United Nations (UN) envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced recently that peace talks between Yemen’s warring sides will start on December 15 in Geneva, Switzerland. The talks are expected to last until the 21st. The announcement is welcome and the opportunity to end the nine-month conflict should be seized. Whether this third attempt to negotiate peace since fighting broke out in March will bring about a permanent ceasefire and start a peace process remains to be seen. However, the international community should support these developments and urge all sides to come to an agreement.
For the most part, Yemen has remained out of the international spotlight. Now Yemen needs more help from the international community in supporting peace talks.
The first attempt at brokering peace in late May collapsed prior to the start of the talks. The second attempt in mid-June also ended in failure. In the June talks, the various Yemeni delegates came to Geneva, but refused to meet directly with each other. As a result, as Stephen W. Day argues, UN officials “had to shuttle between rooms.”
In his announcement of the December talks, the UN envoy indicated that he was “almost sure” that a temporary ceasefire would be in place for the start of the talks. So far, the key parties to the conflict have agreed that the ceasefire will start at midnight on Monday, December 14. If the temporary ceasefire is respected for the duration of the talks, it might signal a willingness by the key Yemeni parties to come to some sort of plan.
Still, the divisions between the different groups in Yemen will not be easily overcome. As Stephen W. Day argues, there is little national cohesion—a constant problem since unification in 1990. Before this, Yemen was split into North and South with tensions and occasional fighting between the two. Instability continued after unification and resulted in the 1994 civil war between the forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and southern separatists. Following military gains in the war, Saleh ruled the country through force and by manipulating the different groups in the country. Saleh has often been quoted as describing his job as President of Yemen as “dancing on the heads of snakes.”
Saleh continued to face opposition from the Houthis, a Zaidi Shiite group concentrated in the north. Saleh’s forces fought the Houthi rebels six times between 2004 and 2009. In 2011, as the so-called Arab Spring swept the region, Yemeni citizens took to the streets to demand Saleh’s resignation. Saleh resigned and was given immunity. Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was elected in single-candidate elections. There was a great deal of hope for Yemen’s future following Hadi’s election. However, he was unable to unify the different groups in Yemen.
This past March, Houthi rebels captured the southern city of Aden—and Hadi’s stronghold. Hadi was forced to leave the country and seek asylum in Saudi Arabia. Houthi rebels then took over Sana’a, the capital city. In response, a Saudi-led coalition that supported Hadi began airstrikes to help pro-Hadi forces regain control in Yemen. With this help, pro-Hadi forces have regained Aden and the northeastern city Marib. Recently, Hadi returned to Aden.
Groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) have used the ongoing conflict to create further chaos. IS has claimed that it was responsible for an attack on December 6 that killed the governor of Aden.
Yemen is described as the “poorest country in the Arab world” and the ongoing fighting is further exacerbating a humanitarian crisis. But international organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), lack the funds to meet the needs.
Approximately 15.2 million of Yemen’s estimated population of 26 million now lack access to health care. Some 5,700 people have been killed since March and 2.3 million displaced. More than 80 per cent of the population is in dire need of basic aid. But, to date, WHO has received only $37-million of the $83-million needed to address the health care crisis. As such, the international community should support the latest peace talks and provide the necessary humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people. While it remains unclear what will happen with the talks, the hope is that Yemeni parties will make the most of this third chance.