Saturday,26 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1354, (27 July - 2 August 2017)
Saturday,26 May, 2018
Issue 1354, (27 July - 2 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Not giving up on Yemen

UN Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed speaks to Ahmed Eleiba about hope for a settlement in the country amid grave and deep challenges


Not giving up on Yemen

Yemen is in a state of severe deterioration on political, security, economic and social levels because the stakeholders in the Yemeni crisis  — the Houthi-Saleh alliance in particular — lack the necessary political will to adopt and follow through on proposals for a settlement sponsored by the UN and presented by its special envoy to the parties concerned. Worse yet, in the event proposals are adopted, the parties deliberately obstruct and undermine them. As long as this remains the case, the crisis will grow deeper and more intractable while Yemen’s humanitarian plight, characterised by severe economic hardship and mounting rates of malnutrition and disease, will spiral out of control.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed (right) with Al-Ahram Weekly reporter

In exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly during his recent visit to Cairo, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed discussed the situation concerning UN efforts in Yemen and reiterated his call for a resumption of peace negotiations. He also explained how, for the first time, he disengaged the main tracks of the settlement process from subsidiary tracks by means of what has been termed the “Hodeida model”, which he believes can be built on as an avenue to a comprehensive solution while contributing to remedying the economic crisis in Yemen. In spite of the many challenges, as well as the threats facing the UN team currently engaged in Yemen, Ould Cheikh Ahmed still believes there is hope.


You began your assignment as the UN secretary general’s special envoy in Yemen in April 2015. In light of current conditions, how do you assess your efforts as a mediator for the UN in this crisis?

Having begun this task more than two years ago, I know that people have every right to ask, “Why don’t we have a solution yet?” They have the impression that nothing has been accomplished. But for our part, we believe that our many efforts have yielded some important results: the climate that we were able to achieve in Kuwait, the agreements that we forged even if they weren’t signed, three uninterrupted months of direct talks between the two sides. In any war, the hardest thing to obtain is a direct dialogue between antagonists. Also, there were the rounds of talks that we held in Oman where we convinced the Houthis to accept UN Security Council Resolution 2216. Nor were these purely UN efforts. We had immense support from the countries in the region, such as the GCC countries, as well as from Britain, the US, France, China and Russia — the permanent members of the Security Council — and from the friends and supporters of Yemen known as the G18.


You’ve had previous experience in Yemen where you served as the UNDP’s humanitarian affairs coordinator for two years. Today it seems that the humanitarian and health situation in Yemen is deteriorating severely and that it is likely to get worse in view of the practices of Houthi militias. Is there not a UN mechanism for dealing with this situation?

I was in Yemen from 2012 to 2014 as UNDP coordinator for humanitarian affairs. That was before I went to Libya (as deputy head of the UN Support Mission in Libya). Then I was the UN Special Representative for the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) when I returned to Yemen. But what you mentioned is correct. At that point, in 2013 we had seven million Yemenis who needed humanitarian assistance. We called that a major crisis because seven million people was roughly equivalent to a third of the country’s population. Today, we’re speaking about 85 per cent of the population or more than 18.8 million Yemenis who need humanitarian assistance. Today, about a third of the population is on the brink of starvation. Cholera has spread rapidly in recent weeks. In less than two months, we have had more than 300,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths due to cholera. Yemen, today, has the worst child malnutrition rate in the world and diseases that were once infrequent or rare in the country, such as polio and measles, have begun to spread.

What I really want to work towards is a separation between the political and the humanitarian tracks. As severe as the tragedy is in the country, were it not for the efforts and dedication of the UN humanitarian team, which merit the highest praise, things could have been worse. In addition, in spite of the deteriorating security conditions, the humanitarian team and NGOs continue to work under these gruelling conditions. They refuse to give up and leave Yemen. On the other hand, we had projected that we would need $2.2 billion in order to provide humanitarian relief in Yemen this year. Regretfully, I have to say that at this point halfway through the year we have only obtained 30 per cent of the amount. I should add that the UN Security Council, in every session on Yemen, has always been determined to underscore the importance of the humanitarian question there.


During your recent visit to Sanaa you personally came under attack at the airport. Is this not an indication that the party responsible for that attack wants to end your role and UN mediation in Yemen?

There was indeed an attack against the convoy I was in. But I decided not to make too much of that issue because ultimately it has to do with me personally and I don’t want to personalise things. Moreover, I think that the Yemenis — the children, the women and people as a whole — are suffering from more dangerous things on a daily basis. Some face the threat of death directly. Secondly, that attempt will not diminish my resolve to continue with the work. The security team at the time suggested that we move our work outside of Sanaa. But I stayed there for three days and I moved around to different parts of the city in the course of various visits which included meetings with leaders from the General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Ansar Allah movement.

Although the incident was serious and unacceptable and contrary to Yemeni customs, what I regretted more was that I was unable to hold talks on the initiatives that I had come to discuss, namely the Hodeida and the peace initiatives. To me, that was more serious, especially since they had launched a major propaganda campaign against these efforts at the time without having even listened to them first. I think there are several possible explanations for this. One resides in how the Ansar Allah misread and mis-perceive the international community and its position. One of the strong points in Yemen is that the international community is united on the question of Yemen and recognises legitimacy and acknowledges the efforts undertaken by the UN envoy.


In the framework of your meetings with leaders from the Houthi-Saleh alliance, was there one voice or two voices regarding that alliance’s stances on questions related to the settlement process and the initiatives you propose?

Some say — and perhaps they are correct — that there are divisions within the Ansar Allah leadership between hardliners and others. That is also possible in the structure of the larger alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh. Certainly, there are some differences of opinion. However, in my opinion — and this is something I noticed during my recent visit — we are still looking at a unified voice. Even the people in the GPC, who have been sympathetic and at least issued a statement condemning the attack, decided not to hold a separate meeting with me because they want to sustain the united front between Ansar Allah and the GPC. In my opinion, we have not reached the point of complete rift.


Are other regional parties still asserting a presence in the crisis. Specifically, is Iran still intervening?

Certainly. Even Ansar Allah admit that they have received assistance from Iran, but they minimise its significance. I have visited Iran twice in the course of my duties and Iranian officials say there is no Iranian intervention in Yemen. This is their official position and we respect that.


The Houthis held talks with security officials in Saudi Arabia. Was that a separate track from yours? What is your opinion on it?

It was a separate track, but a good one. We encouraged those direct talks and we were among those who facilitated them. Oman also played a major role, among other countries. Saudi Arabia took major steps and the people in Ansar Allah told them that international political leaders had encouraged that course. In my view, that is the future, because, ultimately, we’re neighbours in the region. You can’t choose who your neighbour is. If the Saudis had concerns, especially with regard to border security and missiles, some of which had reached major cities, that is something to take seriously. Also, the Saudis speak of an Iranian presence. In my opinion, if we get such talks started and if there are more reassurances and greater willingness on the part of the Houthis to eliminate those concerns it will be easier to make progress in these matters.


You called for a resumption of negotiations in March and you reiterated that call. In the event of a favourable response to this appeal, when would talks pick up again?

Firstly, we still maintain that all the ideas regarding a solution were aired in Kuwait. There were more than 90 days of direct and indirect discussions there. As I have always said, there is a political dimension and a security dimension. The latter has to do with troop withdrawals, handing in weapons and other security issues. We can’t have groups operating outside the state in control of cities and government institutions. As for the political dimension, it is about political partnership and the presence of the Houthis and the groups affiliated with Ali Abdullah Saleh and others in any future government. This is their right. Any future solution has to take shape in this framework. People might differ on a particular issue, such as the nature of the institution of the presidency or how to handle elections or how to form a government for such and such a period. However, these are all details, not the essential points. The essential points, as I said, are the security and the military dimensions.


Judging from your presentations to the Security Council lately and your recent tours in Hodeida, it seems that we’re looking at a new track in the negotiations. Is this to be a subsidiary track, secondary to the main one?

That’s an important question, because it gives me the opportunity to clarify a point that appears to have escaped everyone. Regretfully, when I spoke of Hodeida, some people imagined that we were abandoning the comprehensive solution in order to focus on the port. That is not true. Hodeida is only a step in the larger and comprehensive solution. The alliance and the legitimate government were preparing for a military operation against the port of Hodeida. They had proclaimed their intentions in this regard. Even when the UN secretary general visited the region, there was talk in this vein. We at the UN believe that a military operation against Hodeida would have grave humanitarian repercussions and threaten the stability of the region. Therefore, we put some ideas to the alliance and to the people in Saudi Arabia and the legitimate government. They agreed to some things, but they have not reached an agreement.

To make myself clearer, some have the impression that an agreement was signed, but the fact is that there was no agreement to sign. Rather there were ideas that were proposed and that were agreed on in principle. Unfortunately, until now we have not had the chance to meet directly with the people in Ansar Allah and the GPC on this matter. As I said, in Sanaa I met with some of their leaders and conveyed to them some of the ideas. They cannot say that we have ignored them.


What are these ideas?

Hodeida is not an end in and of itself. It is a first step to a complete and comprehensive solution. After we get to Hodeida, we want to reach a ceasefire and a return to direct talks. As you know, I’ve met with His Excellency Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti minister of foreign affairs, who said that Kuwait welcomes our return if we are truly prepared to end the crisis and sign a peace agreement.

Firstly, there’s the security aspect: the creation of a military commission made up of officers who were not directly involved in the war and who are respected by all parties. These officers would supervise military arrangements from headquarters in the city and port of Hodeida, and they would be supported by military units drawn from the military contingents that are already present there, while the rest would leave to an agreed upon distance.

Secondly, there is the economic aspect: creation of an economic and finance committee made up of businessmen. We’ve spoken with various businessmen who are ready to take part because they regard this as in their interests, the foremost of which is the welfare of their country. The committee, which would be directly supervised by the UN and other expert parties, will administer the revenues that arrive in Hodeida.

One of the objectives of this aspect is to resolve the question of salaries. The people in Ansar Allah have blamed the UN for failing to solve the question of salaries. There are large revenues in the north and they need to be part of the sum that pays the salaries. There are major revenues in the port and in customs duties that also have to be included in the calculation. However, we want to broaden the idea by creating an account, administered by the Central Bank with the help of the UN, the World Bank and other such agencies that would incorporate not just Hodeida but also the ports of Aden, Mukalla, Mocha and others. This would be possible if it were a genuine aim of all parties and intentions were sincere.

Sadly, we have noticed that personal interests sometimes surface and drive some people to object to such ideas.


To what extent is the new US administration a factor in the current equations? Is it as involved as the previous administration, which proposed initiatives such as that formulated by former secretary of state John Kerry? What is your opinion?

I’ve met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other members of the administration in the White House and with advisers to President Trump. I’ve noticed two important points for this administration. Firstly, it strongly supports the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the stability of the GCC. It will prioritise any threat to those countries and will be ready to give them its support. Secondly, it is concerned over the spread of terrorism. Unfortunately, this war and the lack of stability that exists today makes terrorist groups in Yemen stronger than they had ever been.


Have you retained a degree of optimism on the Yemeni question, in spite of everything?

Of course, we’re optimistic. Let me say that one of the saddest things is that the solution in Yemen is in reach. All that’s required is the political will. The Yemeni people are weary. The whole region has wearied of that dangerous war with its repercussions in terms of terrorism and regional instability. Also, as you know, it poses a threat to maritime security in the Red Sea.


What is your opinion on Egypt’s role in the crisis as based on the meetings you’ve had with Egyptian officials?

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people for having received a large community of refugees from Yemen. I had not expected the number to be so high. Perhaps more than 100,000 Yemenis have come to Egypt where they feel at home and obtain many facilities. As I observed during my meetings with the Egyptian foreign minister and the secretary general of the Arab League, Egypt is an important country in the region and it attaches great importance to the stability of the Red Sea region and elsewhere. I put great store in Egypt’s role and its support in the Security Council and I also praise that role.

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