The UN in Yemen: Facilitating reconciliation or fuelling conflict?

The UN in Yemen: Facilitating reconciliation or fuelling conflict?
6 min read
08 May, 2015
Comment: The crisis in Yemen is not just the fault of the country's volatile politics. It took the international community's help for things to get this bad, says Bushra al-Maqtari.
UN Special Adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar: Mission impossible? [Getty]

The current political situation in Yemen has reached a complete stalemate.

This stalemate raises many questions as to what the UN and the UN Security Council ever hoped to achieve in Yemen. Far from solving any of Yemen's problems, they have contributed to the country's current catastrophy.

Ironically, the UN has exacerbated the failure of Yemeni political parties to manage the crisis on their own, or to come up with a solution that satisfies all parties to the conflict without resort to war.

This peculiar reality confirms the frailty of Yemen's political elite and the overlap of regional and international conflicts.

It also sheds light on the international community's role in complicating the situation in Yemen, and on the UN special adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar - a controversial figure, whose influence on the country's political processes cannot be ignored.


The UN has exacerbated the failure of Yemeni political parties to manage the crisis on their own.

In his briefing on the Yemeni crisis before the UN Security Council on April 27, Benomar emphasised the horror of the war in Yemen, which has grown into a full-fledged confrontation, connected with domestic and regional agendas.

He spoke about an imminent catastrophe in Yemen. He has repeatedly warned the Security Council about the systematic hindering of the country's political process over the past three years, but the Security Council did not deal with his warnings decisively enough.

In addition, Benomar said the collapse of Yemen's political process was not the sole responsibility of one side, but rather a result of a complex situation for which every side is to blame - albeit to different degrees.

According to Benomar, before the launch of the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen, political rivals had agreed on all issues except for the presidency. He added that the resumption of the political process and the achievement of stability in Yemen should be carried out through a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue, "where Yemenis make their own decisions, away from any foreign interventions or dictations".

The UN Yemen envoy seemed to be pleading innocence before the world.

His briefing infuriated many Yemeni and regional political powers, particularly for blaming the international community's dealing with the crisis as much as it blamed Yemeni factions.

Benomar's briefing revealed the restricted space in which regional and international powers operated and how they viewed Yemen before Operation Decisive Storm.

It also shed light on how regional and international players failed to heed to his repeated warnings of a civil war, and about the fragility of Yemen's political process.

The international community appears not to have cared about Yemen's political conflicts, or the descent into violence after the Houthis took over Sanaa by force.

Benomar's briefing was, however, not accurate as to the agreement between political rivals.

Many Yemeni and international players were willing to sacrifice President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his legitimacy in return for stability in Yemen.

They were willing to grant political leadership to the Houthis to curb their violence. However, this cannot be considered an agreement in the sense Benomar indicated - it was instead a temporary resolution to the crisis, but it was not meant to last.

Many Yemeni and international players were willing to sacrifice President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his legitimacy in return for stability.

Yemenis, especially those who were independent, had high hopes for the transitional period.

Few relied on the ability of Yemeni political parties to overcome their differences, but they did bet the international community would pressure them and curb their madness and greed.

They hoped the international mediator could could end polarisation and violence between political parties.


Benomar's weakness soon became clear, and his poor performance seemed to depend on pro forma settlements and provisional solutions for Yemeni rivals.

This was was in line with the international community's priorities, matching the political approach adopted by the UN, and how it dealt with the Yemeni situation.

Reading UN resolutions on Yemen, one can clearly see how international players leaned towards a political solution to contain the situation and prevent it from escalating out of control, but did not try to find radical solutions.

This is what the UN Yemen envoy said during the transitional period. Thus, the international resolution on Yemen focused on supporting the Gulf initiative to resolve the disputes among political rivals.

However, the initiative did not adopt a real solution for the Yemeni crisis. Its main advantage stemmed from its ability to postpone the slip into violence. However, a major loophole - named Ali Abdullah Saleh, the past president - destroyed any chance of success, as he threatened the consensus and played a leading role in further complicating Yemen's political future.

It is unfair to crucify Benomar, who had been a trustworthy voice of the international community in dealing with the Yemeni crisis and who reliably conveyed the crisis facing Yemen's political forces.

When Yemeni factions bypassed his preliminary steps to a comprehensive national dialogue, including the restructuring of the army, and then chose an arbitrary method to decide the participants of a national dialogue based on quotas, Benomar did not object to their stalling tactics, but welcomed them as solutions reached through consensus.

What concerned Benomar and the international community was that dialogue continue in Yemen, even if only a superficial dialogue that would not resolve the fundamental reasons beneath civil conflict and mistrust between political factions.

Further, when President Hadi exploited disagreements on the state's nature and announced the division of the country into six provinces, Benomar and the international community welcomed this disastrous fabrication.

Does the international community understand it is partly responsible for the dire situation in Yemen?

Thus, over the course of a year, the Yemeni dialogue ignored all main issues that should have been dealt with through serious and transparent talks.

Ironically, the international community celebrated the Yemeni dialogue as a political achievement and a model for the international community's political success - and even proposed to use the Yemen model as a solution in Syria.

Overlooking critical errors

Benomar and the international community did not pay attention to the political errors that allowed the Houthi militias to impose their will and force factions to sign the Peace and National Partnership Agreement after they took over Sanaa in September 2014.

International actors and the GCC welcomed this unbalanced agreement - while accepting that Benomar and the rest of the international community would oppose it - to put an end to the Houthi rebellion and the political settlement the Houthis tried to impose.

Benomar was working in accordance with the interests and vision of the international community, whose main concern was the announcement of a settlement - even if made under the threat of violence - to claim a victory for the United Nations in solving the Yemeni crisis.

The obvious question is: has the international community finally understood it is partly responsible for the dire situation in Yemen and that it is time to protect Yemenis from the effect of regional and international conflict?

How much Yemeni, Syrian and Iraq blood does the international community need to be spilled before it will take real action, instead of just making bland media statements, to stop this war machine?

Bushra al-Maqtari is a Yemeni feminist, activist and author.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.