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Yemen’s Southern Question: Avoiding a Breakdown
Yemen’s Southern Question: Avoiding a Breakdown
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
It’s Time for the European Union to Push Yemen Towards Peace
It’s Time for the European Union to Push Yemen Towards Peace
Report 145 / Middle East & North Africa

Yemen’s Southern Question: Avoiding a Breakdown

Yemen must agree on its state structure, including the South’s status, to forge a stable future. A final agreement cannot be forced by the National Dialogue Conference; for some key issues, only continued, more inclusive talks in the context of confidence-building measures can succeed.

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Executive Summary

Yemen is at a critical juncture. Its six-month National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was to have closed on 18 September, ushering in constitution drafting, a constitutional referendum and new elections. The timetable has slipped, and, though no end date has been set, there is an understandable urge among many international and some domestic actors to stick closely to agreed deadlines, wrap up the NDC negotiations and finish the transition to-do list. But despite progress, there is no broad-based, implementable agreement on the state’s future structure, and thus on the South’s status. Worse, such a result is unlikely to emerge from the current dialogue, even with a short extension. A rush to declare victory and complete the transition checklist could mean forcing through an outcome without necessary legitimacy or buy-in. It would be better to agree to a time-limited delay of the referendum, put in place modified transitional arrangements and ensure the next round of negotiations is in concert with confidence-building measures and includes a wider, more representative array of Southern voices.

How to structure the state arguably has become the most complicated and divisive political issue and must be a key component of any new constitution and durable political settlement. Parties have presented a wide array of options: from the current unitary system, through multi-region federalism, to two-state federalism (one entity in the North, the other in the South). Even this broad spectrum fails to include what, in the South, has turned into an increasingly attractive rallying cry: the demand for immediate independence.

Indeed, the question of the state’s structure inevitably is tied to the so-called Southern issue, shorthand for the political, economic and social demands emanating from the South, which had been an independent state prior to 1990. There, a loosely aligned mix of organisations and activists, known as the Southern Movement (Hiraak), is calling for separation or, at a minimum, temporary two-state federalism followed by a referendum on the South’s future. Separatist sentiment is running high and appears to have strengthened over the course of the transition.

To an extent, the NDC has made advances. It helped launch a healthy and overdue public debate over the roots of the Southern problem and began the consideration of potential outcomes. But the conference faced severe limitations. Debate in Sanaa is far removed from the increasingly separatist Southern street. Within the NDC, discussion of solutions, bereft of detail, was squeezed into the last two months of negotiations. Although consensus appears to be forming around a federal structure, critical elements remain unresolved: how to define administrative boundaries; redistribute political authority; and share resources. Even a general agreement will be hard to achieve. It will require bridging the yawning gap between Hiraak delegates, who demand a three-year transition under two-part federalism in order to rebuild the Southern state in advance of an ill-defined referendum on the South’s future status, and staunch pro-unity advocates, who passionately reject this option.

Garnering popular support for any eventual agreement will be more challenging still. The Hiraak delegation suspended its participation for nearly three weeks, complaining that negotiations were biased against it; even that delegation hardly is representative of broader and more militant Hiraak sentiment. Only a small slice of the Hiraak – many enjoying close ties to President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi – agreed to join the NDC. The bulk of the movement chose to stay on the sidelines of talks they deemed illegitimate.

The South’s lack of faith in the NDC process perhaps was inevitable, but it has been exacerbated by the absence of genuine measures to improve security and economic conditions in the region. Government promises notwithstanding, little has changed, further undercutting those Southerners willing to negotiate and providing fodder to those for whom the only way out is separation.

As the time for reaching an agreement nears, all parties appear to be digging in their heels. The Hiraak NDC delegation demands significant concessions, arguing that anything short of two-state federalism and/or a promise to organise a referendum on the South’s future status is unacceptable; leaders from the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and from the predominant Islamist party, Islah, flatly refuse either prospect, clinging to the notion of a federal model with multiple administrative units. Each has made bets on the effect of competing political pressures: the former believe that their more militant rank and file will force the North to move toward them; the latter wager that Hadi’s interest in overseeing a successful transition will lead him to impose a compromise on his Hiraak allies. Both cannot be right, and middle ground remains elusive.

Then there are those on the outside. Most Hiraak members bank on the negotiations’ failure, due to inability to reach a substantive compromise or, if it comes to it, lack of implementation on the ground. They vow to escalate protests and a civil dis­obedience campaign, regardless of NDC decisions, until they achieve independence. A constitutional referendum would provide a focal point for their opposition, triggering a boycott and likely violence. The result would be to further undermine the transition’s legitimacy.

If Yemen hopes to forge a more stable future, it desperately needs to agree on the basic question of its state structure. That much is clear. But it does not mean forcing through a final settlement in circumstances where basic trust, legitimacy and consensus are lacking. That would be more than a fragile state, fragmented country and fractured political class could handle. It likely would further discredit the process, strengthen more militant Southern views and provoke dangerous brinkmanship and bloodshed. The goal instead should be a broad-based agreement that only continued, more inclusive negotiations in the context of improved security and economic conditions potentially can achieve.

Sanaa/Brussels, 25 September 2013

It’s Time for the European Union to Push Yemen Towards Peace

Originally published in IRIN

After more than three years of fighting, Yemen is teetering on the cusp of an even fiercer war. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition is poised for an offensive on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah that could plunge Yemen into greater turmoil, deepen its humanitarian crisis, and provoke a surge in cross-border missile attacks by the Houthi rebels.

The European Union and its member states have a chance to stop the conflict from sliding into a lethal new stage; now is the time to take action. All sides have declared a readiness to engage in talks (with various conditions), but they need to be nudged towards the table before a full-fledged battle for Hodeidah breaks out.

As the outlines of a new UN peace plan have begun to surface, the EU should use the fact that it has maintained decent relationships with the warring parties to resume the UN-led peace process, moribund since 2016. This must be done before an assault on the port that could scuttle potential talks, especially if the rebels make good on their threats to attack coalition warships and oil tankers, or if one of their missile strikes on Saudi Arabia results in high civilian casualties.

Since Houthi rebels killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (their erstwhile wartime ally) in December last year, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their Yemeni partners have been acting as if the tide has turned in their favour. They have tried to entice Saleh supporters into their camp, encouraged intra-Houthi rifts, and targeted Houthi leadership. In April, they killed Saleh al-Sammad, the de facto Houthi president who was known as a moderate.

Not only would fighting over Hodeidah put off any prospect of peace, but it would also compound an already acute humanitarian crisis.

On the ground, coalition-backed local forces have achieved some tactical victories since Saleh’s death, especially along the Red Sea coast. But they have failed to decisively shift the military balance to their advantage.

Not only would fighting over Hodeidah put off any prospect of peace, but it would also compound an already acute humanitarian crisis. The port, which has been under an on-off Saudi blockade, is a choke point for goods entering the Houthi-controlled north and a lifeline for the 60 percent of Yemen’s 27 million plus population who live there.

The UN has already called Yemen’s humanitarian crisis the worst in the world. The prolonged fighting that would likely ensue from an assault on Hodeidah would only exacerbate the suffering.

Despite the prospect of intensified warfare, the Houthis have stated publicly and privately their readiness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia over security concerns and re-engage with the UN process, led by the recently appointed special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths. It remains unclear if the Houthis’ newly expressed appetite for talks stems from heightened military pressure or from an increased confidence from the death of Saleh, whom they suspected of dealing with Riyadh behind their backs. Either way, this opportunity for a return to the negotiating table ought not to be squandered.

The EU and its member states are uniquely placed to steer things in that direction. The bloc has maintained working relations with the warring sides, including the Houthis, and is therefore seen as relatively neutral, unlike the United States, whose support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been critical to the coalition’s war effort.

The EU should reiterate its firm public position against a coalition assault on Hodeidah, building on its access to all sides and using its influence in Washington, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh.

The EU has also provided consistent support for UN efforts to broker a ceasefire and mediate peace talks. As a non-belligerent, the EU should now reiterate its firm public position against a coalition assault on Hodeidah, building on its access to all sides and using its influence in Washington, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh.

In return for a halt to such an assault, the EU should press the Houthis to stop missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and ships in the Red Sea, and to accept an on-shore UN inspection mechanism that would intercept weapons deliveries through Hodeidah. An agreement along these lines could be a stepping stone toward resuming political talks on a broader range of issues, including the handing over of heavy weaponry by all fighting groups.

Moreover, European states, in particular UN Security Council members such as the United Kingdom (the penholder on the Yemen crisis), should press for a new resolution that would support a more inclusive political process. The current framework for negotiations is based on the fundamentally flawed Security Council Resolution 2216. The April 2015 resolution limits talks to the now defunct Houthi/Saleh bloc and the internationally recognised government of deposed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which fails to recognise the full range of Yemeni forces on the ground. And it places unrealistic preconditions on the Houthis, including the injunction that they withdraw from territories they control and hand over their weapons before the talking can begin.

The fourth year in Yemen’s war is on course to be just as devastating as the previous three, if not a lot worse. But a concerted European effort at bringing the belligerents back to the table might just deter them from further foolhardy military pursuits and revive what is now a political process on life support.