Author: Darwin Veser, MA Candidate in International Security, Sciences Po Paris; FES scholarship holder
While all eyes are currently directed at the Russian aggression in Ukraine, significant diplomatic progress has been achieved in the shadow of world politics. In Yemen, a two-month truce has been extended for another two months. For the first time in years, there seems to be growing momentum for peace. This is still a fragile accomplishment. The truce has been rendered possible by the willingness of the parties to the conflict, and the actors backing them, to follow the path of negotiations, as well as by the UN's perseverance. At a time that the UN has so far had no success in bringing an end to the war in Ukraine, its involvement in Yemen demonstrates how the UN Secretary General’s Good Offices can bear fruit.
“The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis“
In 2018, UN-Secretary-General António Guterres described the situation in Yemen as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis.” At that time, more than 24 million people were in need of aid and protection. This corresponds to around three-quarters of Yemen's total population.
The civil war that caused this dramatic situation began in 2014 when Shiite Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, violently seized control of large parts of the northwest and the capital, Sanaa, and forced the government into exile. A few months later, in March 2015, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched an extensive air campaign aimed at pushing back the Houthis and reinstating the government.
But the war led to a stalemate in which child soldiers were used, and civilian casualties were condoned by both sides. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), some 377,000 people have died in this dead-end war. Of these, about 150,000 died directly from the civil war. The rest of the victims died indirectly, as the war drastically increased hunger and the spread of disease. Meanwhile, the way to political negotiations was blocked by tactical considerations of the warring parties, and the chance of a truce seemed years away.
Longstanding UN Efforts and a Shift in Dynamics Finally Result in a Truce
Wars elsewhere and limited insight into the intricacy of the situation inside Yemen have prevented the international community from paying close attention to the war there, ultimately leaving the Yemeni civilian population in the lurch for a long time. It was, therefore, all the more critical that the UN Secretary-General himself, and through his UN Special Envoys to Yemen (Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, followed by Martin Griffiths and eventually Hans Grundberg), continued to put the raging civil war in Yemen on the global agenda through urgent appeals. Furthermore, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) supported the 2018 Hudaydah Agreement on a ceasefire in the governorate of Hudaydah by authorizing the United Nations Mission to support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA) as an observer mission. UNMHA started in January 2019 and its mandate was last extended for one year on July 13, 2022. It supports cooperation with the parties to ensure the security of Hudaydah city and the ports of Hudaydah, Saleef, and Ras Isa. In this way, UNMHA has played a crucial stabilizing role in recent years, albeit within a limited framework in view of the overall conflict. When the agreement on the initially two-month-long truce was reached in early April 2022, it was able to build on these longstanding efforts and on the initiatives to implement the Hudaydah Agreement.
Moreover, beyond the UN's persistence and its essential work, UN-led talks about a truce gained momentum in particular due to a shift in dynamics in recent months.
First, from 2021 onward, there was a gradual change in how states backing the Yemeni government headed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi assessed the situation. On the one hand, the U.S., under the new administration of President Biden, undertook a policy shift that resulted in a withdrawal of all U.S. support for offensive operations in the Yemen war, and a call for a quick end to the fighting. In the wake of this, Donald Trump's classification of the Houthis as a terrorist organization was withdrawn, and "relevant arms sales" were halted. This new position taken by Washington, combined with the lack of interest, or at least non-divergent or polarizing positions, of China and Russia, in turn, is likely to have encouraged Riyadh not to continue the war indefinitely and to pursue a negotiated settlement instead. At the same time, the initial goal of fully restoring the power of the Hadi government had long been unrealistic, as 24 million of Yemen's nearly 30 million inhabitants are under Houthi rule.
Second, there has also been a shift in the conflict dynamics. Despite fierce fighting, the Houthis failed to seize control over the strategically important and oil-rich province of Marib. In early 2022, the Houthis were additionally weakened as a result of the first significant military successes by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in nearly four years. Similarly, Saudi Arabia also flew several airstrikes on Sanaa and other areas in response to the Houthis' attacks on, among other targets, an oil depot in Jeddah shortly before a Formula One race. Because of these events, a military balance emerged for the first time in several years.
Against this backdrop, the UN succeeded in getting the two sides in distress to agree to a two-month truce, announced on April 2, 2022. A truce can only be a first step and does not yet correspond to a formal and guaranteed stable ceasefire. Nevertheless, it represents a long-overdue respite for the Yemeni civilian population and an open door for intensive talks between the two parties to the conflict.
More than just a respite?
The truce which the Hadi government and the Houthi rebels had agreed upon fulfilled the hopes placed in it with greater success than many had dared to expect. A truce is an informal agreement to stop fighting. It is a step short of a formal ceasefire, which would not only stop hostilities but also entail agreed-upon monitoring and de-escalation mechanisms. Nevertheless, so far it has, at least, largely been respected, has significantly slowed down the fighting on the ground, and was extended again for another two months in early June 2022. In sum, the truce marks a necessary respite - especially for Yemeni civilians. At the same time, the numbers of around 1,500 violations of the truce and 19 civilians killed in its first two months, as well as reports of military reinforcements being redeployed by both parties show that preventing a relapse into war is not a foregone conclusion.
Whether the agreement can hold will be determined to a large extent by whether it will be possible to build trust at the negotiating table and find solutions that are judged by both parties to be more attractive than picking up arms again. On the one hand, this concerns the points agreed upon in the framework of the April agreement. On the other hand, this also concerns issues that go beyond this and are important for the future of Yemen, such as the currently highly contentious issue of establishing a defensible mechanism for documenting and reporting on human rights violations.
A crucial step was undoubtedly President Hadi's transfer of executive power to a new presidential council headed by the experienced politician and security official Rashad al-Alimi on April 7. This new government was quickly pledged more than three billion euros in funding from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Beyond this crucial step of Hadi's departure, there remain other challenges in the implementation of the April 2 agreement, in particular, negotiations to open road access to the besieged city of Taiz is increasingly becoming a sticking point. On June 24, the Houthis rejected a proposal by UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg for the gradual reopening of roads to the city of Taiz. Thereafter, Grundberg presented a new proposal on July 3 which has not yet led to an agreement between both conflict parties.
Unsurprisingly, after many years of war, the negotiations remain a complex endeavor. The truce is an essential respite for the Yemeni civilian population, which already faces major difficulties beyond the war, such as the severe hunger crisis worsened by mounting wheat prices. At the same time, given the ongoing talks and the extension of the agreement for another two months, the truce is more than just a respite.
The ongoing talks – an entry point for a path towards peace negotiations?
The extension of the truce shows a serious willingness on both sides to reach an agreement on the points agreed upon. However, it remains a fragile agreement that does not imply that peace is imminent. Nevertheless, the declared approach of UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg "to take one step at a time and not rush too quickly, but also make sure that all steps that are taken are done in an incremented manner and consolidated manner“ seems an advisable strategy.
Whether Yemen will continue the path toward a political process and greater stability will depend on the further course of the talks and the success of Grundberg's strategy. For now, two messages remain central. First and foremost, it is good news for the civilian population in Yemen, which has gone through a terrible and brutal period. And second, the truce is a result of the UN Secretary General's Good Offices and the perseverance of his Special Envoys. It is, therefore, an important success for the UN as an organization. This is all the more important at a time when the stalemate in the Security Council about ending the war in Ukraine tarnishes the reputation of the UN as a whole.
About the author: Darwin Veser is a MA Candidate in International Security at Sciences Po Paris. He has been a scholarship holder of FES since 2018 and currently serves as Spokesperson of the scholarship holders' Working Group on International Security and Transatlantic Affairs.