The Washington Center for Yemeni Studies hosted a panel discussion “The Role of the UN Envoys for Yemen: Challenges and Prospects” via zoom, on the occasion of publishing their latest Study, “The Role of the United Nations in Yemen During the Past Decade” with the honorable guest speakers:
* Marwan Ali: Former UN Director of Political Affairs in the Office of the UN Envoy.
* Dr. Najeeb Ghanem: Former Minister and Member of the Yemeni Parliament.
Moderated by: Fernando Carvajal: Analyst and Former Member of The UNSC Panel of Experts on Yemen.
Mr. Marwan Ali started the discussion by noting that it is unfortunate that people view the United Nations as the body that can solve the problem, although that is far from the truth. From his point of view, the United Nations reflects the will of the international community, the regional and local dynamics, and it has a neutral role as opposed to the parties of the conflict. The mandate also prevents the UN Envoy from doing what he believes and abides him by what it dictates. Ali further explained that the war in Yemen arose from the Arab Spring, a general movement against the regimes in power, mainly driven by economic demands. The international community continues to overlook the status of the economy when negotiating solutions to the conflict. Ali hoped that the new UN envoy, Hans Grundberg, would consider the economic situation at the forefront of the negotiations and the proposed solutions.
Ali remarked on the initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries during the era of Jamal Benomar, who served as the UN Special Envoy to Yemen from 2011-2015. He pointed out some of the problems that tainted the conference and what emerged from it. Including its failure to absorb the Southern Movement, which was not satisfied with the minimum level of representation it had received in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), Where Ansar Allah (the Houthis) had a seat at the table. Ali acknowledged that the main issues in the Yemeni conflict were, and continue to be, the culmination of the Southern Movement and the Houthis. Ali concluded that the current foremost players in Yemen are the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Ansar Allah (The Houthis), as they control most of Yemen.
Ali went on to praise the role played by Jamal Benomar, which he considered to be a “wonderful” job, even though he did not have the sufficient authority to impose any solutions on the Yemenis. Ali held the Yemeni parties responsible for the delay in resolving the conflict due to their internal differences and the disputes between the parties of the internationally recognized government of Yemen. Unless the Houthis and the legitimate Yemeni government agree on a solution, the United Nations cannot impose that on them, adding that the Gulf initiative was not exclusively for the interest of Yemen but also took into account the interest of the Gulf countries involved.
According to Ali, the STC and the Houthis are well-organized ideological groups that put them at an advantage ahead of the internationally recognized government of Yemen that is composed of conflicting parties, which the Riyadh Agreement failed to unify in the face of the conflict.
Ali further analyzed the recent visit of the US envoy, Tim Lenderking, to Aden and the UN envoy, Hans Gundberg, to Taiz to be a step on the right path to bring Yemenis together to reach an agreement and an opportunity for the international and regional community to provide support for this measure. Ali stressed the need to involve the Yemeni people in finding a solution and pressuring the parties to reach an agreement, unlike the Stockholm Agreement that was not the work of the United Nations, rather a collective initiative from the regional powers and the international community. Despite the different Yemeni parties having links with regional actors, the agreement did not amount to much, either in the prisoners’ file or in the work of the Special Mission. According to Ali, the United Nations does not have the freedom to act, and the UN envoy is only a facilitator.
Ali stated, in his personal opinion, that the Yemenis have the right to “throw shoes at the international community” because it has not been able to effectively put pressure on the Yemeni parties and regional powers to reach a solution. However, there is an opportunity for Gundberg to do just that. However, this will be a challenge unless international and European influence is persistent to save Yemen from this predicament. Ali concluded that he previously submitted a proposal in this regard to the office of the UN envoy; and has hope for the Gundberg, with the support of the international community, especially the European Union, which has deviated in the past.
Dr. Najeeb Ghanem congratulated the Houthis on their success in misleading the international community and giving the impression that they are good governors, indicating that they are now moving to legitimize their coup against the legitimate government. Dr. Ghanem believes that the claim that the Houthis were not among the signatories to the outcomes of the NDC is misleading and baseless, referring to the role the Houthi leader Ahmed Sharaf al-Din played in the national dialogue and his signature on the draft of the final document of the outcomes of the NDC. He believes that the Houthis were plotting against the national and international desire to achieve stability in Yemen and accused them of killing Ahmed Sharaf al-Din, who planned to sign the final document.
Dr. Ghanem maintains that the NDC included all segments of society, including southern activists, and not only those who later formed the STC, where all parties agreed on its output. He further stressed that the Houthis do not have the capabilities to rule and are limited to being a proxy for Iran to control the south of the peninsula and later go north into Saudi Arabia. The proof is that the individuals currently ruling Sanaa and other areas in Yemen, under the Houthi control, are Iranian and Lebanese experts.
On the contrary, Dr. Ghanem expressed his dissatisfaction with the performance of the UN envoys, especially Jamal Benomar. According to Ghanem, the Houthis were legitimized as an authority when Benomar brought them into Sanaa, and Griffiths reinforced this notion by approaching them as such. The Stockholm Agreement, signed by the Houthis and the legitimate Yemeni government, allowed them to continue laying their hands on public money and collect taxes from Hodeidah. He reckons that there is no legitimate blockade, as the commodities come freely to the shipping ports. The number of incoming flights to Sana’a Airport is 200 per month, while the number in Aden is no more than 100. The airport is open, but the Houthis want to use it, as well as the port for transporting weapons, experts, and fighters. Ghanem claimed that the Houthis utilize UN’s airplanes to go to Amman and from there to Tehran and Beirut.
The problem, as Ghanem describes it, is that the Houthis were working hard to legitimize their coup. Perhaps one of the major mistakes of the UN envoys is that they reinforce the impression that the Houthis are legitimate authority through the way they deal with them. Ghanem posed the question, “Why do the UN envoys not respect Resolution 2216 and say that the Houthis must hand over the seized weapons, but they ignore the silent majority and work selectively with the Houthis and other players?”
Ghanem further stressed that the new UN envoy, Gundberg, will face the same predicament unless he thinks outside the framework of the views and positions of the previous envoys.
Dr. Ghanem does not believe that there is a problem in the legitimate government of Yemen and its components that impede reaching a peaceful solution. However, he acknowledged that the problem lies with the Houthis, as a project of war and death, not of peace and life as they kill, kidnap, imprison, torture, and loot public and private funds.
In conclusion, Dr. Ghanem implied that the solution to the Yemeni conflict is not through dialogue with Iran, as this legitimizes its intervention in Yemen. However, he reiterated Ali’s sentiment that the solution begins by securing a safe environment in Yemen (with the protection of the United Nations) for a meeting of the House of Representatives with all its members, those residing in areas of the legitimate government as well as areas of the Houthis, and those outside the country, to come together in consensus and reach a comprehensive solution facilitated and supported by the international community.