Deep political complexity awaits Yemen's new UN envoy

Deep political complexity awaits Yemen's new UN envoy
As the war in Yemen continues, the UN's new envoy for the country faces many challenges, but is being welcomed by the leadership of main parties to the brutal conflict.
5 min read
20 February, 2018
Yemen's infrastructure continues to deteriorate as war closes in on its third year [Getty]
For the third time, a UN envoy is appointed for Yemen. The purpose is the same: bringing peace to the war-ravaged country that has been known as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. 

On Thursday, the UN Security Council, endorsed the designation of British diplomat Martin Griffiths as the new envoy for Yemen. This comes on the heels of the former envoy's declaration last month of his unwillingness to stay in his post.

Over the last seven years, peace efforts have been stalemated in spite of the UN continuous endeavours to lead a successful peace process in Yemen. With this new envoy at the helm, the peace possibility remains faint since those who direct and fund the fighters on the battlefield are the engine of conflict and peace in this country. 

Political observers say the UN diplomats' role is to bring the warring opponents to talk peace, but these diplomats cannot silence the weapons on the frontlines. This reality casts shadow on the viability of the UN-led peace efforts in Yemen.

"The new UN envoy will not make a solution for the Yemeni people. The solution lies in subduing militarily the Iranian project in the north [the Houthis] and evacuating UAE from Yemen's south. Otherwise, the Yemen's whirlwind of conflict will persist," Adel Doshela, a Yemeni writer and researcher said.

Last month, former UN envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed decided to discontinue beyond the end of his contract this month. Ahmed was appointed as the UN envoy to Yemen in April of 2015. His appointment came after abundant backlash at the performance of the then UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar. Ultimately, Ahmed left Yemen at war just like his predecessor.

Moreover, it is unpredictable if this recently appointed envoy will be capable of restoring peace in Yemen or lead fruitful talks between Yemen's warring sides. Though the UN displays confidence in this new diplomat given his extensive experience in conflict resolution, Yemen's conflict has been an unresolved puzzle.

“Mr Griffiths brings extensive experience in conflict resolution, negotiation, mediation and humanitarian affairs,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Friday. 

The days and months to come will reveal whether the British diplomat-led peace process in Yemen will revive or its paralysis will linger on. 

The days and months to come will reveal whether the British diplomat-led peace process in Yemen will revive or its paralysis will linger on

New envoy, fresh challenges  

Over the past seven years, the two former UN envoys strived to establish a reconciliation between the internationally recognised government and the Houthi group that ousted the government in early 2015. This has been their fundamental mission.

The new envoy will be facing formidable challenges as the crisis is no longer confined to the Houthi-government fighting. Another challenge has surfaced, namely the rise of strong southern separatist voices.

Since May of last year, Yemen has been undergoing a de facto secession, and such status quo adds to the complexity of the political scene. While efforts are needed to reconcile the Houthis with the Yemeni government, efforts are crucial as well to address the demands of the southern secessionists.

Late last month, tensions between the government and the Southern Transitional Council(STC) in Aden sparked a three-day bloody confrontation, leaving at least 38 dead and over 200 injuries.

This violence and bloodshed complicates Yemen's quagmire further and it denotes the feeble clout of the legitimate government even in Yemen's south.

As the situation stands compound in Yemen, it is unclear what the new envoy will prioritise. Will he focus on the humanitarian situation? Or the Houthi-government peace talks? Or the government-southern movement negotiations? This new diplomat will have to act as a firefighter in a forest fire.

This new diplomat will have to act as a firefighter in a forest fire

Yemen's warring sides react to the new UN envoy

Read more by Khalid Al-Karimi:

- Can the General People's Congress in Yemen preserve its clout after the death of Saleh?

- Saudi Arabia's life or death mission in Yemen war

- Yemen's south: Marking Independence Day, envisioning secession

- A government in chaos is destroying Yemen's Aden
- Yemenis seek solar solution to infrastructure blackout

On Saturday, the parties to conflict showed a positive stance to the appointment of the British diplomat as the new UN envoy to Yemen.

The Sana-based Foreign Ministry welcomed the appointment of Griffiths, the Houthi-run Sana agency reported. 

"Mr Griffiths has enjoyed a long experience in negotiations and seeking peaceful resolutions in many conflict areas," the agency said.  

The Houthis have been resentful about the performance of the former UN envoy to Yemen, describing him as "biased."

Over the last three years, Ould Cheikh met repeatedly with the Houthis in Sanaa and overseas to discuss an end to the war. But neither the former envoy persuaded the Houthis nor the Houthis put trust in him.

On the other hand, the Saudi-backed Yemen government commended the role of the former UN envoy, saying he performed a "good job to achieve peace."

In comparison to the Houthis, the Yemeni government on Saturday welcomed the designation of the British diplomat as Yemen's UN special envoy. But the government reminded the UN of what they want at first.

Khaled al-Yamani, Yemen's Permanent Representative to the UN, said in a letter to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres: " Peace and sustainable political solution in Yemen cannot be realised without commitment to fixed peace references in the Yemeni crisis represented in the Gulf Initiative and its executive mechanism, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference(NDC) and related Security Council's resolutions, specifically the Resolution 2216."

The 2216 was adopted in 2015 and it stipulated the Houthi retreat from all areas they seized and the handover of state weapons.

While it signals positive that the political opponents in Yemen have expressed an enthusiastic welcome for the UN new envoy, their flexibility towards the novel peace proposals is also essential.

If the two sides or their regional backers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, continue clinging to their preconditions, peace will not be accomplished, and this new envoy will not be able to move the wheels of the political process in this war-torn country.

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper.