Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State
Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State

As Yemen's unremitting conflict continues to drive a nation-wide humanitarian crisis, there is an ever-increasing need to quell hostilities. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to rebuild the credibility of the UN-sponsored talks in order to find a durable ceasefire and work toward a political settlement within Yemen.

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Yemen’s war has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters; between 70 and 80 per cent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and over half of its 26 million people face food insecurity. Localised fighting escalated into full blown war in March 2015 when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against an alliance of Huthi militias and fighters aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The conflict has fragmented a weak state, destroyed the country’s meagre infrastructure and opened vast opportunities for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) to grow and seize territory.

Continued fighting, especially the Saudi-led coalition’s attempt to capture the Red Sea port of Hodeida (northern Yemen’s economic lifeline), stifling blockades and unilateral moves such as the relocation of the Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden will deepen intra-Yemeni divisions and increase the risk of famine. The conflict is likely to continue to expand into the region with growing refugee flows, violence by AQAP and IS outside Yemen and more attacks by Huthi/Saleh forces inside Saudi Arabia. Continued fighting will further fuel tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, also a contributory factor in other conflicts in the region. International efforts to press the two sides to a ceasefire have been woefully inadequate. Insufficient media attention hasn’t helped either.

Incoherent International Approaches

The approach that the U.S. and UK, in particular, have taken in Yemen has been muddled. They have supported UN efforts to end the conflict, but at the same time continued to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia despite evidence that it has repeatedly violated the laws of war. In April 2015, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2216, a one-sided document that essentially called for the Huthi/Saleh alliance to surrender and which the Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition have used repeatedly to obstruct efforts to achieve peace.

In August 2016, a fresh initiative by then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the peace process proved too little too late. Nonetheless, while it exposed the Obama administration’s inability to bring along Saudi Arabia, it did present a more balanced solution. Current UN-led diplomatic efforts are complicated by uncertainties surrounding the position of the new Trump administration. It appears to favour more aggressive military action against AQAP and possibly against the Huthis, whom it seems to view as an Iranian proxy, to the detriment of prioritising a negotiated settlement. Further, after three rounds of peace talks and multiple failed ceasefires, the UN has lost credibility with all sides, especially the Huthi/Saleh bloc, which sees UN mediation efforts as biased toward Saudi Arabia.

The EU’s Peace-making Potential

Enter the European Union (EU). The EU – through its delegation to Yemen and in coordination with Brussels – is well qualified to help rebuild the credibility of UN-sponsored talks and prod the sides toward a ceasefire and settlement. Throughout the conflict, it has been a consistent advocate of a ceasefire and political solution under UN auspices, a position that has not been compromised by active participation or partisan support in the war. The EU’s neutrality, despite the UK’s and France’s bilateral positions in support of the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign, has allowed it to maintain credibility and contacts with the principal belligerents, including the Huthis. The EU delegation to Yemen has done much to encourage the Huthis to engage with the UN peace process. The delegation and Ms Mogherini, among other EU actors, have consistently called attention to parties’ dangerous unilateral moves, condemned war crimes and supplied technical support to UN ceasefire monitoring committees.

In 2017, the EU with its member states should build on these efforts by focusing on two priorities: 1) securing a durable ceasefire and political settlement to end the war; 2) mitigating the burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

Ending the war will require a two-pronged approach: first, securing a UN-backed ceasefire and agreement that will end Saudi Arabia’s military intervention by addressing its security concerns and allowing it to make a face-saving exit; and second, launching inclusive UN-sponsored intra-Yemeni negotiations to chart the country’s political future. To achieve a ceasefire, the EU, leveraging its credibility with the Huthis and Saleh’s party, and in coordination with the UK and France, both of which may have Saudi Arabia’s ear because they support it militarily, should encourage backchannel talks between the antagonists to lay the foundations for a UN-backed deal.

In addition, the UK, as penholder, and France should push for a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, both inside Yemen and along the Yemeni-Saudi border, and outlining parameters of a compromise solution consistent with the UN roadmap and requiring concessions from both sides. They should also limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia expressly and only for defence (including defence of Saudi territory from cross-border attacks by Huthi-Saleh forces) and condition sales of arms for offensive purposes on Riyadh’s express support for an immediate ceasefire.

To promote a durable settlement, the EU and its member states should champion broadly inclusive intra-Yemeni negotiations that address unresolved issues, especially decentralisation and the status of the south. They could work toward these talks through track II initiatives and sustained diplomatic engagement with actors beyond the Hadi government and the Huthi/Saleh bloc, including the Sunni Islamist party Islah, southern separatists, tribal groupings, Salafi groups and civil society organisations including women’s groups.

Increasing Humanitarian Relief and Upholding International Law

The EU and its member states should continue efforts to mitigate the war’s humanitarian toll and prevent further deterioration. Specifically, they should urgently discourage, both privately and publicly, the Saudi-led coalition’s attempts to capture Hodeida, a move that would likely worsen the humanitarian crisis and set back prospects for a negotiated settlement. More generally, they should call on the Saudi-led coalition to relax the air and sea blockade on Huthi/Saleh-controlled areas (including by allowing civilian flights in and out of Sanaa, the capital), and call on the Huthis to ease the blockade of Taiz. In each case, they should encourage the blockading side to facilitate the free movement of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and civilians. They should also encourage the Yemeni antagonists to reach a compromise that allows basic Central Bank functioning throughout the country, including especially the payment of public-sector salaries and enabling importers to secure letters of credit for essential foodstuffs.

The EU and its member states should speak with one voice in consistently and explicitly condemning violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides.

Finally, the EU and its member states should speak with one voice in consistently and explicitly condemning violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides. They should bring to bear concerted diplomatic pressure and, where relevant, threaten to suspend all weapons sales. The EU could go further by advocating for an independent inquiry into alleged violations on the grounds that not holding perpetrators accountable breeds impunity, a recipe for further conflict. Yet given internal rifts within the UN Human Rights Council on this issue, including among EU member states, the EU will have more impact at this stage by focusing on promoting a ceasefire. Ultimately, however, a lasting settlement will need to include a mechanism for addressing transitional justice and accountability.

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