As direct Saudi-Houthi talks inch toward a roadmap for comprehensive negotiations followed by a permanent ceasefire, it is crucial that the process of resolution be based on a firm footing. We do not need to look far back into Yemen’s past to appreciate the danger of losing the peace, when missteps in the delicate diplomatic dance that brings de-escalation and rapprochement end up opening the door to more rounds of bloodletting. Sadly that was the fate of the 2011 protests and their aftermath. When the government of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh failed to crush a popular uprising against his rule, the Gulf Cooperation Council sponsored a peace process that saw Saleh step aside in favor of his deputy Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the launch of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). But the country only plunged into further chaos.
Understanding why is key to making sure it doesn’t happen again. Some of the mistakes are obvious. The previous regime continued in all but name, while Saleh himself was able to take time out and plot revenge. The NDC ultimately failed to address historical grievances felt by myriad Yemenis across the country. Political violence continued regardless throughout the process, which was in any case stage-managed by foreign powers driven by their own interests and limited imagination for a new future for Yemen and Yemenis.
But the fundamental mistake was the failure to address justice – first and foremost, justice for the ordinary people who suffered under unacountable rule for decades and specifically those killed and maimed during the 2011 uprising. Security forces used live rounds against protesters in its first weeks, and the violence escalated to new levels when snipers killed at least 45 people in Sana’a on March 18, a protest day that had even been named in advance as the Friday of Dignity. Over 2,000 people died before Hadi was sworn in as president, yet long-serving political and military leaders were granted immunity from prosecution as part of the transfer of power. Amid muted criticism of that deal from United Nations officials and international rights organizations, crimes went unpunished and grievances were left to fester.
Failure to truly address transitional justice through a working group formed to tackle the issue was among the many tragic shortcomings of the NDC. Death and unaccountability became normalized and Yemen has not looked back since. UN agencies have estimated war casualties since 2014 of at least 150,000 people, but the figure rises to at least 377,000 when famine and disease are factored in. Hidden among the statistics are the untold numbers of Yemenis killed through indiscriminate and deliberate shelling of civilian neighborhoods, the reckless planting of landmines, and the tyranny of warring factions.
This inability to attend to the wounds of the past is a familiar tale for Yemen and other countries. Following the Taif Agreement ending its civil war, Lebanon passed an amnesty law granting immunity from prosecution for wartime crimes, trading justice for temporary stability. Failure to deal with political and social grievances is a historical problem that continues to haunt Yemen in particular. The tribal and ideological tensions underlying the South Yemen civil war in January 1986 bubbled up again during the post-unification war in 1994, and those same tensions underpin political rivalry in the south during the current moment.
The situation has worsened with massive violations of the current war, which only add to the historical antagonisms already in play. This is going to make the challenge of restituting rights and mediating conflicts at an individual and group level all the more difficult, not least because of the role of external forces in the war. But the daunting nature of the task should not become an excuse to delay or sideline this most basic issue, since breaking the cycle of violence is in the interest of all Yemenis.
For this reason, the international community must resist the temptation to avoid brooking the issue of transitional justice for fear of offending the warring factions and spoiling the talks. Senior foreign diplomats rarely mention the issue, and it’s telling that it was only last year that the UN special envoy’s office appointed an official to manage this file. And yet, the UN’s Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts has talked with welcome clarity about the pandemic of “impunity in a tortured land.”
Justice must not be traded for security this time round. For this to happen we need to ensure that two basic conditions are met. Firstly, talks must shift to an inclusive Yemeni process sponsored by the UN as soon as possible. These negotiations must include not just the government’s Presidential Leadership Council and Houthis but as broad a range of Yemenis as possible. The UN special envoy’s office must ensure that transitional justice is locked in place on the agenda. This is the minimum required to avoid the risk of a flawed peace that portends a return to conflict over simmering resentments and unresolved injustice.