Yemen’s conflict has been described as a forgotten war. Peace, up until recently, has been even more forgotten. The new US administration has begun a new a military and diplomatic track to end the fighting. Biden has made Yemen one of his foreign policy priorities, selected veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking as a new US Special Envoy to Yemen, and decided to end American support for offensive operations in Yemen – most importantly arms sales to Saudi Arabia – while also reiterating support for the territorial integrity of the Saudi Kingdom. The first step of the new administration concerning Yemen was to revoke the foreign terrorist designation of the Houthis, a measure that the former Trump administration put in place in January 2021. While a new administration can revoke previous decisions from one day to another, realities on the ground take their own course. Soon after the US policy changes the Houthis launched renewed attacks on the government-controlled northern city of Marib and intensified cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The last tangible development in the Yemeni peace process took place three years ago when the Stockholm Agreement was concluded between the Houthis and the Government of Yemen, mediated by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. The Stockholm Agreement was first and foremost aimed at avoiding the Saudi-led coalition’s assault on the port city of Hodeidah. The planned attack, dubbed Operation Golden Victory, rang the alarm bells of international organizations who warned that such an attack could result in a humanitarian catastrophe, as more that 90% of commercial supplies and humanitarian aid enters to Yemen through the port of Hodeidah.
The Stockholm Agreement consists of three separate agreements: first, an agreement on the city of Hodeidah and the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa; second, a prisoner exchange agreement; and third, the understanding on the city of Taiz. Since 2018, unfortunately, little progress has been made toward implementing these agreements. The Hodeidah ceasefire, at the time of its conclusion, was hailed as a critical step toward the comprehensive settlement of the conflict. To ensure that the ceasefire was honored, the UN Security Council Resolution 2452 mandated a 75-member civilian observer mission – the United Nations Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) – to be deployed to Hodeidah for an initial six months.
Since 2018 the mandate of UNMHA has been renewed twice (currently it lasts until July 2021) but due to the pandemic the monitoring team essentially left the city (only a 12 member team remained in the country). Most importantly, Hodeidah remains a deadly and dangerous place: the Houthis consolidated their gains on the west coast, and violence has significantly escalated on other fronts. A comprehensive settlement as well as a nationwide ceasefire seem like distant goals now. What happened to the ceasefire in Hodeidah and what did UNMHA members experience in Yemen?
In a recent article I published in the Special Issue on Ceasefires in the journal International Peacekeeping, I looked into these questions, emphasizing four factors that made the fulfilment of UNMHA’s mandate challenging:
- The quality of the Stockholm Agreement
- The relationship between UNMHA and the UN Special Envoy
- The conflict environment
- The conflict parties’ commitment
To analyse these four factors, I reviewed all 44 UN documents related to Yemen between December 2018 and September 2020 and conducted interviews with members of UNHMA as well as with local Yemenis.
Here is what I found out:
- Agreement quality: The Stockholm Agreement resulted from external pressure and the process was so rushed that the parties did not sign it. While external actors, such as the US, were instrumental in pushing the parties to sign the deal, they did not provide much in the implementation phase. The Stockholm agreement set an ambitious, if not impossible, timeline for the redeployment. The bigger problem was however that it required the ports to be handed over to “local Yemeni forces in accordance with the Yemeni law”. Now, while the vague nature of this provision might have been a deliberate choice at the time of the conclusion of the agreement, in order to bring about momentum in the peace process, it remained a sticking point. Why? Because the concept of “local security forces” touches upon the critical issues of legitimacy and sovereignty. The government and the Houthis interpreted this clause profoundly differently. For the government, local security forces meant the pre-war security structure, while the Houthis understood local security forces as their own personnel. In reality, the pre-war security system is Hodeidah is hardly existent anymore, given the Houthis’ deep penetration into the security system as well as the establishment of their own supervisory system. Hodeidah is a prime example of rebel governance in the making. The text of the Stockholm Agreement required the UNMHA to monitor the implementation of agreement which was subject to competing interpretations by the conflict parties.
- The relationship between the mediator and the monitoring mission: The close links between the Special Envoy and UNHMA proved to be problematic because both have been accused of being biased towards the Houthis, hurting the credibility of both missions. After both the Special Envoy and UNMHA accepted the handover of Hodeidah port, President Hadi threatened to suspend cooperation with the Special Envoy, because the government argued that the port had been handed over the Houthis own security guards. UNHMA faced similar criticism with regard to being biased. The government called for the removal of UNMHA’s leader. UNMHA thus was not trusted by the conflict parties and there was a “crisis of confidence” with the monitoring mission which made its day-to-day work extremely challenging.
- The conflict environment: UNMHA however has never been in an easy position to monitor the ceasefire. The mission was stationed in exclusively Houthi controlled territory which meant that security for the mission was provided by the Houthis. During the first year of the mission, military and political developments elsewhere in the country, especially the conflict in the anti-Houthi coalition between the Government of Yemen and the UAE-founded (and -funded) Southern Transitional Council (STC) escalated violence in the previously peaceful southern part of Yemen. Limited resources, both financial and diplomatic, had to be devoted to solving those new, but rapidly escalating problems. These developments provided the Houthis with an opportunity, not just to consolidate their positions in Hodeidah, but to open up new fronts in the Northern part of the country.
- The conflict parties’ commitment: Lastly, political commitment to implement the Hodeidah ceasefire was notably weak, if not entirely absent. The Houthis have negotiated from a position of strength. One of my interviewees bluntly stated that the Houthis “have nothing to gain from cooperating with the UN”. The Houthis also fired at the mission and tried to repress their work in every way. There were no public reports issued about ceasefire violations, but one interviewee estimated that some 180 violations occurred on a daily basis. One might call this the monitoring of a war, rather than of a ceasefire.
All in all, UNMHA has been in a difficult position since its deployment. Both factors related to the Stockholm Agreement and to the conflict made it virtually impossible to fulfil the mandate. The Yemeni context is unfortunately not a uniquely violent environment for monitors. Ceasefires in South Sudan, Syria, or Ukraine have all been followed by the deployment of international monitors. The window of opportunity to build trust and fulfil mandates in these violent contexts has proven to be extremely brief.
Importantly, it is UN Security Council Resolution 2216 from 2015 that aims for the restoration of the internationally recognized government of Yemen and requires the Houthis to withdraw from the occupied territories and to relinquish all seized arms. This resolution is far removed from today’s political realities. For example, the STC did not even exist at the time that this resolution was adopted, yet now it is part of the government of Yemen. One crucial task of the Biden administration will be to negotiate a new Security Council Resolution. The key dilemma however is this: What will be the political future of Yemen? Can there be a power-sharing government between the Houthis, Hadi, and the STC? And most importantly, how can the Yemeni nation heal from years of trauma without adequate transitional justice measures? Currently, none of the three parties seem interested in finding answers to these questions.