It has been a “terrifying” year for Yemenis but ultimately one of hope, as December talks in Sweden yielded a ceasefire around a key port city with the promise of further substantive consultations between the warring parties next month, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, told UN News in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.
Despite the “remarkable” recent progress, Yemen continues to suffer from a humanitarian crisis described by the UN as the worst in the world, together with fighting between Government and Houthi movement opposition forces across the country, said Martin Griffiths, who said “it’s still going to be a hard slog to make it work according to plan”.
The unique role of the United Nations
The United Nations, said the Special Envoy, is the only organization capable of brokering an agreement such as the Hudaydah ceasefire, and putting a team on the ground to monitor the truce within a week of the talks in Sweden.
Mr. Griffiths admitted to many doubts and fears in the lead up to the talks, but also a sense of achievement at simply getting representatives of the two sides together for talks in the same room, after years of a brutal war, for the first time in over two years.
He was keen to stress the importance of using the meetings to move forward on the management of Hudaydah following the fragile ceasefire agreement; a key port which is the main hub for all humanitarian aid and commercial goods entering the war-torn nation.
On the humanitarian front, he said that detailed planning is already underway, with teams from the office of Lise Grande, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen, and the World Food Programme (WFP) present as part on the UN mediating team in Sweden. WFP is expected to take the lead role in managing the port.
Another breakthrough was the agreement over a prisoner exchange, involving 4,000 in detention (2,000 from each side), who will now return home, described as an incredible moment for their families, and a “remarkable sign of hope for the people of Yemen”. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which was present in Sweden in a support role, has agreed to manage the prisoner airlift from one part of the country to another.
Key role of Yemeni Women’s Group
An important “backstage” element of the talks in Sweden was the active role of the Yemeni Women’s Technical Advisory Group, which held meetings with the two parties as well as members of the diplomatic community. The Group discussed ways of bringing the voices of Yemeni women to the peace-making process and presented strategy papers and proposals to guide the Special Envoy in his mediation role, to bring the war to an end.
Despite the fact that they were not present at the formal negotiations, the members, said Mr. Griffiths, mixed easily and effectively with all representatives of the two sides, providing informal advice and providing the UN delegation with crucial information about what was actually happening behind the scenes. The Group was, he added, a “huge resource which, I hope, will only improve and expand over time”.
Two issues were not agreed in Sweden: the reopening of Sana’a airport, and the collection of revenue by the Central Bank of Yemen. Regarding the former, Mr. Griffiths said that the opening of the airport is still being negotiated, and should be resolved before the next round of talks. It is hoped that technical experts from the Central Bank, with assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will be able to formulate a transparent process for revenue collection, in order to pay the salaries of civil servants throughout Yemen, who have often gone without pay for months on end.
By the end of this year, said Mr. Griffiths, international opinion became clearly fixed on Yemen, raising the prospect of an end to the conflict in 2019. Looking ahead, the Special Envoy expressed hopes that a new round of talks will go beyond humanitarian issues, to begin dealing with the essential elements of a political solution to the war.