UN Envoys to Yemen: A Series of Three Seasons, Will The Fourth Be The Last?


Wed, 19-05-2021 09:11 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24)

Yemen is entering its seventh year of the most destructive, violent and costing civil war that has fought for centuries, in which various parties exchanged the conflict at all military, political and economical levels and diplomacy was no exception to this situation in which it managed the crisis rather than finding solutions to it.

All UN envoys failed in their international missions to solve the Yemeni crisis, some even contributed to complicating it due to poor estimates, perhaps, or raising the ceiling of expectation for solutions by bypassing important details, or to search for personal gains, or their disability to resist local, regional and international encountered pressure.

UN Envoys to Yemen

In a simple review of the history of UN envoys appointed to Yemen as special envoys of the Secretary-General, we are ought to say that the majority of them were assigned to defuse crises rather than being assigned for limited short missions, some extended their appointment for four years. For example, Jamal Benomar was appointed in April 2011 and until the same month of 2015, he had led a mediation between conflicted parties in 2011, he also led the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative and the power-transition deal and the negotiations that followed the Houthi invasion of Sana'a which had eventually resulted in the Peace and National Partnership Agreement in 2014.

Benomar negotiated the agreements for several days with the Houthi group leader without briefing other participated parties on its details except for few moments ahead of signing it. Perhaps this what promoted local and regional parties to accuse him of courting the Houthis and tolerating them. Some even accused him of "engineering the conspiracy behind the fall of Sana'a" from the beginning. This has cost him his career credit and the independence of his decision as an envoy, Especially, that some parties indicated that he is a persona non grata which eventually lead to his resignation which has suggested as a recognition of his failure.

"Over time, some UN envoys have turned into bureaucratic performing staff"

After that, Mauritania diplomat, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed was chosen by the General-secretary to succeed Benomar. He took the position from the 25th of April 2015 until the 16th of February 2018. Ould Cheikh did not withstand heaps of obstacles and constraints that the Houthis were putting on his way. His convoy came under an armed attack in one of his visits to the capital, Sana'a in 2017 while he was intending to introduce a humanitarian truce between the Houthi group and Saleh's [Ali Abdullah Saleh] forces from one side and Hadi's government on the other. At the time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Yemen had directly accused the Houthis of attempting to assassinate the UN envoy, Ould Cheikh to obstruct his efforts. [1] Ould Cheikh concluded his mission by resigning as which expressed the failure of the second United Nations endeavours. This failure extended to the roadmap aimed at rearranging the implementation of international resolution 2216 in April 2015 proposed by the US Secretary of State, at time, and known as "Kerry's Plan".

In Ould Cheikh's last briefing to the UN Security Council spoke about his proposal for a complete and comprehensive political solution in Yemen. [2] Except that splitting parties have rejected it in the last minutes, indicating that the Houthis were not ready to make any compromise which posed a fundamental dilemma to reach a consensus solution. Ould Cheikh's departure coincided with international movements led by the UK to propose solutions to the crisis in Yemen, which was another reason to assign a new British envoy.

Martin Griffiths came as a special envoy to Yemen by the Secretary-general in late February 2018, and all Yemeni parties were optimistic despite the magnitude of the complications and developments that changed the map of military tracks and the balance of power on the ground. Even though all parties were open and responsive with the new envoy, it was the absence of the Houthis from Geneva talks in 2018 and not being firm enough that ended his mission.

The UN had sponsored talks sessions in preparation for a political solution in Yemen and Houthis had attended two previous rounds in Switzerland with Ould Cheikh and in Kuwait which lasted for more than 100 days. This likely caused a shock to Griffiths and was unpleased by the critical steps the Houthis have done but continued to flatter them in fear of losing the mission from its start. Furthermore, Griffiths led a round looking for a partial solution in "Stockholm's" suburbs that mainly focused on neutralizing the city of Hodeidah and its three seaports from the consciousness of the Arab coalition attacks in late 2018. It sounded like a formal success but soon, the humanitarian situation has stumbled, failed and deteriorated more than it ever was. Moreover, it was also succeeded by Houthi expansion into broader areas and controlling lands that they were forced out by military power earlier in Jawf and Nihm districts close to Sana'a and other distracts in Marib governorate.

Cascading failure and disappointments

It seemed clear that each envoy had his calculations in the Yemeni crisis, that the main factors to determine the success and failure of each envoy is his hard work, independent decision making and lack of bias towards any local or regional parties involved in the conflict. Such bias might lose the envoy half of his credit before he even starts, or lose it during his mission by inaction in dealing with one conflict's party, or to play an excessive role in mediating two conflicted parties rather than being a moderate mediator which makes the envoy become part of the conflict. This closely relates to the role that the previous envoy Jamal Benomar played during his mission, and to some extent, Griffiths, which described himself as a mediator in his last Security Council briefing. [3] Here, a legitimate question can be raised: is the UN envoy a facilitator or an insolvent, especially when he takes wider powers to play a mediating role that enable him to perform dangerous tasks which deviate from the legal framework that was drawn to act in and as an envoy should preserve.

"One of the main reasons for the failure of UN envoys are ignoring other parties played a major role in changing the course of the war, the Southern Transitional Council for example"

The reality of the situation indicates that the tasks of the three special envoys "Jamal Benomar, Ismail Ould Cheikh and Martin Griffiths" failed for many reasons, including, for example, their transformation over time into a bureaucratic performing staff in an exceptional situation which requires them to rationalize and invest time in an unprecedented crisis rather than to waste time in opening new offices and hire hundreds of employees in an annual budget estimated around 20$ million USD. [4] [5] This might turn the envoy and his employees into people concerned about staying in their positions at the expense of finding solutions to the crisis, in addition to the fact that the envoy himself might jump on the details of some issues to gain personal profits represented in finding inconclusive agreements even if they do not establish peace but to achieve administrative credit that qualifies him to get higher jobs in or out the UN or to nominate himself to international prizes which deepen the conflict in a massive way.

One of the main reasons as well lies in the neglect of UN envoys to other powerful parties that played major roles in changing the course of the war by liberating and securing large scale area from the danger of military operations, Southerners, for example, that formed a new emerging power with its heavyweight in the military and political equation, represented by the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Although these parties were optimistic by Griffiths' arrival and continuously engaged with him, he disappointed them by postponing them in participating in any direct negotiations under the pretext of Resolution 2216, limiting negotiations between two official parties, "the Legitimate Government and the Houthis", giving parties such as the Transitional Council, the Political Bureau for Tariq Saleh, Hirak Al-Tuhami and other independent women and youth promises to participate in future peace negotiations the succeed the first phase, in a blatant disregard of the new reality these parties established on the ground.

The UN envoy building on the legacy of his predecessor is also of great importance, not to reshape his expectation to the solution from scratch, perhaps doing so for deeper understanding of the crisis in Yemen, except that by doing so he provokes another reason for the failure of his mission, which was experienced by Griffiths when he consumed a lot of time and efforts believing that he will understand the complicity of the crisis which Arab envoys failed to do so. Moreover, the envoy in general if failed to accomplish his mission in his first year of signing his contract, then there is no necessity for him to stay because the goal eventually is to find solutions to the crisis and not living with it by freezing it. For that, the presence of any envoy for more than a year without solid accomplishments requires conflicted parties to pressure for his departure or apology to carry on his mission as he can turn into an obstructer to the conflict rather than a facilitator who finds political solutions.

Will it be the final season of envoys?

Putting an end to the conflict in Yemen will not be achieved without the presence of will for all 5 permanent members of Security Council and the UN efforts through their special envoy as well for the conflicted parties with all the proposed solutions to flip this bloody chapter of Yemen's history book.

Therefore, there is an urge for a a new approach for resolving the crisis in Yemen through the new UN envoy that pushes for further engagement with the remaining conflicted Yemeni parties that managed to impose a new reality that cannot be ignored in recent years and to move the steady wheel that marred Riyadh Agreement which could pave the way for a new conclusive peace process in Yemen. Especially since it secured a position in the government for other powerful actors such as the Southern Transitional Council.

Farida Ahmed
Researcher on political affairs, fellow with the South24 Center

YemenHouthisSTCUNMartin Griffiths