Starting in 2020, several inter-related factors temporarily shifted the geopolitical dynamics in and around the war in Yemen towards a more conducive environment for peace-making efforts. United Nations (UN) efforts to reboot the peace process were boosted by the furthering of the transformation process of U.S. policy from supporting a conflict party to a peace broker role, regional actors showing some signs of being more open to compromise, and the appointment of UN Special Envoy, Hans Grundberg, who has tried to engage with a broad range of actors and establish or revive mechanisms that enable greater interaction and engagement between the conflict parties. This created a window of opportunity to reach the ceasefire agreement in April 2022, which was subsequently renewed twice.
However, the six-month ceasefire expired in October 2022, becoming the latest setback to efforts to end the war. Following the escalation of the conflict in 2015, formal efforts by the international community to promote peace have struggled to produce results, and subsequently stalled. When agreements have been reached, they have barely been implemented. The official high-level process since 2015 has been characterized by an over-focus on a two-party process and settlement, especially problematic given that the two parties in question have proved intransigent and cannot claim a monopoly over hard power, territorial control, or political legitimacy. Consultative mechanisms have been criticized as being superficial, while unofficial peacebuilding initiatives have struggled to influence the high-level talks.1
The problems facing peace-making and peacebuilding efforts in Yemen echo those in many other places: locked in conventional formats; negotiations stumble; and attempts at broadening inclusion are often shallow and cosmetic. Existing suggestions for and approaches to more effective and inclusive peace have not fully grasped that peace is a process, subject to constant (re)negotiations of the social and political contract, marked by opportunities, setbacks, catalysts, friction, and resistance.2 Efforts in Yemen are also stuck in traditional approaches to peace and conflict that need a fundamental rethink. The challenges facing the extension of the truce in Yemen offer pause for thought and an opportunity for reconceptualizing and reimagining the approach(es) to peace-making beyond a linear, track-based model. This debrief briefly appraises facets of recent peace-making and peacebuilding efforts in Yemen, such as the limits of existing inclusion efforts, how to capitalize on women’s roles, and how local initiatives could be made more productive, and then suggests ways to help revitalize, enhance, and expand the Yemeni peace process to get to a sustainable and inclusive negotiated settlement.
Meaningful Inclusion Can Be Realized
An analysis of peace-making and peacebuilding efforts since the conclusion of the Yemen National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in 2014 reveals a series of structural barriers to the participation of civil society, marginalized groups, and women, in both track two and track one spaces.3 Civil society actors feel that foreign diplomats and donors are unwilling to use political capital with the conflict parties to create space for civil society in and around the high-level negotiation process. They also fear that enhanced visibility could lead to reprisals from the conflict parties.4
Yemen’s NDC demonstrates that the meaningful inclusion of actors marginalized for decades in shaping a (more) inclusive society is a long-term project that often encounters setbacks in the short term. This underlines the need to focus not only on the process but also the political conditions (i.e., the power) for their influential participation.5 The lessons from the Yemeni NDC also underline that even a genuinely inclusive negotiation mechanism – in terms of selection and decision making – will struggle to produce inclusive outcomes if included actors do not exert the influence afforded, and/or if the broader political transition process in which it is embedded and of which it can only be one part is not inclusive and does not address key adverse contextual factors. These include the lack of full cooperation and commitment of major Yemeni political elites, the political interests of supra-national regional actors, and diminishing public support over time. The focus on a highly inclusive NDC was also not accompanied by attention to the dysfunctional and elite nature of ongoing government.6
Women’s Engagement in Peace-making and Peacebuilding has been Limited
Since the conclusion of Yemen’s NDC, the track one peace-making space has been criticized for excluding and disregarding women’s input on the conflict dynamics, the nature of any political settlement, and the specific experiences, rights, and needs of women and girls.7 The delegations to official negotiations have rarely included women, and all four UN Special Envoys appointed to Yemen thus far have been men. At the level of official talks, the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General to Yemen (OSESGY), in coordination with UN Women and Tawafuq (a track two network), formed a track 1.5 initiative – the Technical Advisory Group (TAG), a body of Yemeni women with whom the OSESGY has consulted during the rare occasions of negotiations. The extent to which such mechanisms are representative and inclusive of a broader spectrum of Yemeni women (and their perspectives) has also been called into question.
Women have been more present in track two spaces but still face obstacles to their participation and influence. At the local level, women and civil society actors have found greater freedom and opportunities to work towards peace. For instance, women have mediated local disputes, played instrumental roles in securing humanitarian access and in campaigning for the release of missing persons, and have formed networks and launched campaigns to achieve both women’s rights and peace.8 However, this work has neither been recognized at higher levels nor been scaled up into meaningful participation in the track one space.
A significant number of barriers to the inclusion of women peacebuilders in peace-making and peacebuilding efforts in Yemen currently exist, including economic hardship; physical and reputational threats and attacks, in particular for women taking part in political spaces; apparent resistance by the Yemeni conflict parties and the international mediators to listen to women, and to capitalize upon their skills, experience, knowledge, and networks; a lack of recognition, and understanding, of Yemeni women’s peacebuilding efforts; inadequate funding and lack of resources; a lack of access to information; severe restrictions on peacebuilding initiatives in Houthi-governed areas; discriminatory social norms; competition between women peacebuilders and women-led initiatives; and the overall blocked nature of the peace process.9 At the same time, certain opportunities can also be identified, including the legacy of the 2011 revolution and the NDC as well as the existence of strong feminist organizations and networks across different parts of the country and in the diaspora.
Transferring from Track Two to Track One Needs to be Reconceptualized
Within the multi-track model of peacebuilding, influencing and/or supporting track one negotiations is one of the principal aims (and underlying assumptions) of track two peacebuilding. The ‘transfer’ concept has been developed to conceptualize the ways this could be done.10 Two important characteristics of transfer from track two to track one in Yemen are that it is frequently long term and not a singular act, and that it can be either formal or informal (albeit it is mostly the latter).
Inclusive Peace’s research11 has identified a series of obstacles and barriers to transfer from track two to track one in Yemen; the primary obstacles being the protracted nature of the conflict and stalled formal peace process. Barriers to transfer also stem from the structure of track two, participants’ perceptions of the superficial nature of track two initiatives, as well communication problems. Transfer is further hindered by sporadic funding patterns and insufficient coordination among track two convenors to convey joint messages. There are examples of effective transfer in Yemen, but they often lack detail and there are doubts about their impact. Overall, there seems to be a lack of clarity and precision about the concept. Danger to the safety of track two participants, particularly women, is another barrier to their participation. The research suggested that the concept of transfer from track two to track one needs to be rethought in light of the mostly stalled and complex peace and political transition processes currently ongoing, to make it more relevant and effective.
Track Three Is a Productive Level of Peacebuilding
There have also been diverse efforts at the community-level, including myriad women-led initiatives. There is evidence to suggest that the track three level tends to be a more productive space for peacebuilding in Yemen, including in relation to women’s meaningful engagement and contribution.12 In Taiz, for example, civil society members have played a key role in negotiating access and movement of people, though this has been stymied by a lack of progress in the negotiations. Yemeni women have also engaged in advocating for and facilitating the release and exchange of detainees, including child detainees; mediation efforts in relation to ‘local’ issues; securing access to basic services for their communities, the negotiation of humanitarian corridors, and the re-opening of roads and airports; and advocacy through national media outlets.
International organizations have provided support for many of these initiatives, and Yemeni civil society, including those in the diaspora, have also raised funds. Other initiatives are almost exclusively locally driven and sustained by civil society leaders in the country. They all demonstrate the ingenuity, creativity, and determination with which Yemeni civil society has sought to achieve a modicum of peace in their communities.
The space for an alternative, more progressive approach to peace-making in Yemen can be developed incrementally and endeavor to build on the foundations of existing peace-making efforts. Based on the findings outlined above, the following sections present a series of suggestions to help Yemenis and their supporters to develop concrete ideas and options for fundamental change.
To Move the Peace Process On, Peace-making in Yemen Must be Reimagined
One of the questions for peace-making in Yemen – as elsewhere – goes beyond not just which track can do what best or how the other tracks can support track one. Rather, it could consider whether peace-making should be exclusively – or even primarily – defined in relation to formal processes, and aim to identify approaches, ideas, or spaces for reflection on the stalled nature of the peace process and develop creative solutions to get it moving. A pathway to peace can take a multitude of different forms, involving myriad actors and organizations, and occur in a broad variety of spaces beyond formal peace negotiation and agreement implementation spaces to engage with other formal and informal elite and civil society spaces. The interaction between these actors and spaces can potentially provide a means of unsticking a stalled process. This, in turn, means the notion of the ‘negotiation table’ needs to be nuanced to account for this multitude of formal and informal set-ups that serve as negotiation spaces on multiple levels.13
Peace-making and peacebuilding in Yemen could thus be expanded from the hitherto narrow process focused on formal negotiations between the conflict parties to encompass an ecosystem of locally owned, formal and informal processes that can include greater swathes of society together with a broader range of themes and challenges. Evidence suggests pathways to peace that are principally home-grown, locally owned, and inclusive – with neighboring states and members of the international community playing a constructive supporting role – are more likely to produce sustainable outcomes. Such an ecosystem could help to improve communication and complementarity of the array of existing initiatives and processes, ensure local skills and progress can serve to inform efforts elsewhere in the country, make peace-making and peacebuilding in Yemen more meaningfully inclusive, and also serve as a space to bring together different elements of what appears to be a contested definition of peacebuilding in the country.
Here are Several Possibilities to Rethink Yemen’s Peace Process
There are several possible ways to give rise to a more flexible, participatory, home-grown, and locally owned peace process. Creating a network of participants across the peace-making and peacebuilding tracks could help to build relationships between track two and three participants and track one conflict parties, while also mitigating communication challenges between the tracks. This could also facilitate possibilities for track two initiatives to inform and engage (both directly and indirectly) in track one or related processes. Informal and formal spaces could be enabled for exchange, discussion, and problem-solving amongst civil society actors, and integrating outcomes into the UN-led process to help shape options, strategies, and actions. Working with existing national and local groups of civil society actors, including those involved in mediation efforts, could also help to map out and reflect on ways of pursuing transfer and complementarity among the different existing peace-making and peacebuilding mechanisms in Yemen that target OSESGY and a wider set of stakeholders, including conflict parties and regional actors, both directly and indirectly.
Participation in the track one process could also be enhanced by ensuring the sustained and meaningful engagement of local mediators, women, and civil society organizations, rather than ad hoc and tokenistic engagement. Engagement could occur within meetings held and convened under UN auspices, including the Military Coordination Meeting, Local Security Forces Committee, and the Payroll Committee. This could also involve expanding regional meetings conducted by OSESGY to include traditionally marginalized groups. All of this could help to promote inclusion in peace-making efforts and generate more buy-in for the peace process.
Amplify Local Mediation and Conflict Resolution Initiatives to Break the Peace Process Deadlock
Local initiatives can provide promising entry points for immediate action by focusing interventions at the community level and on actors that civil society and women peacebuilders either already have access to or can seek access to more easily than to regional or international actors. Preserving, fortifying, and developing pre-existing initiatives – from traditional peacebuilding to more unconventional efforts, including mass movements, campaigns, dialogues, and local mediation – could help to break the peace process deadlock and to enrich it. Such an approach could be based around amplifying and learning from the work of bottom-up, community-focused approaches and initiatives, such as in Taiz where civil society members have played a key role in negotiations regarding access and movement of people. This could help to solidify and build on existing work, generate further momentum and entry points for local level civil society and women’s peacebuilding, which could be supported to influence the national and regional levels, help to generate public awareness of this work, and build momentum to reinvigorate the peace process and overcome deadlocks, in combination with mass local mobilization for peace to pressure conflict actors to negotiate.
This could entail identifying groups of local actors representative of all regions in Yemen and facilitating local spaces where OSESGY can engage with armed and civic actors in order to foster dialogue and build trust over time and scale up such efforts to the national level. A next step could be creating a partnership with local actors by establishing a monitoring and evaluation framework to assess and support local achievements and extrapolate effective strategies of inclusive mediation from the local to the national level. This could take the form of, for instance, establishing local mediation committees, which could develop localized indicators for peace for each governorate in partnership with Yemeni civil society and women peacebuilders. It could also involve building on local ceasefire initiatives to generate momentum for a nation-wide ceasefire process, which could also serve as an immediate locus of civil society and women’s coalition-building and advocacy efforts and pave the way for broader formal civil society and women-led initiatives. In addition, supporting women peacebuilders’ efforts at the local level can provide a space for women leaders to build up track records of achievements, profiles, and respect for their work, which can create a pipeline of future women leaders.
Build a Sustainable Gender-Responsive Ceasefire (at the Local and National Levels)
Broader inclusion of society within ceasefire negotiations and agreements could help to legitimize ceasefires, which, in turn, could support their implementation.14 Referencing and accommodating the differing experiences, rights, and demands of women and men within ceasefires could help to address the gendered dimensions of conflict in a responsive way. Meaningfully including women in the development of ceasefire agreements can both protect them and harness their experience and expertise. While peace processes do not follow a linear path, ceasefires often precede more comprehensive negotiations. As such, inclusive and gender-responsive ceasefire negotiations and agreements could help to pave the way for inclusive peace negotiations and settlements.
There are a series of potential strategies that could help to ensure inclusive ceasefire negotiation processes and inclusive, gender-responsive outcomes. These include supporting civil society – particularly women peacebuilders – to collectively strategize to conduct targeted advocacy towards the conflict parties, and both regional and international actors; creating and/or supporting channels of communication between formal and civil society peace initiatives (track two and track three initiatives) and spaces to ensure that grassroots level needs, demands, experience, and expertise are incorporated within ceasefire negotiations; ensuring mediation teams include a gender expert; ensuring 50 per cent participation by women in mediation teams and in negotiating parties during ceasefire talks, for instance through the use of a quota; ensuring the violence addressed in any future ceasefire negotiation and the scope of any future ceasefire agreement includes sexual and gender-based violence, and that the differing effects of violence upon women and men are accounted for; ensuring civil society and women’s participation in the monitoring of any future ceasefire agreement, with gender disaggregated data collected by monitoring mechanisms, and regular public reports; and establishing a gender panel or commission to monitor the ceasefire negotiation process and advise the negotiating parties. Such a panel or commission could be integrated into an existing instrument body, such as the Military Coordination Meeting. Where necessary, gender expertise could also be offered to members of negotiating parties, including training negotiating parties and mediation teams (both women and men) in the gendered aspects of ceasefires.
Support Women Peacebuilders in their Peace-making Efforts
Options to help mitigate, circumnavigate, and even overcome the barriers to the inclusion of women peacebuilders in peace-making and peacebuilding efforts in Yemen can build on the legacy of the 2011 revolution and the NDC, as well as strong feminist organizations and networks across different parts of the country and in the diaspora. Support for coalition-building between Yemen’s women-led peacebuilding organizations and networks and individual women peacebuilders could be provided. This could involve creating a unified national women’s network or a mechanism to coordinate among existing networks and initiatives, aimed at averting competition, improving communication, and building and sustaining alliances and partnerships amongst the myriad women’s groups in Yemen. The network’s goal could be to focus on ensuring coherence and creating coordination strategies, and developing a common, inclusive, and gender-responsive agenda that can be used as leverage to establish new entry points into the peace process and secure public support. Coalition-building or coordination efforts should take particular care to ensure the participation of ‘ordinary’ women in peace-making/peacebuilding, not just geographical/political/social elites.15
Other options could comprise: convening a working group with relevant international organizations and partners to coordinate international efforts on women’s participation in Yemen; funding protection for Yemeni women peacebuilders and developing a code of conduct to safeguard women’s participation in the peace process across the tracks; establishing a dense network of mutual assistance and solidarity among women peacebuilders within and across country borders; working with moderate religious actors to counter religious hate speech and defamation of women peacebuilders; and providing psychosocial support for women peacebuilders. These suggestions could also be applied to action to support local civil society mediators and peacebuilders more broadly.
Inspiration, Support, and Space for Reflection are Needed to Get to Meaningful Yemeni-Yemeni Dialogue
Given the current state of the Yemeni peace process, the time appears to be ripe to realize the clear demand to go beyond current elite-based processes for building peace from the community-level up, learning from and building on current and past initiatives to address immediate priorities in Yemen – including negotiating local ceasefires to bring a halt to violence and to facilitate humanitarian response – which could pave the way for a comprehensive ceasefire and broad disarmament and the start of a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue.
There is no guarantee that a more inclusive peace process will automatically lead to more inclusive outcomes – there is no inherent linear progression from an inclusive negotiation process to inclusion provisions in an agreement, to inclusive implementation bodies that lead into inclusive constitution-making that will implement inclusive governance and development on all levels. Yet comparative evidence suggests that inclusive processes can – and are indeed more likely to – lead to more sustainable and inclusive outcomes, which in turn can lay the foundation for larger societal and political transformation towards inclusive peaceful societies.16
It is for all societies to collectively assess, and re-assess, the re-orderings and renewals they themselves have made and will continue to make in addressing questions and challenges relating to their society and politics. Yemen is an excellent example of the continuum of constant negotiations and renegotiations of the social and political contract of a society and polity over (often long periods of) time, marked by opportunities, setbacks, catalysts, friction, and resistance, which encompass pathways to peace. Fresh tensions and competing interests will always arise. Indeed, it would be a significant step in the right direction for inclusive processes of contestation to be considered the heart of peacebuilding and, moreover, of value within all societies across the globe. But opportunities will also always arise, even at – and sometimes directly because of – moments in the process where progress seems distant, and prospects seem bleak. At such junctures more than ever, rather than externally imposed (identikit) solutions, it is important for supra-national regional and international actors to afford Yemenis space and support to reflect on a number of fundamental questions relating to the peace process: What do the Yemeni people, in all their diversity, seek? How do they envision their future state? What kind of relationship do they want with their neighbors in the region?
This debrief is based on an Inclusive Peace policy brief ‘Pathways Towards an Inclusive Peace Process in Yemen’ (which is also available in Arabic) and an Inclusive Peace research paper submission, ‘Pathways to Perpetual Peacebuilding in Yemen’, to the conference on ‘The Conflict in Yemen: Current Situation and Future Prospects’, and draws on the key findings of a number of recent studies undertaken by Inclusive Peace, some specifically focused on Yemen, and others that are broader in scope – all available through Inclusive Peace’s online library.
Alex Bramble is a researcher, analyst and editor at Inclusive Peace, working on a broad variety of themes relating to peace-making, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding, with a particular focus on rethinking how peace and political transition processes are conceived and realised, how to meaningfully include and support a broad range of stakeholders in peace and political transition processes and peacebuilding efforts, and on research-practice and research-policy transfer.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or other institutions’ positions.
Women standing on a roof gaze out towards the mountains over Sanaa, Yemen. Alamy.
- T. Paffenholz and K. Hashem, “Transfer from Track Two Peacebuilding to Track One Peace-making: A Focus on Yemen and Syria”, Geneva: Inclusive Peace, November 2022.
- T. Paffenholz, “Perpetual Peacebuilding: A New Paradigm to Move Beyond the Linearity of Liberal Peacebuilding,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 15:3 (2021), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17502977.2021.1925423, pp. 367–85.
- Paffenholz and Hashem, “Transfer from Track Two Peacebuilding to Track One Peace-making: A Focus on Yemen and Syria”.
- International Crisis Group, The Case for More Inclusive – and More Effective – Peacemaking in Yemen,Crisis Group Middle East Report N°221, 18 March 2021 p.16.
- T. Paffenholz and N. Ross, “Inclusive Political Settlements: New Insights from Yemen’s National Dialogue.” PRISM 6, no. 1 (2016): 198–210.
- Paffenholz and Ross, “Inclusive Political Settlements: New Insights from Yemen’s National Dialogue.” 209.
- See, for example: ; M. Awadh and N. Shuja’adeen, “Women in Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Yemen,” UN Women (2019), https://yemen.un.org/en/15853-women-conflict-resolution-and-peacebuilding-yemen [last accessed: 16 August 2021], p. 17
- See, for instance, “The Yemeni Women’s Technical Advisory Group Plays an Active Role During the Sweden Consultations,” UN Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (2018), https://osesgy.unmissions.org/yemeni-women%E2%80%99s-technical-advisory-group-plays-active-role-during-sweden-consultations [last accessed: 17 January 2021]. pp. 18–21.
- Paffenholz and Hashem, “Transfer from Track Two Peacebuilding to Track One Peace-making: A Focus on Yemen and Syria”; P. Poppelreuter, Protection of Women Peacebuilders in Conflict and Fragile Settings in the MENA Region, Geneva: Inclusive Peace, November 2022.
- Transfer can be divided into two categories: ‘upward transfer’ through which ideas and outcomes from track-two workshops move to and influence formal, high-level, track-one negotiations; and ‘downward transfer’ through which ideas and outcomes influence public opinion and impact the conflict-at-large. Thus, what is being transferred from track two can travel both ‘upwards’ to track one and track 1.5, but also ‘laterally’ into other track two initiatives, and ‘downwards’ into track three programmes. Such ‘movement’ can take place in different directions simultaneously or sequentially. See E. Çuhadar and T. Paffenholz, “Transfer 2.0: Applying the Concept of Transfer from Track-Two Workshops to Inclusive Peace Negotiations,” International Studies Review 22:3 (2020), p. 652.
- Paffenholz and Hashem, “Transfer from Track Two Peacebuilding to Track One Peace-making: A Focus on Yemen and Syria”.
- Paffenholz and Hashem, “Transfer from Track Two Peacebuilding to Track One Peace-making: A Focus on Yemen and Syria”.
- A. Bramble and T. Paffenholz, Implementing Peace Agreements: From Inclusive Processes to Inclusive Outcomes?, Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative, (Geneva: The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies), April 2020, p.46.
- A. Bramble and K. Hashem, Reaching an Inclusive Truce: Gendering Ceasefires, Geneva: Inclusive Peace, November 2022.
- J. Naujoks and A. Bramble, Options for Women’s Action to Advance Peace in Yemen, Geneva: Inclusive Peace, October 2022.
- Bramble and Paffenholz, Implementing Peace Agreements: From Inclusive Processes to Inclusive Outcomes?, p.46