On December 21st the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2451, designed to help bring the war in Yemen to an end. A precarious ceasefire had been in place for three days. An important part of the resolution aims to de-escalate the fighting over Hodeida, Yemen's largest port, handling 70% of its imports, and to secure the two sides’ disengagement and withdrawal from the area under a UN monitoring arrangement. Despite violations by both sides, the ceasefire in Hodeida has largely held and progress is being made in implementing the withdrawal. This in itself is a highly welcome achievement after three and a half years of destructive conflict during which previous efforts to end the fighting had failed.
Reaching this agreement in New York was not been easy. Renewed and urgent efforts have been going on since October to achieve a ceasefire and, most urgently, access for humanitarian aid to the 14 million Yemenis assessed by the United Nations as suffering starvation as a result of the war. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who was appointed in February 2018 to lead the work of peace-making and humanitarian relief, has had to contend with strongly held positions by parties on both sides. He deserves much credit for getting this far.
Two factors appear to have made the new development possible. The first is renewed pressure on the Administration in Washington by the US Congress, urging the government to exert its influence on the situation. This was reflected in the initiative taken by both Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the then Defense Secretary, James Mattis, in October. The second was the intensification of the world-wide outcry against the large-scale distress of the civilian population, caused by what seemed to be an unending (and un-winnable) war.
The resolution adopted on December 21st in New York and tabled by the United Kingdom, goes some way towards repairing the damage done by its predecessor, resolution 2216 of April 2015. The latter, shamefully, made no credible attempt to reconcile the warring parties and added fuel to the fire by insisting, quite unrealistically, that the Houthi rebels, who had just captured Sana'a and much of the north, simply surrender and disarm unilaterally. Taking sides in an internal conflict should never be the role of the body entrusted with preserving international peace and security, or indeed for any mediatory body genuinely trying to secure a peaceful outcome. The Security Council has to craft a credible path to the peaceful resolution of a conflict, even if this involves tough negotiating with all the parties and some disappointed hopes on all sides. The pay-off is the prospect of a genuine and enduring peace settlement.
The same error of partisanship threatened the resolution just adopted, during a long and bitterly-fought process of negotiation over the text. According to credible reports, the United States even threatened to veto the British draft if it were presented without language condemning the role of Iran in supplying the Houthi rebels with arms. In the event, this threat was faced down, and the resolution as adopted quite correctly concentrates on securing steps towards peace, rather than going in for geopolitical point-scoring. The foundation for this approach lies in some language in the preamble to resolution 2451, which is standard enough, but which is nonetheless crucial in its statement, "Reaffirming that the conflict in Yemen can be resolved only through an inclusive political process." No one will claim that the hugely complex internal divisions of Yemen, now further complicated by the intervention of outside powers, can be easily resolved. The ideological splits themselves are well known to be intractable. There are Al Qaida terrorists controlling parts of the south which Emirati forces have been combating effectively. There is now an enclave controlled by jihadists claiming allegiance to so-called ISIS. Both sets of extremists will flourish, however hard they are fought, in the absence of the restoration of national unity and effective government. Also troubling are the divisions in Sunni ranks between the Islah party, affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, and others aligned with Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, over 40% of Yemen's population adheres to the Zaidi form of Shia' Islam and it is their sense of encirclement and danger that some believe to be at the root of the Houthi rebellion.
These are all delicate factors to handle, ultimately by the regional powers themselves, who can provide the solutions. But for now we can take some hope from the process begun by the United Nations, under the Framework for Negotiation agreed by the internal parties at the Stockholm talks in early December.
It is in no one's interest, other than that of jihadists and warlords, to sabotage it.
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