INTERVIEW EXCLUSIVE: Concerns and hopes of Yemenis at heart of UN plans for better future
The conflict between the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah has entered its sixth year and has had a devastating impact on the lives of Yemeni citizens. Fighting in the country worsened in 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily at the invitation of the internationally-recognized Government in an effort to drive the Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah, out of the capital, Sana’a, and other areas, which they had seized in September 2014
The years of fighting have led to millions facing hunger and malnutrition, created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. There have been hundreds of reported civilian deaths, and human rights abuses.
Mr. Griffiths leads the UN’s efforts on behalf of Secretary-General António Guterres, to broker a negotiated settlement to comprehensively end the war. And, although the warring sides are engaged in the mediation process, his attempts to bring about a sorely-needed ceasefire and much needed humanitarian and economic measures have become even more urgent, as the global health and economic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to worsen conditions for civilians caught up in the conflict.
Mr. Griffiths began the interview conducted over email, with an update on the progress of peace negotiations.
“The process started in March, when the UN Secretary General called on those fighting in Yemen to cease hostilities and focus on combating the threat of COVID-19 and to use this opportunity to reach a political solution. The Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah – as well as other Yemeni parties and civil society – welcomed the Secretary-General’s calls.
At the end of March, my Office shared with the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah proposed draft agreements on a nationwide ceasefire; humanitarian and economic measures; and the urgent resumption of the political process aimed at comprehensively ending the conflict.
I will not give up on the pursuit of an end to the fighting, measures to alleviate the suffering of the people, and the resumption of peaceful dialogue
By early April, we had received initial feedback from both Parties. After considering the positions of both Parties, we shared with them a revised draft in mid-April to bridge their views. Several rounds of bilateral negotiations with both Parties have followed in the months since April. The process is ongoing to this day, and the text continues to be subject to substantive changes as long as it remains under negotiation.
The process has been long and challenging, especially as it is being conducted mainly in the virtual world. It is very difficult to negotiate such a sensitive agreement against the backdrop of the eroding trust between the Parties, especially with the continued military hostilities on all fronts.
It is my responsibility as a mediator to bridge the divide between the Parties’ positions, no matter how wide, until a mutually accepted compromise is reached that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people. I will not give up on the pursuit of an end to the fighting, measures to alleviate the suffering of the people, and the resumption of peaceful dialogue aimed at ending the conflict. As long as the Parties remain engaged in the process, there is a chance for peace in Yemen.
How would the Joint Declaration help bring peace and prosperity to Yemen?
The Joint Declaration is not in and of itself an end to the conflict. However, it would be an important step toward achieving an immediate nationwide ceasefire in Yemen, easing the suffering of Yemenis, and paving the way to peace talks aimed at comprehensively ending the conflict.
The ceasefire element of the Joint Declaration is long overdue
The ceasefire element of the Joint Declaration is long overdue. Since January, we have seen a renewed wave of military escalation in different parts of the country. Just two days ago, seven children and two women were killed following an airstrike in Hajjah. Yemenis are forced to deal with the dire consequences of this raging war while also struggling with a crumbling economy, and a devastating outbreak of Coronavirus.
The humanitarian and economic measures included in the Joint Declaration are also long overdue. The Declaration provides commitments and outlines steps for, among other measures: the creation of a joint operations unit between the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah with the support of the World Health Organization to ensure the delivery of an effective and coordinated response to the COVID-19 outbreak across Yemen; the payment of the salaries of the civil servants who are on the 2014 payroll database and have not been receiving their salaries ; the release of all conflict-related prisoners and detainees, a move that has become even more urgent with the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases in Yemen; opening main essential access roads in and between governorates; opening Sana’a airport and easing the restrictions on the entry of commercial container ships, as well as of ships carrying gas and oil, through Hudaydah ports, while ensuring compliance with the arms embargo imposed by the Security Council; and securing the safety of the SAFER tanker, which has been stuck in Ras Issa for the past five years, threatening to cause a massive oil spill- an environmental catastrophe for Yemen and its neighbours.
The Declaration commits the Parties to urgently resume peace talks based on the three references, which is the only way to break with the violence of the past
My Office continues to work intensively on some of these measures independently of the ongoing negotiations, including the SAFER issue, because they truly are urgently needed. If the Parties agree to address these humanitarian needs, it will not only ease the suffering of Yemenis everywhere, but will also mark a significant milestone towards restoring trust between the Parties.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Declaration commits the Parties to urgently resume peace talks based on the three references, which is the only way to break with the violence of the past and end this conflict comprehensively and sustainably.
Without a political horizon, and progress on the political track, the ceasefire and any measures agreed in the Joint Declaration will inevitably end up falling apart. We have seen it before in Yemen, and we must not allow it to happen again.
There are always points of convergence that a mediation process can build on. Yemen is no different. We will continue to work with the Parties to find a consensual path forward to achieve these mutual goals and pave the way for bringing this conflict to a sustainable end.
The United Nations considers inclusivity to be a core principle of peacebuilding. How are you engaging the various stakeholders and different groups of the Yemeni society, including women and Youth?
The virtual modus operandi that COVID19 has obliged us to follow, allowed us to explore new tools of inclusion that have been eye-opening in many respects. Since the beginning of the lock-down in mid-March, we launched a digital inclusion plan aimed at regularly briefing diverse Yemeni groups about the progress of the negotiation with as much transparency as possible, without jeopardizing the confidentiality required to ensure the success of this mediation process.
These groups and individuals included women, Yemeni and international organizations, media professionals, and young individual civil society actors. We consulted these people on the terms of the Joint Declaration, and discussed with them ways to make its implementation as inclusive as possible One of these meetings, for example, was a brainstorm with Yemeni women about gender considerations in ceasefire implementation.
We also organized a two-day, large-scale virtual interactive consultation with over 650 Yemenis, mostly from civil society. Over a third of the participants were women and nearly a half were youth. This was the first time something like this has been done during an active mediation process.
I am personally very grateful for the continued engagement of so many Yemenis, and I am humbled by their inspiring, courageous and tireless advocacy for a peaceful future
Most of the people we have spoken to, the overwhelming majority, believe it is necessary and urgent to immediately begin a nationwide ceasefire. They believe the resumption of the peace process is essential and long overdue. They mostly agree on the importance and urgency of all the humanitarian measures included in the Joint Declaration.
We also heard their concerns about the need for guarantees to ensure a democratic future, based on principles of human rights, accountable governance and equal citizenship. And we heard very clearly their frustration with the lack of progress toward ending the conflict while Yemenis continue to suffer.
We share this frustration. These fears and concerns are at the heart of our planning for the future. I am personally very grateful for the continued engagement of so many Yemenis, and I am humbled by their inspiring, courageous and tireless advocacy for a peaceful future for their country.
We are pursuing further expansion of our digital outreach activities, as well as offline outreach options to reach local communities who do not enjoy the same access to the Internet. We are further planning to expand our Yemeni networks of peace advocates to push the peace agenda forward now, during the political process and during the transition.
One of the components of this declaration is ceasefire. We have seen military escalation lately, including the recent hostilities in Ma’rib and Al Jawf governorates. This is also true for the southern part of the country. I am sure you are you communicating with the involved Parties on this front. What does the continued fighting mean for the ongoing negotiations?
The continued military escalation makes everything more difficult. It comes at a very heavy price for civilians on all sides. It intensifies the challenge of responding effectively to the outbreak of COVID-19. and exacerbates the humanitarian suffering of a population that has already been through too much in the past five years.
I am disheartened that even while our negotiations are progressing, we continue to see the fervent quest for additional territorial gain on full display. And it is unfortunate that the fighting has not stopped or slowed down, even with the outbreak of the pandemic.
It is not too late to reverse course and get back on a track of peaceful politics and negotiations instead of the quest to resolve the conflict through military force
But let me be clear about two things. First, the continued assault on Ma’rib is unacceptable. I am afraid this assault could seriously undermine the prospects of peace in Yemen.
Second, it is not too late to reverse course and get back on a track of peaceful politics and negotiations instead of the quest to resolve the conflict through military force.
The Parties constantly say they are committed to stop fighting as soon as a ceasefire agreement is reached. I expect from the Parties to act in good faith in line with their initial commitment to negotiate the ceasefire agreement and to restrain themselves from pursuing active military operations during the negotiations.
Thousands of Yemeni civil servants have not received their salaries for years. This has caused prolonged suffering in Yemen, that is becoming even more acute now with the added economic pressure caused by the Coronavirus outbreak. Reports also suggest there is an escalating fuel shortage crisis in the north. The Stockholm Agreement stipulated that ships carrying fuel and oil derivatives will be allowed through Yemen’s largest ports in Al Hudaydah, and that the revenues from the port would be used for the payment of civil servants’ salaries. How do you evaluate the progress on the implementation of this provision?
Last year, my Office mediated between the Parties a set of temporary arrangements to support them in fulfilling the commitment they made in Stockholm to channel revenues collected from the Hudaydah port to the Central Bank of Yemen through its branch in Hudaydah (CBY-Hudaydah), as a contribution to the payment of civil servant salaries in Hudaydah and across Yemen.
Under the terms of these temporary arrangements, the Parties agreed that customs, taxes and other revenues from ships carrying fuel and oil derivatives into the Hudaydah port would be deposited in a Special Account in CBY-Hudaydah, and eventually disbursed in accordance with an agreed mechanism for civil servant salaries.
Unfortunately, these arrangements are currently suspended following the unilateral withdrawal of funds accumulated in that account by Ansar Allah earlier this year. I have since asked Ansar Allah for a series of corrective measures, including by providing my Office with documentation on the use of the funds.
The suspension of the temporary arrangements meant that ships carrying fuel and oil derivatives could no longer enter through the Hudaydah port.
Following my recent visit to Riyadh, the Government of Yemen exceptionally provided clearances for four ships for humanitarian reasons and indicated their willingness to engage with my Office on finding a sustainable solution for the problem. I very much welcome this step. But it will only provide temporary relief.
Our vision and hope for the future of Yemen is to reach a point when Yemenis have the tools to take charge of their own future based on the principles of democracy, human rights, accountable governance and equal citizenship
My Office is working urgently with the Parties to try to find a mutually agreed way forward. The revenues of the Hudaydah port should be used for the benefit of Yemenis as a contribution to the payment of civil servant salaries. At this critical time, Yemenis must also continue to have smooth, regular and uninterrupted access to fuel. Scarcity or shortage in the supply of fuel will have dire humanitarian consequences on Yemenis’ everyday life and on the healthcare sector.
What is the United Nations vision for the future of Yemen?
Our vision and hope for the future of Yemen is to reach a point when Yemenis have the tools to take charge of their own future based on the principles of democracy, human rights, accountable governance and equal citizenship. We aspire for a transitional period that would usher in a political future marked with power-sharing in the spirit of consensus and partnership, where peaceful dialogue replaces violence, and when all political and social components of the Yemeni society accept each other and work together for the common good of the country.
It might seem like a distant dream now. The pervasiveness of human rights abuses, intolerance and exclusion have escalated dramatically since the beginning of the conflict.
There has been a great deal of damage to the basic foundations of a healthy political life including by gravely weakening state institutions and public trust in them. This is in addition to the erosion of the freedom and independence of the media and the civil society. There has also been a worrying trend of targeting political opponents and media professionals and an intensification of the discourse of violence, hatred and sectarianism. This is unacceptable.
However, I am very encouraged and inspired by the diligent work of human rights and civil society actors in Yemen. I am also always reminded of the great example Yemen has set in the National Dialogue Conference, the outcome of which remains a reference in the UN-facilitated political process. An inclusive peaceful transition would allow the renewal of dialogue, will once again foster tolerance and acceptance, and will address the grievances of the past with an eye on the future.”