The peace process in Yemen is facing major challenges, not least of which is the steep escalation of fighting in several parts of the country. Negotiations to end the armed conflict that started in 2014 with the Houthis’ coup d’état that ousted President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi have thus far failed to achieve a lasting ceasefire. Instead, the country is trapped in a seesaw dynamic of military escalation and economic warfare, with major economic and humanitarian consequences for civilians caught between the warring parties.
From early 2020, the former United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has been calling for a nationwide ceasefire that would pave the way for a new round of political talks.1 The process was derailed mostly by the Houthis’ continued offensive to capture oil-rich Marib province, which is home to three million people, including one million displaced Yemenis.2 New hopes for peace talks re-emerged after the appointment of United States Special Envoy Tim Lenderking in February 2021, followed by the appointment of a new UN Special Envoy, Hans Grundberg, in August that year.3
Despite this, the fighting has continued, escalating at the start of this year. While the Houthis have continued ground offensives in Marib, the Saudi-led Coalition and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have intensified their air campaign against Houthi-held areas, while carrying out increasing numbers of raids on civilians and civilian targets throughout the country. The latter were prompted by Houthi missile attacks aimed at the UAE capital earlier this year. This escalation in ground and air fighting has had a devastating effect on the civilian population, with reports of mounting civilian casualties due to Coalition and Houthi attacks on a near daily basis, as well as an increasingly dire economic and humanitarian situation across the country.4 This picture of an intensifying conflict is further complicating the prospects for a much-needed peace.
This research, based on 95 interviews with Yemeni civil society actors from across the country, reveals an already faltering peace process. It offers a stark assessment, not only of the prospects for achieving a durable ceasefire but also of the effectiveness of diplomatic efforts thus far as seen through the eyes of Yemeni civil society. Some of the key findings include a widespread sense of frustration and distrust with the peace process among civil society, particularly with the approach of the UN Special Envoy’s office (OSESGY) and the international community more generally. It also reveals a contrast in views between civil society actors and OSESGY in regard to the latter’s monitoring-free approach to the planned ceasefire, exacerbated by a lack of transparency and clarity in regard to the ceasefire process. The research also highlights a general lack of communication channels between civil society and OSESGY, with the latter holding meetings with selected actors. To move forward, the author argues that Yemeni civil society actors should be empowered and provided with the right tools to be active participants and drivers of peace.
Civil Society Perceptions of the UN-led Peace Process
There is a general dissatisfaction with the UN-led process felt by the civil society groups interviewed. For the majority of respondents, the peace process exists only on paper, as in reality the talks have collapsed and there is no coordination nor communication between the different actors. Worse yet, they maintained that the fighting has only intensified, especially as the Houthis launched a military campaign to take control of Al-Jawf and Marib in early 2020, a few months after talks about a nationwide ceasefire were circulating at the UN.5 In the meantime, the economic and humanitarian situation has been deteriorating at an unprecedented rate, with multiple riots erupting over worsening living conditions and pervasive government corruption in the cities of Aden, Mukalla, and Taiz.6
Hence, although the peace process is regarded by some respondents as the best way out of this crisis, they argue that without making serious changes, it will continue to fail. The most stated reason for its current failure was the lack of pressure by the UN, and the international community more generally, on all conflict parties to abide by their commitments and the agreements they have signed. Of those interviewed, 40 showed deep concern over the unchecked interference of regional actors that has prolonged the conflict. As explained by one interviewee, “negotiations take place between the two parties to the conflict, who have become tools in the hand of regional powers. Thus, the decision to end the war and achieve peace is not in the hands of Yemeni sides, but rather in the hands of their regional sponsors.” Others pointed to the lack of will from Yemeni actors to reach a deal, as the war created a lucrative environment for war profiteering. Many cited the example of the Stockholm agreement,7 as the Houthis continued to violate the ceasefire in Hodeidah without any repercussions from the UN or the international community. In fact, because of the way the UN handled the negotiations, many respondents (20 percent) indicated that people now see it as being biased towards the Houthis rather than remaining an impartial mediator. This perception was highest amongst civil society actors in Marib, perhaps because the UN has not been able to broker a ceasefire that would halt the Houthis’ continuous attacks on the city, which many believe would have been possible had the UN exerted enough pressure over the Houthis.
Regardless of the validity of these assumptions, the prevalence of these views among people interviewed suggests that the UN-led process is failing to gain support from key stakeholders. One of the main reasons for this is the low level of civil society engagement with the peace process, both in terms of information and consultation. Many interviewees stated that the peace process fails to meet the minimum standards of transparency, where they are not informed about what is happening at the higher tracks of the peace process. Even those few who had been engaged in the process at a high level, such as through contributing to civil society meetings with OSESGY, were not necessarily aware of how their engagement translated into the UN’s mediation efforts. This lack of engagement has thus limited civil society’s sources of information on the peace process to what they hear and read from local and international media, which often do not report accurately or completely on the process. This is particularly concerning given the increased misinformation campaigns and propaganda being circulated by all conflict parties and their supporters, who might seek to derail the process or influence people’s perception of it to their advantage.
In fact, the exclusion of civil society is a main reason why respondents feel that the UN-led process has not been successful. In their view, civil society actors should have been directly involved in the mediation process from the beginning so that they could provide a more accurate picture of what people on the ground actually want and need. Their involvement is often cited as a means to ensure that future dialogue is more representative of Yemeni people’s interests, especially given the tendency for political elites to dominate negotiations. At the moment, the majority believe that political elites, especially Houthis, are simply engaging in negotiations to prolong their own interests rather than to achieve a sustainable peace, which casts further doubt over the peace process. In fact, a few respondents noted that the lack of engagement, especially with grassroots civil society, is reflective of wider issues with the UN’s approach to the Yemen crisis, where it is often favoring political elites over grassroots civil society actors who are committed to long-term stability and peacebuilding.
According to many respondents, the flaw in the peace process is also evident in the lack of a comprehensive approach to dealing with the root causes of the conflict, including its socio-economic and humanitarian dimensions. This is especially relevant when considering the current economic and humanitarian crises that the country is experiencing, which many maintain are pushing more people, especially the young and the unemployed, into joining the battlefields. Many respondents believe that there is no clear vision for peace in the country and that the only priority of the international community is to end the conflict as soon as possible. However, they argue that these short-sighted efforts have only allowed the economic and humanitarian crises to deteriorate further over the years. Specifically, many respondents maintain that the UN approach is to prioritize political and military matters, which has resulted in little attention being paid towards other important issues, such as resolving the rapidly deepening economic crisis. They were also unsatisfied with the over-emphasis on short-term interventions, such as the provision of aid, and its prioritization over building Yemen’s economic and institutional capacity, which could help in laying foundations for longer-term peacebuilding and stability. This lack of clear vision and strategy for peace further lends itself to what respondents believe is the failure of the UN-led process to adequately recognize and engage with local level actors, including civil society, who are often instrumental in clarifying local perspectives and needs.
Ceasefire Monitoring Confusion Shows Need for More Civil Society Engagement
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most contentious issues that arose from this research concerned arrangements for ceasefire monitoring within the peace process. Under the current arrangements, the UN has decided not to integrate ceasefire monitoring components in the planned ceasefire process, as they believe that this could impede the confidence-building measures that are deemed critical to the success of the peace negotiations. In addition, the lack of leverage that the UN and the international community has over the Houthis further dissuaded them from taking on a more robust monitoring role. This, however, did not sit well with many respondents, who only learned about OSESGY’s plan to not integrate ceasefire monitoring during the course of this research. They instead emphasized that while implementing confidence-building measures might be important in theory, when such efforts are applied without robust monitoring mechanisms in place, they will lack credibility and therefore not succeed. Concerns over the Houthis’ compliance with the ceasefire were prevalent, where some respondents specifically mentioned that Houthis have a long record of reneging on their commitments, which they argue has enabled them to further consolidate their control over the country.
Yet, respondents’ recommendations on ceasefire monitoring were not always realistic or well thought out. While some respondents argued that international monitors should be deployed along the frontlines, few suggested the deployment of an international military force to compel the parties into compliance. Needless to say, the idea of international military deployment in Yemen is hardly realistic, especially given the already heavy regional intervention in the country, which has been a source of great destabilization. This is not to mention the international community’s lack of appetite for further military engagement in Yemen. Others maintained that civil society should be involved in monitoring, but it is not clear whether they are fully aware of what this would entail. As opposed to human rights monitoring, civil society involvement in ceasefire implementation monitoring would entail their presence at the frontlines to observe and report on parties’ compliance with the terms of the ceasefire agreement. This is clearly a dangerous task, as it can expose civil society actors to more attacks from warring parties. In addition, this role would require a certain technical military knowledge, which is not something that most human rights or civil society organizations are trained in. Hence, ceasefire implementation monitoring would be a major undertaking that goes beyond the conventional practice of civil society monitoring in Yemen, which has been limited to documenting human rights violations.
However, as argued in a previous piece of YPC research,8 civil society actors are well positioned to monitor the impact of ceasefire violations and conflict on the civilian population. This is where they are able to play a critical role in making sure that the parties comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. Once the independent monitoring structures are in place, civil society actors can report civilian protection needs and concerns to the relevant international bodies, including OSESGY, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the European Union, and the like. The purpose is to increase international pressure on the parties in order to make them comply with their obligations, especially when it comes to respecting civilians’ safety and security. Civil society actors can also use the findings to build internal pressure on the local conflict actors, by exposing their violations and abuses to local communities. A key consideration is that all parties are responsive to their public image, to some extent. While international pressure works more on the Hadi government and the Coalition, given their legal status and dependence on international support, local pressure works more on the Houthis whose ability to attract support from the local population is crucial in maintaining their power.
Uninformed and Disconnected Civil Society
One of the preconditions to a successful civil society engagement with the peace process, including a future ceasefire, is access to information. This could be information around key developments in the peace process, such as the UN’s efforts to broker a nationwide ceasefire between the warring parties, and mechanisms for civil society’s engagement. Yet, interviews with civil society actors show that more than half are completely uninformed about the upcoming peace initiatives, or their potential role in the process. But even those who are active at Track II level or have been involved in consultations with OSESGY were found to be poorly informed about the upcoming agenda, plans, and roadmap. In July 2020, the Peace Track Initiative, a Yemeni non-profit that has been leading track II consultations, published the ceasefire draft proposals by OSESGY and the Houthis along with the Joint Declaration, which combines both proposals alongside a set of confidence-building measures. They claimed on their website that “OSESGY has not held consultations on the draft of the Joint Declaration and has not officially shared it with the civil society entities, including women and youth”. This statement has been further confirmed by other civil society actors interviewed in this research, showing that little has changed in OSESGY’s approach since. One of them is a member of the Yemeni Women’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG), which was formed in 2018 by OSESGY to take part in Track II consultations. She was frustrated upon knowing during the course of the research that OSESGY had decided not to include a monitoring component to the upcoming ceasefire without consulting with or informing civil society actors at Track II about this development. To be fair, Grundberg was only recently appointed as a UN Special Envoy to Yemen, on September 2021, and therefore, it is too early to judge his performance and whether he will deliver on civil society’s expectations or not.
There are multiple reasons for the lack of information flow between OSESGY and civil society actors. One of them is the UN’s continued focus on the traditional top–down mode, rather than engaging with civil society groups to build ownership over the peace process. Even in the implementation of Track II initiatives, civil society actors have consistently voiced frustrations that their recommendations rarely, if ever, influence the trajectory of the peace process or the content of the agreements. To date, there is still ambiguity about how the Envoy’s decisions regarding the ceasefire and other mediation efforts are made, and how civil society can make their voices heard, which might be a reason for the lack of public engagement with the peace process. In addition, there are no clear and transparent mechanisms that connect civil society actors to the peace process. The research has shown that those who have connections either to OSESGY or national and international organizations participating at Track II level are more likely to be able to engage with the peace process through consultations and information sharing than those who do not. The problem is that, while there are some pockets where professional and urban-based civil society actors are able to establish these connections, the vast majority of grassroots actors lack the necessary resources and opportunities to do so. Hence, the same actors are usually invited to consultations or meetings over and over again, which does not allow a wider spectrum of civil society actors to benefit from these opportunities.
Having the right connections is also important for civil society’s engagement with the local ceasefire support mechanism (CSM) teams. These teams are likely to be composed of military representatives from each conflict party who would be in charge of coordinating the ceasefire along with some UN presence. The composition of the teams and the exact structure of the CSM is yet to be finalized, but one of the main issues that has been identified is how to represent civil society within these teams. At best, they will be represented by actors who have established connections with members of the CSM teams, such as local authorities and security actors. In governorates where the CSM is to utilize the governorate-level security committees, the key actors to engage with would be the local security actors, who are embedded within these structures, along with the governors, who usually head these committees.9 The research findings show that the bulk of civil society actors interviewed already have strong channels of communication with the governor’s office in their respective governorates, which could facilitate their engagement with the CSM teams. In other governorates, however, the CSM might be composed of delegations from each conflict party as well as members of Yemeni tribes, depending on the conflict dynamics in that governorate. In these areas, civil society actors are likely to have less channels of communication with the different delegations and will need to establish them first. This process takes time, which means that consultations and information-sharing with civil society actors in the different governorates around the ceasefire process should start as early as possible to give them time to prepare.
Supporting the Emergence of a More Unified and Active Civil Society
Ultimately, being engaged in the process without having the appropriate networks will not give civil society actors significant opportunities to influence the peace process. A proactive civil society coalition that engages with different levels of the peace process could help to strengthen the position of civil society actors in the peace process and increase their chances to influence the content and the implementation of a ceasefire agreement, or even a post-conflict arrangement. Although several networks exist today, including women and youth networks, it is not clear how active and effective they are in this regard. These networks and coalitions often lack coordination, a proper strategy, and a common vision, as well as the necessary resources to lead effective advocacy and lobbying work. In addition, most of these networks and coalitions are oriented towards national-level activities only, and do not have a clear outreach to grassroots-level actors, who would be more able to create momentum around the peace process at the local level. It is important to mention that track II initiatives, such as the Peace Forum organized by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies10 or the Feminist Peace Roadmap organized by The Peace Track Initiative,11 have played a positive role in engaging civil society actors with the peace process and national issues as well as facilitating dialogue and trust-building between different actors. The more such initiatives exist and are supported, the better prepared civil society actors will be to contribute meaningfully to a sustainable peace process, starting with a durable ceasefire.
While limited resources, lack of capacity, and an insecure environment have all been serious challenges, Yemeni civil society’s own internal divisions have been equally limiting. The wider conflict in the country has been reflected within civil society, which is divided along political and regional lines. Some of these disputes also carry a personal dimension, which has led to the creation of informal alliances between certain civil society actors. These divisions have made it difficult for Yemeni civil society to articulate a common position on the peace process and other issues related to the Yemeni conflict. As argued elsewhere,12 it will require high levels of maturity and willingness from Yemeni civil society actors to rise above their own personal and political prejudices for the greater interest of Yemen’s future. It is worth mentioning that these divisions have also been manipulated by the different conflict parties through generously funded media and propaganda campaigns, which have further deepened Yemeni civil society’s divisions.13 Hence, it is of paramount importance for Yemeni civil society actors to be able to control their own narrative and to advance their own vision for the future of their country. This would require support and guidance from international civil society who could assist Yemeni civil society in improving its ability in using online and offline tools as effective means of engaging and persuading their target audience.
International donors and peacebuilding actors should also work with Yemeni civil society to develop a proactive voice to put forward clear and practical positions regarding the peace process. This should start with a significant long-term commitment and an understanding that Yemeni civil society is not monolithic and that national coalitions may not necessarily represent different local factions. A more inclusive dialogue should be encouraged among different Yemeni civil society actors, along with financial and technical support to local Yemeni civil society networks and coalitions. This support would be especially useful in the run up to the ceasefire process once it resumes, when Yemeni civil society will need to be able to mobilize effectively and exert the necessary pressure to ensure that its priorities are reflected in any agreement.
Finally, Yemeni civil society will need support from international counterparts to increase its outreach capacity and effectiveness in the international arena. This would include technical support in lobbying and advocacy, such as preparing position papers and reports, participating in international conferences and events, as well as information-sharing about the Yemeni situation. It would also include training opportunities for local civil society actors to enhance their capacity, both in language and technical skills. Yemeni civil society actors themselves should work to develop a common understanding of the peace process so that they can articulate a unified position to support the peace process, rather than simply react to it. It will take time and significant effort for Yemeni civil society actors to develop the capacity and experience in carrying out effective advocacy work, especially as they continue to operate in a highly insecure environment. However, given what is at stake for Yemen, and the opportunity for civil society to engage in a critical process that would shape the future of their country, there is no better time than now to support and empower Yemeni civil society.
Hadil Al-Mowafak became a Yemen Policy Center Research Fellow in 2020. In 2015, she joined Mwatana Organization as a researcher of human rights violations, documenting cases of civilian casualties, child soldiers, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and restrictions on journalistic freedoms. She holds a B.A in Political Science from Stanford University (2020). The author would like to thank Marie-Christine Heinze for her helpful and diligent review of an earlier version of this article.
Supported with German Federal Foreign Office’s funds by IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen), zivik Funding program.
Ola Al-Aghbary, co-founder and CEO of the Sheba Youth Foundation for Development and Peace, speaks at the Situation in the Middle East (Yemen) – Security Council, 8946th meeting, January 2022. Credit: UN Web TV.
- Briefing to United Nations Security Council by the Special Envoy for Yemen – Martin Griffiths, 14 January 2020 https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/briefing-united-nations-security-council-special-envoy-yemen-martin-griffiths-14
- Michael Knights, Alex Almeida (March 17, 2021) ‘Saving the Yemen Peace Process by Blunting the Houthi Push for Marib’ The Washington Institute for Near East Policy https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/saving-yemen-peace-process-blunting-houthi-push-marib
- Security Council Report (September 2021) ‘September 2021 Monthly Forecast’ https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/monthly-forecast/2021-09/yemen-34.php
- Federica Marsi (January 27 2022) ‘Yemen civilians bear the brunt of escalating Houthi-UAE conflict’ Al-Jazeera https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/27/yemeni-civilians-bear-the-brunt-of-houthi-uae-escalating-conflict
- Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies (October 10, 2020) ‘Battle for Marib – The Yemen Review, September 2020’ https://sanaacenter.org/publications/the-yemen-review/11678
- Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies (October 13, 2021) ‘Southerners Protest Economic Collapse as the Houthis Advance – The Yemen Review, September 2021’ https://sanaacenter.org/publications/the-yemen-review/15218
- Ibrahim Jalal (January 22, 2020) ‘Yemen’s Stockholm Agreement one year on: Imaginary progress?’ Middle East Institute https://www.mei.edu/publications/yemens-stockholm-agreement-one-year-imaginary-progress
- Hadil al-Mowafak (November 2021) ‘For Sustainable Peace, Human Rights Must Be Front and Center of Yemen’s Peace Process’ Yemen Policy Center https://www.yemenpolicy.org/for-sustainable-peace-human-rights-must-be-front-and-center-of-yemens-peace-process/
- Mareike Transfeld et. al. ‘Local security governance in Yemen in times of war: The cases of al-Hudayda, Ta‘iz and Aden.’ Yemen Policy Center. April 14, 2021. Available at: https://www.yemenpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/YPC-CARPO-Local-Security-Governance-in-Yemen-in-Times-of-War-final.pdf
- Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies (December 2019) ‘Yemen Peace Forum’ https://sanaacenter.org/programs/ypf
- Peace Track Initiative ‘Yemen Feminist Peace Roadmap’ https://www.peacetrackinitiative.org/convening2021
- Hadil al-Mowafak (November 2021) ‘For Sustainable Peace, Human Rights Must Be Front and Center of Yemen’s Peace Process’ Yemen Policy Center https://www.yemenpolicy.org/for-sustainable-peace-human-rights-must-be-front-and-center-of-yemens-peace-process/
- Lerato Pagiwa (November 6, 2017) ‘Nobody Has Made Any Attempt to Shield Yemeni Civil Society Organisations from Impact of Armed Conflict’ CIVICUS Global Alliance https://www.civicus.org/index.php/es/component/content/article/122-media-resources/news/interviews/2987-nobody-has-made-any-attempt-to-shield-yemeni-civil-society-organisations-from-impact-of-armed-conflict?Itemid=1523.