Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Legitimising the coup?

The case of Yemen sheds light on the challenges the UN faces to bring peace to conflict zones, and the difficulties diplomats may have to remain neutral, writes Asem Alghamdi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

One mechanism the United Nations has to help parts of the world in crisis is to send a special envoy to deal with the various challenges. Jamal Benomar was chosen in 2011 to help promote a democratic transition in Yemen after the Arab Spring. He is a veteran Moroccan diplomat who worked with former US president Jimmy Carter on human rights issues.

As the special envoy for the United Nations secretary-general to Yemen, Benomar helped the parties of the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference reach an agreement to federalise the country. But when he stepped down late in 2015, there was a host of questions about his loyalty to the United Nations, his independence and his self-promotion into another lucrative job at the UN.

The media in the Gulf region criticised Benomar after he left his position. Many articles questioned his good faith and sometimes accused him of being biased towards the Houthi rebels from Saada, in the north of the country. The Houthis are a Zaidi-Shia group, a school of thought within Shia Islam named after Imam Zaid bin Ali.

Although Yemen is not part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, care deeply about the situation in neighbouring Yemen, especially since Saudi Arabia and Yemen share a 1,800-km border. Al-Riyadh, the Saudi daily newspaper, published a long profile of Benomar in April 2015 under the headline “Jamal Benomar Falsifies the Face of the Tragedy”.

The story appeared with the byline “Special” and criticised Benomar’s role in Yemen. “Yemenis created the #Benomar lying hashtag on Twitter to discredit his statements, and the hashtag tweets are now reaching the tens of thousands,” an unnamed editor also wrote in Al-Riyadh.

Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, accused Benomar of leaning towards the rebels when he negotiated the agreement. “It looks like the new agreement will lead to the disarming of the government and will empower the militias. It’s all with your blessings, Mr Benomar,” Karman said on her Facebook page.

The case of Benomar sheds light on the challenges the United Nations faces to bring peace to conflict zones and the difficulties diplomats have to remain neutral in these conflicts. It also draws attention to the Saudi-Iranian divide and the revolving door between government and diplomacy. In addition, Benomar’s tenure as UN special envoy sheds light on the Russian-Iranian partnership in the region.

Russia and Iran do not want the United States to be in control of the Middle East, and this is why they are both helping Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Al-Assad’s father, Hafez, was an ally of the former Soviet Union and worked against Western influence in the region. Al-Assad’s family is Alawi, a Shia sect, and this is another reason why Iran, which is largely Shia, is supporting the president.

Iran is supporting the Houthis in Yemen for the same sectarian reasons. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, dominated by Sunni Muslims, is trying to block Iranian influence in the region.

BENOMAR’S CHALLENGE: The importance of the job of special envoy of the UN secretary-general dramatically increased after the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions. UN special envoys are currently engaged in trying to restore security and stability in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan served as a special envoy to Syria in 2012. Former US president Bill Clinton was the UN’s special envoy to Haiti in 2009. The job requires an in-depth understanding of complex and dangerous situations in conflict zones. As a result, most of those who take this job have comprehensive and well-established political experience.

Benomar’s extensive background in geopolitics gave him the upper hand in this difficult job. The 59-year-old was born in Morocco in 1957. As a high school student, he was a political prisoner between 1976 and 1983 because of his sympathy with the left wing in his country.

After his release he worked with the international rights group Amnesty International in London as a specialist on Africa. He later moved to Geneva where he joined the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Benomar also served as director of the Carter Centre at Emory University in the US, where he worked with former US president Jimmy Carter on human rights issues.

The Moroccan diplomat was chosen for the international mission in Yemen because of his extensive experience dealing with conflicts in many countries, including Kosovo, Bosnia, South Africa and Iraq.

He worked with a staff of 75 between Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, and the UN headquarters in New York, where he briefed the Security Council about the country. His team consisted of 35 political workers, 25 administrative staff based in Yemen, and a 15-member security team tasked with protecting the special envoy during his travels inside the country.

Although weapons are widely accessible in Yemen, Yemenis succeeded in carrying out a peaceful revolution in 2011. After the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, thousands of Yemenis gathered in Sanaa, protesting against corruption and demanding the resignation of the then president Ali Abdullah Saleh. These demonstrations were a major part of the Arab uprisings of 2011.

In a way that was different from what happened in Egypt, Libya and Syria, a political solution followed the Yemeni revolution and led to agreements between the conflicting parties. Diplomatic efforts had some successes under the auspices of the UN, but the situation later deteriorated.

After months of protests, neighbouring countries proposed a GCC-led Gulf Initiative that called for President Saleh’s power to be transferred to his then vice-president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, 70, a Sunni from Abyan, a city in the south of Yemen. Hadi was the consensus candidate that Yemeni political parties agreed on to replace Saleh, 73, a Zaidi Shia from the north of the country.

On 23 November 2011, Saleh signed the Gulf Initiative in Riyadh and the political transition process was announced. The Gulf Initiative was internationally accepted and sponsored by Benomar, then at the start of his tour of duty in Yemen. “This is a historic day. It is time to work for the country’s reconstruction and national reconciliation and to achieve security and stability,” Benomar said after the signing ceremony in Riyadh.

On 21 February 2012, Hadi was the only candidate in the presidential elections, held as an outcome of the Gulf Initiative. He won with 99 per cent of the votes and was declared president of Yemen, and the man who would lead the transitional period, on 27 February.

It was a promising start, but it did not lead to the stability the Yemenis had hoped for. Saleh decided to take revenge on those who had ejected him from power, and he formed a new alliance with the Houthis who had been his adversaries when he was in power.

NATIONAL DIALOGUE: Based on the Gulf Initiative, all the Yemeni parties agreed on a national dialogue to draft a new constitution.

On 13 March 2013, Benomar succeeded in gathering the parties around the dialogue table, chaired by Interim President Hadi. There were some difficulties in agreeing on the implementation of the Gulf Initiative, but Benomar had an important role to play in initiating and finalising it.

By the end of the dialogue, which lasted for 10 months, the factions in Yemen agreed to extend Hadi’s term in office for another year and to establish a new federal system for the country. Based on this agreement, a presidential panel decided to transform Yemen into a six-region federation. Najeeb Ghanem, a member of the Yemeni parliament and a leader of the Al-Islah Party in Yemen, the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, confirmed that Benomar had been successful in the national dialogue.

“It is a crossroads really, a cornerstone of political activities in Yemen. It is a historic achievement,” Ghanem said. Mohamed Al-Qobati, the Yemeni information minister, agreed with Ghanem. “Benomar and the UN played a major role in the sequence that followed the GCC Initiative in relation to the national dialogue conference,” Al-Qobati said.

However, the political transition process continued as a tug of war until a dramatic change occurred in September 2014. The Houthis, allied with Saleh, prevented the success of the dialogue and carried out a coup against Hadi’s government by taking over the capital Sanaa.

By 21 September, the Iranian-backed Houthis had seized control of the capital and captured the government’s headquarters, marking the fall of Sanaa. They established a transitional presidential council and continued to advance south.

During this time, Benomar was in the Saada province, the Houthis’ homeland, conducting meetings with Houthi leader Abdulmalik Al-Houthi. “On the day the militias invaded Sanaa, he [Benomar] came with the Houthis’ representatives to the presidential palace in Sanaa with the draft of the Partnership and Peace Agreement for signature,” said Mohamed Jumaih, a political analyst.

“There was some sort of hidden agreement that let the Houthis come to Sanaa to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood, and from the Western point of view that was a good thing because they looked at the Houthis as strong partners in terms of the war on terrorism,” he added.

On the same day the Houthis took over Sanaa, the Peace and Partnership Agreement was signed between Hadi’s government and the Houthis in order to resolve the crisis between the two parties. It confirmed the formation of a new government led by the country’s current vice-president, Khaled Bahah, and the appointment of presidential advisers from the Houthis and the Southern Movement. The Houthis did not withdraw from Sanaa, the city they had conquered after the agreement, and they continued their coordination with Saleh.

The agreement is considered one of the most controversial results of Benomar’s assignment in Yemen. Most of the parties were forced to sign it because the Houthis were in power.

“The agreement was signed after the coup, and the Houthis forced the other partners to sign it. The situation was not normal, and the signatures were made against the intentions of most of the political partners in Yemen,” Ghanem said. Jumaih added, “This agreement was designed to meet the needs and the political agenda of the Houthis.”

When the Houthis occupied Sanaa, the UN special envoy did not condemn their actions, but instead expressed his concerns about what had happened and continued his meetings with the Houthis and other parties. According to Al-Qobati, Benomar was naive in his dealing with the Houthis.

“The Houthis were playing a game of upping their demands. Every time Benomar would reach one set of goal posts, they would move them, with the result that he gave them a lot. Even after he gave them the Peace and Partnership Agreement they gained a lot more, but even with this he could not make them implement the Agreement,” Al-Qobati said.

However, Abdulaziz Binsaqr, chairman of the Gulf Research Council, a research group, disagrees with Al-Qobati, believing that Benomar was caught between the two major parties in the conflict.

“He was trying to deal with the reality on the ground. He saw the Houthis were already in Sanaa and were in control of the situation there, so he was trying to make the best of that situation,” Binsaqr said, adding that the special envoy had only a limited authority.

“People were expecting the UN to play the role of receiving weapons from the Houthis, but its mandate did not say that. People were expecting the special envoy to create a safe zone and to deliver humanitarian aid, but his mandate did not include these things.”

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST: However, Ghanem also said that Benomar was trying to achieve a personal victory in Yemen.

“He was very keen to see his mission work successfully despite events on the ground [which were] against his wishes and intentions,” Ghanem said. Jumaih added that Benomar “wanted by any means just to come to an agreement so that he could put it on his record to open a new future for himself and for a new mission.”

Benomar was not the first UN special envoy to be accused of acting on behalf of one of the parties in a conflict, or of following an agenda that was not necessarily acceptable to all the parties on the ground. A potential conflict of interest in the job of a UN special envoy was also raised last year in Libya.

The UN special envoy to the country and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, Bernardino León, from Spain, accepted the job of director of the United Arab Emirates Diplomatic Academy. The UAE is the backer of one side in the civil war in Libya.

According to the UK newspaper the Guardian, León was offered the job last June and spent the summer negotiating the terms of the position with a Gulf state that supports one side in the civil war he was tasked by the UN to try to end.

Back in the Yemeni capital, the Houthis demanded the appointment of dozens of their supporters to positions of military leadership, but the vice-president and the president refused and resigned, though the parliament did not meet to approve their resignations.

As a result, on 20 January 2015, the Houthi rebels put Hadi under house arrest in Sanaa. One month later, he escaped to the southern port city of Aden, where he withdrew his resignation. On 19 March 2015, the Houthis unsuccessfully targeted the presidential palace where Hadi was residing in Aden, and two days after this attack Hadi requested assistance from Saudi Arabia.

On 26 March 2015, in response to Hadi’s request, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Qatar, Bahrain and Morocco, to support its intervention. The Saudi-led coalition launched a massive air attack on the Houthi rebels and Saleh forces in Yemen. This Sunni coalition assisted Hadi in stopping the Shia influence in Yemen.

On the diplomatic front, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries started to lobby the UN Security Council to pass UN Security Council Resolution 2216, passed on 14 April 2015. This demanded that the Houthis withdraw from all the areas they had seized during the conflict and hand over their weapons. The resolution was passed, but it was never implemented. The Houthis’ refusal to withdraw again raises the issue of UN authority in conflict zones.

“Who is going to implement this resolution on the ground? Who is going to receive the weapons from the Houthis? Or deliver humanitarian aid?” Binsaqr asked at the time.

The conflict then escalated and was a focus of the UN General Assembly meeting last September in New York. Hadi reiterated his call for the Houthi rebels to lay down their arms and told the General Assembly in a speech, “This has been our position since the very beginning. We have cooperated with all the authentic efforts of the international community, in particular those of [Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon and Ismail Ould Cheikh, special envoy of the secretary-general, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2216.”

Said Hadi, “The political process continued according to the results of the national dialogue facilitated by the Gulf Cooperation Council. I would like to convey to the Houthis and the Saleh militia that they must lay down their weapons. They must act in line with reason, and implement Security Council Resolution 2216 in a heartfelt manner.”

Resolution 2216 was issued in April 2015 and demanded that the Houthis withdraw from all the areas seized during the conflict. The only non-affirmative vote on the resolution was a Russian abstention, a result that Saudi diplomacy had worked hard to achieve, as a Russian veto would have defeated the resolution.

“It took us many private meetings with the Russian ambassador to pass the resolution,” Saad Al-Saad, Saudi deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said. Russia and Iran have common interests in the Middle East, and both support Al-Assad in Syria, though Russia has no direct interest in Yemen.

Two days after the passage of the Security Council resolution, Benomar delivered a speech in New York that pointed to the failure of his efforts to rebuild the political transition process in Yemen, due to “the escalation in violence”, without naming the responsible party.

“The Yemeni factions were close to reaching a political solution, but today they are once again far apart,” Benomar said.

One month after the Arab coalition air strikes in Yemen began, Benomar told the US newspaper the Wall Street Journal that the bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels had hardened the situation.

“When this campaign started, one thing that was significant but went unnoticed was that the Yemenis were close to a deal that would institute power-sharing with all sides, including the Houthis,” Benomar told the paper.

Although Benomar has been blamed by some Yemenis for contributing to the deterioration of the situation in Yemen by holding unsuccessful peace talks between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, Ban Ki-moon nevertheless announced the appointment of Benomar as special adviser at the level of under-secretary-general after his mission in Yemen.

THE GENEVA TALKS: After Benomar stepped down from his post as special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed of Mauritania was appointed to fill the position.

Ahmed put a lot of effort into the Geneva talks on the crisis by working closely with the GCC.

The talks began on 16 June 2015, and later ended without any agreement between the government and the Houthis. On 9 July, the UN announced an unconditional ceasefire between 10 July and 17 July, but the parties broke the ceasefire within an hour of its announcement.

Al-Qobati believes that today it is Saleh, a firm supporter of the Houthi rebels, who is doing the most to impede the work of the special envoy. “Both of them [the UN envoys] do not realise that they are dealing with a person who is mischievous, a criminal who can play all sorts of games,” Al-Qobati said.

Ahmed held another round of talks in Switzerland in mid-December last year in conjunction with a ceasefire. The parties agreed to form two special committees — one for humanitarian relief and one focussed on a ceasefire — but the conflict nevertheless continued.

On 17 February, during a session of the Security Council on Yemen, Ahmed said that he had decided to postpone the new round of peace talks because of the continuing dispute over the agenda. On 7 March, Saudi Arabia began direct talks with the Houthis for the first time during the almost one-year war, focussing on ways to end the conflict and institute an immediate ceasefire.

About 3,000 civilians have died in Yemen since the conflict began. Many fear a wider regional war between Iran and Saudi Arabia if it continues. On 23 March, Ahmed announced that Yemen’s warring parties had agreed to a nationwide cessation of hostilities starting on 10 April.

He also confirmed that new peace talks would take place in Kuwait on 18 April. “This is really our last chance,” Ahmed said in New York at the time. “The war in Yemen must be brought to an end.”


The writer is a Saudi journalist.

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