A war’s end by light of the innocent?
A fresh approach by a new U.N. mediator in Yemen’s seven-year war puts the priorities of civilians first, yielding a truce and other peace-promising benefits.
Many a war has ended when an outside mediator realized civilians caught in the conflict are useful tools for peace. The plight of innocent people can bind the warring parties. Shared empathy then yields shared trust during a negotiation. This tactic helps explain a surprise truce in Yemen after seven years of war. If the pause in violence leads to a just peace, the survivors could be seen as victors rather than victims.
The truce that began April 2 reflects shifts both in and around this civil war on the Arabian Peninsula. The two outside protagonists, Iran and Saudi Arabia, appear tired of this particular proxy fight for Middle East dominance. Inside Yemen, a military solution between armed factions is clearly out of sight. Since late 2021, the timing has been ripe for a new United Nations mediator, Hans Grundberg, to bring an approach that involves listening to women’s groups, tribes, and civil society about their priorities.
The result was a truce that includes meaningful economic relief and a broadening of political participation. Saudi Arabia has dumped its key and unpopular ally in Yemen, former President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Last month, it also helped set up a new, broad-based leadership council that might open a door for Iran-backed Houthi rebels to agree on shared governance.
Ships are being allowed into a key port bringing badly needed fuel. Commercial flights into the Sanaa airport have resumed. The warring parties agreed to open roads to allow aid, trade, and people to flow between contested regions. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates promised a $3 billion aid package.
Mr. Grundberg’s multitrack approach relies on continued efforts to give voice to the millions of Yemenis still suffering under one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Direct talks toward a political settlement have yet to begin. The U.N. does not have people on the ground to monitor the cease-fire.
Yet, says the Swedish diplomat, “Across the plurality of voices, a common message has emerged – Yemenis want the war to end, and they want a just and durable peace.”
The truce was also well timed to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The time for fasting and prayer may help melt one of the other tensions in Yemen: rivalry between Islam’s branches. Mr. Grundberg’s work was also aided by nearby Oman, a small country that plays a pivoting mediating role in the Middle East, as well as pressure by the United States on Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Yet credit for the budding peace goes to Yemeni civilians. They “are united in their desire for the truce to be upheld, renewed, and consolidated as a step towards peace,” said Mr. Grundberg. By listening to their first priority – a bolstering of the economy – mediators have widened the door to a political peace.