Photo: A student stands in the ruins of one of his former classrooms, which was destroyed in June 2015, at the Aal Okab school in Saada, Yemen. Students now attend lessons in UNICEF tents nearby. UNICEF/Clarke for UNOCHA. - Photo: 2018

UN Inching Towards Peace Talks on Yemen

By J Nastranis

Fourteen million civilians are on the edge of famine in Yemen. Starvation is on the horizon, warns WFP‘s chief David Beasley. What he has seen during a recent visit to the country is “the stuff of nightmares, horror, deprivation and misery”. UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Martin Griffiths is therefore at pains to bring the conflict parties to a negotiating table. “We as women have the highest stake in peace,” vows civil society leader Rasha Jarhum.

NEW YORK (IDN) – Yemen is no longer “the forgotten war” that it has long been, Special Envoy for the UN Secretary-General, Martin Griffiths has told the 15-nation Security Council. This is underlined, among others, by the fact that the United Nations plans to convene peace talks on Yemen soon after receiving firm assurances from the conflict parties that they will attend negotiations in Sweden.

According to Griffiths, the Saudi-backed government and the Huthi rebels have shown a “renewed commitment” to work on a political solution to end a war that has catapulted 14 million civilians on the edge of famine.

He was one of the senior United Nations officials and civil society leaders who made impassioned pleas in the Security Council on November 16 for political and humanitarian steps forward to opening a new “window of hope” to the people of Yemen.

If it were for him, he would have presented to the Security Council a signed agreement between the parties on the exchange of prisoners and detainees, which he described as an important humanitarian gesture. He said he expected those arrangements to be reached in the coming days.

Griffiths noted that “never has so much international attention and energy been given to this crisis, and rightly so,” and emphasized that Yemen – a country at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula – remains the world’s largest humanitarian disaster with an ongoing fight against famine, civilians dying from preventable diseases and an economy on the verge of collapse since the civil began in 2015.

Griffiths reiterated support for efforts to pursue the requests presented by Mark Lowcock, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in October 2018 as a road map forward. He said the Security Council has consistently called on the conflict parties to avoid a further humanitarian catastrophe.

However, the situation remains fragile and unstable, including in the port city of Hodeidah. Noting that he will visit that city in the following week to draw attention to the need for a continued pause in fighting, he welcomed the recent announcement by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, President of Yemen, that he plans to move swiftly towards a political solution.

With that in view, Griffiths announced his intention to swiftly convene the parties, emphasizing that “we are close to resolving the preparatory issues to make this happen”. He expressed gratitude to members of the coalition for agreeing to the proposed logistical arrangements, as well as to the Government of Oman for its agreement to facilitate the medical evacuation of some injured Yemenis out of Sana’a city.

“This is a crucial moment for Yemen,” he stressed, noting that he has spent the last two months seeking support from the parties for an updated version of the framework for negotiations. Accentuating that the framework is in line with the Security Council’s requirements and the new realities of the conflict, he said that while the plan is his vision, “it is not mine alone”. 

Indeed, every conversation and negotiation that has gone before is reflected in the document, on which he said he will seek the Council’s endorsement as soon as both parties have formally agreed to its terms.

Outlining the plans laid out in the proposed framework, he said it establishes the principles and parameters for United Nations-led, inclusive Yemeni negotiations to end the war and restart a political transition process.

Among other elements, it includes a set of interim security and political arrangements which will allow for an end to fighting, the return of Yemen’s friendly relations with neighbouring countries and the restoration of State institutions.

“The framework reflects in fact and words the resolutions of this Council,” he said, adding: “My task is to fashion a road towards principled compromise which allows the people of Yemen to live in peace again.”

Warning that further conflict is not yet off the table, he said for a political settlement to be sustainable it must be inclusive and enjoy the support of the Yemeni people. Actors in the south of the country, in particular, will have a crucial role in safeguarding outcomes of the peace process being worked out now. “It is vital to secure their buy-in,” he stressed.

Urging the parties to come together without any precondition under his auspices to jointly address Yemen’s dire economic situation, including the rapid deterioration of the Yemeni rial – he said that issue remains the main cause of the famine. “This is beyond confidence-building measures,” he said, noting that it is the parties’ moral obligation to take action.

He pledged to soon convene a meeting of the Central Bank of Yemen to be facilitated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an agreed action plan.  “We must seize this positive momentum on Yemen,” he concluded, noting that it provides a crucial opportunity to pursue a comprehensive and inclusive settlement to the conflict.

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Lowcock said that on October 23 he had warned the Security Council that “a grave economic crisis and escalating conflict had pushed Yemen closer to famine than ever before”. Shortly afterwards, the Famine Early Warning System Network issued an alert stating the world’s largest food security emergency faces a “catastrophic deterioration” threatening significant loss of life for many of the millions in crisis.

Referring to the two famines declared this century – Somalia in 2011 and South Sudan in 2017 – he noted that most fatalities occur before famine is declared and takes hold, which is “what we are trying to prevent”.

Yemen already faces mass hunger and has avoided famine thus far for two reasons: first, due to the world’s largest aid operation, undertaken by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies and reaching almost 8 million Yemenis every month; and second, Member States have acted when the risk of famine has risen, as is again the case.

He called for a series of urgent actions beginning with a cessation of hostilities around aid infrastructure and facilities; violence has instead recently escalated, with nearly 800 separate incidents of shelling, clashes and air strikes, including around Hodeidah.

Targets included hospitals, sending some patients fleeing while still connected to medical devices. Lowcock emphasized that 30 per cent of Hodeidah’s population is “barely surviving”, including a quarter of the children. Some humanitarian operations have been scaled back as staffers have also left.

Other urgent actions include protecting the supply of food and essential goods; injecting foreign exchange and paying salaries and pensions; increasing funding and support to the aid operation; and calling all belligerents to work with the Special Envoy to end the conflict, he said.

Some efforts have been made, with Saudi Arabia depositing $200 million to strengthen the Yemeni rial, and donors providing $2.3 billion for the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan (nearly 80 per cent of estimated requirements).  However, he said the five actions must be seen as a package and called for support on all of them.

David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), recalling his recent three-day trip to Yemen, said that “soft words” will not do justice to what is happening to mothers and fathers and boys and girls in the country. What he has seen is the stuff of nightmares, horror, deprivation and misery.

While the country has suffered for years, it is now on the brink of catastrophe, with all of humanity to blame. “The conditions the Yemenis are enduring would not exist at all if stubborn men would just sit down and talk instead of shoot.”

Addressing the economic impact of the crisis, he said the value of the Yemeni rial has dropped by a 235 per cent since January 2015, wiping out two-thirds of the currency’s purchasing power. In the last eight months, the price of basic food staples has doubled, all while household incomes are declining.

For a country dependent on imports for basic needs, the situation is disastrous, particularly as it cannot – unlike South Sudan and Zimbabwe – grow its own food.  This is the primary reason why hunger is increasing dramatically, he explained, warning that nearly half the country is just one step away from famine.

The monitoring systems of WFP show that there are 3.6 million more hungry people in Yemen than three months ago. Currently, the Programme is helping approximately 8 million people a month and, as of early November, several food shipments are en route to various ports in the country.

Starvation is on the horizon unless circumstances immediately change, Beasley warned. With the economic crisis accelerating the scale of the damage, humanitarian assistance must be combined with an all-out effort to restore Yemen’s economy, he said. Humanitarian assistance alone cannot reverse the dire situation.  But as that work begins, the warring parties must guarantee access in and out of the port of Hodeidah.

Indeed, if the port shuts down without alternatives, there will be a catastrophe, he said before calling for much greater access throughout the country, as well as expedited clearances for shipments, visas and equipment.  Urging the international community to stop the war and rescue Yemen’s economy, he said the words ‘heart-breaking’ and ‘tragic’ do not do the situation justice.

Rasha Jarhum, Founder and Director of the Peace Track Initiative Yemen, said that children’s cries are going unnoticed as the parties to the conflict continue to use terrible weapons in populated areas, including air attacks by the coalition supporting the Government and mines by the Houthis, which not only kill and maim but also obstruct humanitarian aid.

Women in particular were suffering.  Before the conflict, Yemeni women were already in a subsidiary position, following the start of the conflict rapes and child marriages are soaring. Women have been assaulted by Houthi gangs and have had family members abducted.

“We as women have the highest stake in peace,” she said. For that reason, women’s groups are actively working on the ground and in many sectors. Describing some of those activities, she said the Women in Support of Abductees Group has gotten hundreds released as compared to the United Nations-sponsored group, which has been unsuccessful thus far.

The Yemen National Dialogue promoted by the Security Council was critical in addressing women’s issues and should be re-established. Women are now excluded from negotiating processes, and they must be meaningfully represented at all levels of the process. There is no sustainable peace without an inclusive process, she warned.

Jarhum called for an immediate ceasefire starting with the ending of the coalition bombardment and relocation of all armed groups outside of populated areas. To protect civilians and allow delivery of humanitarian goods, she urged bans on arms inflows, on mines and on child recruitment and called for the start of reintegration programmes for child soldiers. Peacekeepers from neutral States should be deployed to Yemen and the results of the National Dialogue results should be used to guide a transition to peace, Jarhum said.

Supporting Lowcock’s five points, she also called for the integration of gender concerns into all support and development plans, and implementation of the women, peace and security agenda.  She called, in addition, for the Government to report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Support to the efforts of grassroots women activists in Yemen is critical for a durable peace, she stressed.

Ambassador Kairat Umarov, Kazakhstan’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York said that prior to a possible meeting in Sweden of parties involved in the conflict there had been a surge of violence in the Hodeidah governorate.

He called on all parties to safeguard civilian lives, prevent deaths and injuries, allow freedom of movement and protect hospitals, clinics and schools, in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law.

Ambassador Umarov also urged all parties to find compromises and reject unilateral decisions that could harm the peace process. The search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict should be intensified and an urgent universal ceasefire must be reached without preconditions.

A key role in the process belongs to the Special Envoy; his efforts to find a political solution should be supported.  A revamped regional approach is needed to uphold the ceasefire and promote the peace process, he said, commending the Special Envoy’s attempts to involve different States in the Middle East and the Gulf region. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 November 2018]

Photo: A student stands in the ruins of one of his former classrooms, which was destroyed in June 2015, at the Aal Okab school in Saada, Yemen. Students now attend lessons in UNICEF tents nearby. UNICEF/Clarke for UNOCHA.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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