader acceptance of women working outside the home, are not lost when the war ends.
- Address the exclusion of ethnic and religious minorities in political processes by:
- setting up advisory panels on diversity, which can act in a consultative role with UN agencies or others on matters such as ensuring curriculums incorporate a better understanding of Yemen’s minority communities;
- reviewing legislation to criminalize racism and discrimination; ensuring constitutional protections for minorities are included during state building; and
- establishing a neutral state judicial system, while ensuring access to international courts and laws when discriminatory practices are ignored.
- Improve the selection process for, and diversity of, Track II efforts, and create platforms for Track II organizations that are free from donor pressures or dictates, allowing local groups to coordinate among themselves.
- Initiate strategic planning, training and capacity-building among CSOs that promotes financial independence, prioritizes partnerships, and emphasizes sustainability and alternative funding schemes.
- Encourage Yemeni authorities and the international community to involve local communities in needs assessments and program planning, and to allow for real, rather than symbolic, participation in international political discussions.
- Develop funding strategies and create trade union networks that collectively promote and sustain union activities.
The Southern File
- Convene and support an inclusive intra-southern dialogue with international support to build trust, unite southern factions around common understandings, and address long-term southern Yemeni goals.
- Focus on local control of resources and decentralization, possibly drawing on gains made in the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference. Toward this end, undertake independent collection and transparent sharing of resource-related data, so potential revenue streams are fully understood.
- Create mechanisms to transition from dominant local groups exerting informal governing authority to formal governance led by the PLC to improve services.
- Advise the PLC on improving living standards and basic services, recognizing this will require ending the free reign of armed groups, building institutions of government and dealing seriously with corruption.
- Create an inclusive mechanism to engage key stakeholders and generate political buy-in for a three-pronged banking initiative, drafted by YIF participants primarily from Yemen’s banking sector, to address central bank divisions, the currency crisis and liquidity issues.
- Empower the private sector by directly confronting barriers to international trade and obstacles to domestic commerce by:
- expanding operations at the air and sea ports in Al-Mahra governorate and in Mukalla, Hadramawt;
- resuming large-scale overland trade with Saudi Arabia and Oman; and
- opening, rebuilding and maintaining roads along key trade routes, which will require support from the international community.
- Consider, through further research and consultations, where and how best to:
- invest in alternative energy production;
- improve access to microfinance opportunities;
- engage the Yemeni diaspora to help reverse the “brain drain” the country has experienced during the war; and
- redirect development policies toward improving productivity in agriculture, fisheries and other food-related sectors.
- In support of development policies, address water scarcity by shifting to rain-fed, fast-maturing crops less impacted by climate change and enforcing environmental protection policies aimed at preventing the depletion and contamination of water basins.
Reconciliation & Justice
- Explore ways to effectively engage in and coordinate efforts by CSOs, youth and women to actively lobby the UN special envoy’s office for support on inclusion of justice and reconciliation issues in the formal settlement process. This exploration could be done in conjunction with CSOs’ planning to promote activities to build tolerance and cohesion.
- Support and promote artistic efforts to draw attention to the impact of war on ordinary people and memorialize civilians’ experiences.
- Take a victim-centered approach that combines formal justice with reconciliation to ensure accountability.
- Seek international funding to offset the costs of documenting violations, providing mental health support and meeting other locally determined needs.
- Capitalize on the interest among youths and women to advance reconciliation and justice, and ensure support is not only focused on city centers.
- Create networks to adapt effective local mediation techniques and channel them for use in other communities or nationally.
- Identify potentially transferable elements of transitional justice frameworks used by other countries.
- Refine ideas on decentralizing the armed forces, integrating fighters and providing basic salaries by establishing reserve forces under local control at the governorate level. Options exist at each juncture, which may vary based on regional needs, and should be fully explored in focused research and consultations. Elements to explore include:
- Fighters from any armed group could enlist in their home governorate’s reserve force;
- local government security personnel could be drawn from reserve forces, with remaining reservists working in the civilian economy while receiving professional and vocational training;
- some former fighters could be channeled to the military engineering corps, helping it to play an important role in reconstruction;
- a national fund to help rehabilitate fighters;
- a guaranteed basic military salary as a safety net so reserve personnel are financially able to leave armed groups;
- how to work with the Interior and Defense ministries on clear criteria for integration and accurate numbers of actual fighters; and
- when and how to engage donors and economic experts given that absorbing fighters is likely to significantly expand the state payroll, at least initially.
- Reform the Yemeni armed forces to address the security sector fragmentation that has made communities less safe. Possible short- and medium-term steps toward accountability and professionalism include:
- instituting an interim payment scheme to supplement or replace the irregular paychecks many fighters receive so integration and a degree of accountability can begin;
- strengthening retention criteria;
- building transparency into reforms to budgets and processes;
- promoting early retirement and job rotation;
- emphasizing community policing;
- seeking out examples of local civil society improvements to security, such as Taiz’s community safety programs, and striving to replicate them;
- funding CSOs’ accountability-related programs, such as those providing legal aid to prisoners;
- transitioning toward prioritizing human security, through focused dialogue between civil society and military-security organizations; and
- addressing the issue of untrained civilians who were recruited to fill officers’ ranks, without knowledge of laws or discipline.
Report edited by Susan Sevareid, senior editor at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.
The Yemen International Forum 2022 was organized by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in cooperation with the Folke Bernadotte Academy, and with funding support from the Government of the Kingdom of Sweden, the Government of the Kingdom of Norway, Open Society Foundations and the European Union.
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.