The UN does not want to admit its failure in Yemen; instead of changing plans, it resorts to changing envoys, as if it is a sports club changing coaches and blaming failure on one person. As it waits for a new envoy to be appointed, the international organisation should evaluate its performance in Yemen, and look carefully for the cause of its failure. Is it, for example, due to the complexities of the crisis that obscure envoys are being pushed forward, or is the weakness of the international mediator’s personality and their inability to understand the roots of the problem the main reason for what is going on?
In effect, the UN is treating Yemen like a testing ground for envoys with sufficient experience in humanitarian work and a modest amount in political affairs. Mauritania’s Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmed came from a position in the UN Development Programme, while the British envoy, Martin Griffiths, worked more in humanitarian programmes, from UNICEF to the World Food Programme. His only political position was as a short period as an advisor to the UN envoy in Syria.
Regardless of previous experience, the time spent in office ensures that the envoys understand the complexities of the entire region, not just Yemen, but it must be pointed out that the UN strategy in managing the crisis has been futile. This is especially so given that those who leave the position suddenly become sought after as mediators presenting bold initiatives to reconcile parties to the conflict. Instead of acting on the principle of dialogue between a coup authority and an internationally-recognised government, the envoy resorts to bargaining with each party in order to meet the demands of the other. For example, Griffiths, who would argue that he is only a mediator and does not have the military power to enable him to impose a solution, turned into a negotiator, moving from one capital to another and carrying with him the Houthi conditions for the legitimate government and the Saudi leadership, and vice versa.
If the role of the UN envoy is simply to be a mediator, then this task could be carried out successfully by a tribal sheikh from the Arhab district. Otherwise, why does he present monthly briefings to the Security Council and meet with ambassadors of major countries? If consultations with the parties involved were a failure, why not disclose the identity of the recalcitrant side and hold it accountable?
Griffiths departed from the mediating role, and in a past interview on the UN podcast “Awake at Night” he showed some sympathy for one side when he said, “You try to find a way to meet the aspirations of this leader.” It was with such sympathy that he surrendered to the blackmail of the Houthis, and resorted to bargaining and begging for legitimacy for the group, and for the coalition to allow the entry of oil tankers at Hodeidah port, as well as amend the terms for lifting the blockade.
As a result of this approach, the Houthis called on the international community to deal with them as the legitimate authority in Yemen. Hussein Al-Azzi, the Houthi deputy foreign minister, had said that it was good for the world to realise this fact, even if it takes a hundred years, as they are in no hurry. Would a coup militia dare to propose something like this if it were not for the UN and international flaws and imbalance, as well as giving in to blackmail and appeasement over a number of years? If the envoys were receiving these types of answers from the Houthis, then why would the optimist Griffiths deceive the Yemenis and sell them an illusion, when he claimed that there was noticeable progress in the peace process, despite the fact that the truth is clear to see?
Now the Yemenis want a frustrated and angry UN envoy who has no experience except for pumping out negative energy; an envoy who is a headache for the rival parties. There is no point in Griffiths’ sermons, and for him to say that hope is an essential component of the peace process, and that had it not been for hope, people would have felt frustrated at the lack of a solution to the crisis. The UN’s failure must be addressed properly.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 18 May 2021