International efforts to end the war in Yemen are stuck in an outdated two-party paradigm, seeking to mediate between the Huthis and their foes. As it pushes for renewed talks, the UN should broaden the scope to include Yemeni women’s and other civil society groups.
What’s new? The Yemen war is entering its seventh year. With U.S. support, the UN is pushing for a ceasefire and return to political talks. It envisions convening two primary antagonists: the government and the Huthi rebels. Important constituencies, including women and civil society, are currently excluded.
Why does it matter? Women and civil society organisations play a key role in local mediation and peacebuilding. Their support will be critical to supporting any ceasefire and subsequent stabilisation efforts. Leaving them out of talks dramatically reduces prospects for longer-term peace, even if the warring parties do agree on a ceasefire.
What should be done? Whether or not the warring parties agree to a ceasefire, UN peacemaking needs to involve other actors, including women’s groups steeped in local peacebuilding. The UN can achieve inclusion by imposing quotas on the warring parties’ delegations, combined with a parallel process that links civil society actors to political talks.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s election has given UN-led efforts to end the Yemen war a shot in the arm. Biden has cast Yemen as a pillar of his administration’s Middle East policy, throwing Washington’s weight behind stalled UN efforts to broker a ceasefire and reboot national-level political talks. The war stands at a critical juncture: Huthi rebels are at the gates of Marib, the last northern stronghold of forces allied with the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Preventing a battle for Marib city urgently requires a nationwide ceasefire. Whether reinvigorated U.S. diplomacy can convince the parties to stop fighting remains to be seen. But whatever happens in Marib, Washington and the UN need to rethink the international approach to ending the war, in particular the knotty question of who should participate in a nationwide ceasefire and national-level political talks. To improve prospects for both a truce and an eventual settlement, the UN should create space not just for a broader array of armed and political factions, but also for women and civil society groups who have made their mark in local peacebuilding.
UN-led efforts are built around a framework that was adopted in part on the assumption that it would lead to a quick return to an inclusive political process but has instead become an all-encompassing constraint on inclusion. As the war has dragged on, it has become increasingly clear that prevalent interpretations of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, adopted in 2015, have unhelpfully limited the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, to two-party negotiations to end the fighting and lay the foundations for a new political order, with Saudi Arabia afforded an unspoken but powerful veto over proceedings. But to continue to restrict negotiations to the Yemeni government and the Huthis (aka Ansar Allah) is to misunderstand the premise of early UN diplomatic intervention in Yemen, which was to return the country to inclusive political talks. It has also proven an impediment to peace.
The Huthis and Hadi government do not hold a duopoly over hard power, territorial control or political legitimacy among Yemenis, as dominant readings of Resolution 2216 suggest. The Hadi government remains unpopular even after a reshuffle brought the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council (STC) under its umbrella in December 2020, while the Huthis’ status in talks is a direct by-product of their having seized territory by force. Neither the Huthis nor the Hadi government can credibly claim to represent the full range of groups and interests that have sustained both the fighting and Yemeni lives over the course of the conflict, now in its seventh year.
Yemenis not aligned with the two sides have long asked whose interests and what purpose a nationwide ceasefire and political settlement between them would serve. They wonder why they should buy into a process that seems unlikely to reflect their perspectives in the substance of its eventual conclusion. Many armed groups that oppose the Huthis threaten to fight on if external powers force a settlement upon them that they believe will only empower the rebels. Diplomats working on the Yemen file, exasperated by the two main parties’ intransigence and worried about a two-party settlement’s sustainability, have started to ask similar questions about the UN framework.
Yet while adding other political and armed actors is critical, it may not suffice. Armed groups’ acquiescence will doubtless be needed to stop the fighting, but building peace is something else entirely. Power, influence and local legitimacy in Yemen are diffuse; a broad range of actors will be needed to end the war for good. Inclusion should not be limited to those who have waged and fanned the flames of conflict. Local organisations have become influential advocates for peace and stability over the course of the war. Women’s groups in particular have made important contributions to providing social stability as the country’s social fabric has come apart. Women’s insights into local dynamics and their practical experience in brokering local truces, reopening roads and freeing prisoners have been invaluable to the UN in its work to date. The UN will continue to need to draw on Yemeni women’s knowledge as it attempts to hammer out a ceasefire and initiate national-level political talks.
The UN is receptive to arguments for expanded inclusion but faces a predicament. Griffiths is working to steer the Huthis (who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of north-western Yemen) and the now Aden-based Hadi government toward a ceasefire, confidence-building measures and political talks. His team, meanwhile, has begun planning a process for implementing that ceasefire and is asking what role other political and armed factions as well as civil society organisations might play in sustaining it. The answer matters because local and national groups will attach conditions to their support for a ceasefire, likely including a say in the UN-led process. But the two main parties and Saudi Arabia have thus far resisted any suggestion of expanding the talks to include a wider array of armed and political factions, let alone women and civil society groups. The few women who have attended UN-led talks since the war began were token representatives who were given no real say in negotiations.
For talks to be credible and stand a greater chance of success, they need to include a wider range of participants. If more Yemeni parties with consequential constituencies, including political parties and civil society groups, are directly involved in talks, it will encourage both the Huthis and the government to start making deals with local friends and foes to improve their overall negotiating power. Under pressure from Saudi Arabia, the government has begun heading in this direction by bringing the STC into the cabinet in December. But it needs to go farther. Importantly, including influential local peacebuilders, women in particular, will help generate much-needed local buy-in for the national-level process.
Until now, the U.S. has not seen fit to press Riyadh or the Hadi government on this issue. But it may change tack. Washington’s stepped-up diplomacy under Biden could lead to a shift in the international approach to ending the war, particularly if the UN ceasefire initiative cannot be revived, and even if it can. Regardless of what happens in Marib in the coming days and weeks – a ceasefire, an extended stalemate or a Huthi defeat of government-aligned forces – the war, or more accurately the series of conflicts of which it consists, will continue for the foreseeable future. Even if mediators can broker a nationwide ceasefire to avert a battle for Marib, the need will remain for a more inclusive approach to ending the war and building peace. The UN already has plans to reopen the conversation around such an approach, likely at an international workshop convened with the U.S. If and when this conversation happens, participants should expand the process significantly, adding more than just a few well-known political and armed factions.
For this reason, the UN envoy should ask the UN Security Council to explicitly support a call to introduce a quota for women’s participation and for more groups to be included in direct talks through a broader interpretation of Resolution 2216, regardless of the outcome in Marib. One way of doing so, whether or not a ceasefire takes hold, would be to institute a parallel process that provides a direct link between women and civil society actors and UN-led political deliberations. At a minimum, the UN should articulate how and when it will make the process more inclusive. The UN should also explain what mechanisms it would put in place to protect the rights of women and other politically marginalised groups both now and in a post-conflict Yemen. From their side, women and civil society groups, as well as political parties and sub-national groups such as tribes and local authorities, that feel they have been left out of UN-led peacebuilding efforts should seize the moment to press for their meaningful inclusion. Without that, prospects for the eventual success of any deal would be much reduced.
Sanaa/Aden/Amman/Cairo/Brussels, 18 March 2021