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Will Yemen’s latest round of negotiations reflect learning from past failures?

- April 18, 2016
A boy chants slogans through a gap in a national flag during a protest against Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, April 15. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

Negotiations to end the war in Yemen slated to begin Monday in Kuwait have been delayed. Will the third time be a charm or yet another flop? The first two attempts failed abysmally, because none of the parties involved were willing to accept anything other than total military victory. This time, things could be different.

Though a potential deal remains difficult to fathom — especially given the divergent views of the many parties — revisiting the lessons from the transition process after the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement in 2011 could help us avoid at least some of the pitfalls that led to the war. A recent report by Helen Lackner published by International IDEA finds that while Yemen suffers from a number of underlying social and economic challenges that will remain at the heart of the country’s development, many factors that contributed to the current conflict were linked to the transition plan’s original design and the manner in which it was implemented by specific individuals, institutions and states.

Learning from the failed 2011-2015 transition process

After the 2011 popular uprising, the country’s major longstanding political players signed the GCC Agreement on Nov. 23, 2011. Setting up the framework for what many hoped would be Yemen’s transition toward a peaceful and democratic future, the agreement centered on the formation of a government of national unity and a military reform committee, and afforded immunity to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his closest associates.

In the first months, progress was made: A new government was formed in December, and immunity for Saleh and his associates was officially approved by parliament in January 2012, a highly contentious decision for the revolutionary youths. Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was elected president in February 2012, and Saleh formally stepped down from the presidency. In early 2012, the first steps were taken to establish the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which would discuss key issues including a new constitution, the issues of the South and Saada, and transitional justice.

Despite these advances, very little progress was made on military issues. Roadblocks and other interference with daily civilian life by military and security officials were never fully removed. Although Hadi was able to remove many of Saleh’s closest associates from their leadership positions within 18 months, most new appointees were from Hadi’s home governorate, leading to accusations of nepotism. Partially as a result, most new leaders were unable to overcome the entrenched loyalty of the elite military units to Saleh and his close associates. Throughout the transition, major terrorist acts killed hundreds of security personnel and civilians. These failures would ultimately devastate the transition process.

Meanwhile, the most entrenched elements of Yemen’s political class, including Saleh, were allowed to survive and prosper, often obstructing change. Little effort was made to marginalize them until it was far too late. Finally, the decision to establish a “national unity” government, rather than a strong independent government under effective leadership, was a recipe for paralysis and worsened an already deeply problematic situation.

Why the NDC failed to create real dialogue

The NDC, opening in March 2013, included a number of well-known personalities representing the main political trends in the country. It had 565 members, of whom 56 percent were southerners, 28 percent women and 20 percent youths. Forty seats were allocated to civil society, 85 to the southern separatists and 35 to the Houthis. The NDC completed its work in January 2014, agreeing on 1,800 separate “outcomes” as its decisions were called.

Despite its inclusion of diverse groups and ages, the NDC nevertheless failed its overly broad and ambitious mandate. Conference leadership didn’t ensure focused and decision-oriented discussions, and the large block of southerners alienated other groups. Close to no progress was made on a number of critical issues, including federalism. After the NDC was over, a special committee led by President Hadi decided to create six regions — four in the former north Yemen Arab Republic and two in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. This was immediately rejected by the Houthis, on the basis that it “divides Yemen into poor and wealthy regions.”

Following the NDC, a Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) was established to translate the NDC’s work into a draft constitution to be submitted for a referendum. The draft consists of 446 articles and provides an excellent basis for better governance in Yemen. However, the NDC’s outcomes were sometimes contradictory and others incomplete, leaving the CDC with no clear guidance to resolve contentious issues. The process eventually adopted was unconvincing to a number of actors, including the Houthis, who finalized their takeover of Sanaa shortly after the final draft constitution was delivered to President Hadi on Jan. 3, 2015, and moved their military forces farther south, in alliance with Saleh’s elite forces, triggering the start of full civil war and the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition.

The weakening of all sides in the conflict

The Saudi-led coalition has now been at war for more than a year at high human and financial cost, and the rapid and decisive victory they anticipated is nowhere in sight. Regardless of increased control of territory, overall the military stalemate prevails.

Though officially restored in most of the country, the internationally recognized regime, in reality, controls practically no territory, not even Aden, the temporary capital. Moreover, the Houthi/Saleh alliance has been gradually losing control of territory. The financial cost of the war has become a serious strain on both sides, due to the dramatic reduction in Saudi Arabia’s income from oil on the one hand and the more or less complete collapse of Yemen’s financial system on the other. Finally, both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State have benefited from the war.

Lest we forget, the humanitarian situation is disastrous, despite improved access to some areas. Thousands of Yemenis have been killed and wounded, more than 10 percent of the total population is now displaced, over 21 million people need assistance, and some 14 million are food insecure. Billions of dollars worth of damage has been caused to infrastructure, and medical facilities are either destroyed or not functioning due to lack of supplies. All sides have disregarded humanitarian law, and reports show the use of Western – mainly U.S. and British – weapons in attacks on civilian targets and backroom assistance from U.S. and British experts.

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The culmination of these events and revelations has, at long last, raised the profile of the war in the United States and beyond, increasing public opposition to the war and influencing the European and Dutch parliaments to stop weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, with pressure on Britain and United States to do the same.

This new context may lead to an agreement, particularly since the Houthis and Saudis have been talking and have achieved some “confidence building measures.”

The future for negotiations

Whatever new transition process emerges from successful negotiations must consider the failures of the previous efforts if the Yemeni people are to achieve a safer and more stable future. Any lasting agreement will need to prioritize the basic socio-economic needs of the vast majority of the country’s poor population, and this goes far beyond infrastructure contracts.

Successful political dialogue needs to represent all sectors of society equitably, without privileging the elites whose political interests contributed to the current conflict. However, these same elites cannot be excluded, at the risk of renewed military conflict. The definition of security must also expand beyond counterterrorism to include safety and security for people in their daily lives and the creation of security forces unaffected by corruption or partisanship. Foreign intervention is a reality: Recommending its exclusion would be unrealistic, despite its dubious success record. Fundamental change will require new creative and constructive approaches focused on the future of Yemen and Yemenis, addressing its social, economic and environmental problems. To achieve this will be no simple feat.

Zaid Al-Ali is a visiting research scholar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a lawyer specializing in comparative constitutional law. He is the author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy.” (Yale University Press, 2014)

Helen Lackner is an independent researcher and author of “Why Yemen Matters.”(Saqi Books, 2014)