How a tough UN resolution is making push for Yemen peace talks harder

The UN's new Yemen envoy says all sides desire a political solution. But Resolution 2216, which demands Houthi rebels disarm and withdraw, is being invoked to create an 'impossible precondition' for talks.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Houthi men gather at a rally to mark the third anniversary of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni conflict in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26.

Hoping to improve the chances for peace where his predecessors failed, the United Nations’ new Special Envoy for Yemen has completed his first meetings with key players in a devastating war.

The good news may be that the envoy, Martin Griffiths, is encouraged about the prospects to ease a conflict that has left some 10,000 people dead in three years and ravaged one of the world’s poorest countries.

“What I heard has inspired me and gives me hope that we can find a path to peace,” Ambassador Griffiths said in Yemen’s capital Sanaa March 31. “All the people I met, both in Riyadh and Sanaa, spoke about their strong desire to move ahead with a political solution. There is no doubt of a desire for peace.”

Yet the bad news is that Griffith’s efforts may be hobbled by UN Security Council Resolution 2216 from 2015, which has been used by the internationally recognized Yemen government and its chief supporter, Saudi Arabia, to legitimize military intervention against Shiite Houthi rebels and create a serious obstacle to negotiations.

Analysts say the conflict has now evolved beyond that resolution, which explicitly requires that the Iran-backed Houthis give up their weapons and leave cities.

Any framework for peace, the analysts say, must also be updated to account for the following:

• widespread Houthi gains in a war that lasted years longer than expected

• fragmented parties and multiple power centers on all sides, many of which benefit from a war economy

• desperately urgent humanitarian needs for millions of Yemenis

• and a war that has ground to a stalemate, despite nearly 17,000 coalition airstrikes, which the UN blames for two-thirds of civilian casualties.

“The fact is, this is a very rigid Security Council resolution, for a conflict that’s been very fluid and evolved quite a bit over the last three years,” says Adam Baron, a Yemen expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, contacted in Beirut.

“In a lot of ways, 2216 outlines something that – even if parts of it are still valid – it’s something that really does fail to address the complexities of the Yemen conflict as it exists today,” Mr. Baron says.

US and British support

The 2015 resolution was supported by the United States and Britain, allies of Saudi Arabia who have sold billions of dollars of weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its chief coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, throughout the war. They have also provided intelligence and mid-air refueling services for coalition jet fighters.

Human rights groups accuse all sides of committing war crimes in Yemen, but single out the Saudi-led coalition for “indiscriminate bombing” that has devastated civilian infrastructure and say it is the side most responsible for creating what the UN now calls the “worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world.”

There are no signs yet that either the US or Britain, as permanent members of the Security Council – much less Saudi Arabia – are interested in a new resolution that would inevitably raise the Houthis’ negotiating status vis-a-vis the internationally recognized Yemen government, which resides in exile in Riyadh.

Eskinder Debebe/UN/AP
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (r. rear) and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (l. rear) watch as their representatives sign a voluntary financial contribution memo for the Yemeni humanitarian response plan, March 27, 2018, at UN headquarters. The Crown Prince presented the United Nations with a check for $930 million, delivering on the January pledge it made with the United Arab Emirates to contribute to the Yemen Humanitarian Fund.

Resolution 2216 has been used by that Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia, and its allies to insist that the Houthis surrender and withdraw – as required by the text – as a precondition for peace talks, analysts say. The Houthis have indicated a willingness to talk, and even to hand over heavy weapons to a government that represents all factions, but only as a result of any talks.

“There is a political solution, but I think the new UN Special Envoy – as much as the former UN Special Envoy – is faced with this impossible precondition to the negotiations,” says Marie-Christine Heinze, a Yemen specialist and president of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) in Bonn, Germany.

The 2015 resolution “condemns the Houthis, rightly so, for the coup that they did,” says Dr. Heinze. But she adds that today Houthis have little incentive to simply surrender their arms and territory at the outset, before talks begin.

Without a change, or some creative diplomacy, the UN Special Envoy “can’t address all sides on an equal level and broker a solution that keeps the dignity of all sides intact, which is an important precondition for all mediation efforts,” says Heinze.

The humanitarian challenge

And the humanitarian stakes have only grown. A UN pledging conference in Geneva Tuesday generated more than $2 billion in pledges, with $930 million coming from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres praised the “remarkable success” of the pledge drive, which provided two-thirds of the UN’s 2018 appeal for $2.96 billion to provide “life-saving assistance to 13 million people.” But the UN chief said resources alone were “not enough,” and that also necessary were unrestricted access across front lines and the protection of civilians.

“Above all, we need a serious political process to lead to a political solution,” said Mr. Guterres.

That message is highlighted on the ground in Yemen, too, where the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and other agencies have struggled to cope with an air, land, and sea blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition. That nominally eased since November.

WFP monitoring during the final quarter of 2017 and January 2018, for example, showed a “significant deterioration in the food security situation,” with the number of districts facing a higher risk of famine increasing 13 percent, according to Ally Raza Qureshi, the WFP Yemen Deputy Representative in Sanaa.

Though the WFP is targeting 7.6 million Yemenis, with its partners feeding millions of others, the “humanitarian space in Yemen is significantly shrinking and many bureaucratic impediments are being imposed,” says Mr. Qureshi.

Cash pledges “are essential to end this humanitarian catastrophe, but sustainable peace is the only real solution to alleviate the suffering in Yemen,” he says.

And achieving that is the new job of Special Envoy Griffiths.

A new resolution?

Besides navigating the Saudi-led conflict against the Houthis, he will also have to thread his way through a mosaic of power centers that have emerged in Yemen, many of them tied together by profiting from the war economy, says Osamah al-Rawhani, the program director of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies.

Mr. Rawhani adds his voice to those criticizing Resolution 2216, which he notes helped cause deadlock in previous negotiations and “has not actually helped the cause of Yemen in any sense.”

“Just having one of the warring parties use this as a main pretext, while the other side sees itself as the victim of this resolution, creates another obstacle,” says Rawhani.

“The international community could show its serious commitment to achieve peace in Yemen by working towards a new UN resolution that pressures all sides to bring this conflict to an end,” he says. “Yemenis have suffered for so long.”

The new UN envoy “probably could make a difference” if he maintains his independence from regional powers as well as outside actors like the US and Britain, says Rawhani. “With a very practical approach, he might bring something new to the table.”

Another key factor for the envoy will be the warring sides themselves, and the incentives they have to stop fighting.

“Everyone’s willing to talk, but is anyone willing to take action?” asks analyst Baron in Beirut. Both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition think they can improve their chances in the talks with time, he says.

“So you’re still at a point where the question is: Are talks about resolving the conflict? Or are talks just about buying more time to improve negotiating positions for the ‘actual’ talks?”

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