Yemen war, time to rethink the two-party approach to peacebuilding

United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. © Mathias P.R. Reding on Unsplash.

This article is a brief presentation of the latest report published by the International Crisis Group on the peacebuilding process in Yemen

Six years on, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains one of the world’s worst, with no tangible progress made so far to end the war for good. Collecting the views of Yemeni activists, conflict analysts, local civil society actors and women’s organisations, the International Crisis Group (ICG) attempts to identify the key issues impeding peacebuilding efforts on the ground, particularly focusing on the two-party conflict resolution framework led by the United Nations (UN), which has been criticised for not doing enough to include women and civil society actors from the talks.

The current UN-led approach to resolving the conflict, which was enshrined in a UN Security Council Resolution, 2216 (UNSCR 2216), dates back from the early days of Yemen’s civil war, when the UN limited its mediation efforts to the internationally recognised Hadi government and the Houthi rebels. The Yemen war today consists of a series of several “small wars” being fought among Yemenis, but the conflict originated from the forced political transition in 2011 between the Yemen’s long-standing authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, following the Arab Spring uprising. Under Mr. Hadi, the country gradually entered a period of corruption, unemployment, and food insecurity. The Houthi movement, an alliance of Houthi rebels and loyalists of the former president supported by many ordinary Yemenis disillusioned with the failed political transition, gradually took over the capital Sana’a in late 2014 and extended its reach to much of north-western Yemen, taking advantage of the country’s instability.

It should come as no surprise that the Yemeni people have suffered greatly as a result of the political unrest and protracted fighting. The number of Yemenis which have been internally displaced by the war currently stands at 4.3 million, 2.6 million of which are on the brink of famine. Women make up around three quarters of IDPs and are also suffering the indirect consequences of the Covid-19 crisis after suddenly becoming the sole breadwinner in homes and carrying the full economic burden of sustaining large families. 

The conflict has also negatively impacted the, already strict, gender norms at play in Yemeni society, further raising the structural barriers women were subject to in pre-war Yemen: unequal access to education and employment, and social norms preventing women from travelling alone or participating in sectors considered too dangerous - such as politics. But in truth, women-led organisations have been able to address local issues that the UN-led framework has not, such as negotiating the release of political detainees and prisoners of war and successfully mediating between pro-Hadi forces and Houthi fighters to reopen roads around the heavily hit city of Taiz, the third largest city in Yemen. 

Despite their pivotal role in society and local political life, women-led, civil society organisations and mediators have been marginalised from the peace building process, partly due to the Hadi government’s and Houthi movement’s strong opposition to the inclusion of women and civil society organisations. UNSCR 2216 has enshrined a two-party framework to end the war, but many have criticised it as misrepresenting the complex and multi-layered conflict that has been continually shifting over the past six years . No formal or direct roles in the official UN negotiations have been assigned to women or civil society representatives, and the UN only recently began making room for female representatives within the talks. Furthermore, the recent inclusion efforts have been considered a ‘bare minimum’, and were described by many as ‘tokenism’, a symbolic way to show support for the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda in Yemen, rather than a full inclusion in the talks. The current approach is also seen by some as potentially encouraging parties to take up arms rather than reach a peaceful conclusion to the war. For these, and more, reasons outlined in the paper, the ICG strongly recommends the imposition of quotas on the warring parties’ delegations to include local unarmed actors such as women’s mediation groups and local peacebuilding organisations.

As the war in Yemen enters its seventh year, the current approach to peacebuilding has become largely unrepresentative of the tensions on the ground. Unarmed civil society actors and mediating organizations, such as the women-led groups which have been influential in resolving social issues and disputes throughout the war, are being marginalised in political talks, which is likely to perpetuate the misunderstandings of the conflict, creating many more years of stalemate and costing many more civilian lives. Their inclusion is critical to political stability at the local level and, as such, vital in guaranteeing a ceasefire but, most importantly, they are the only assurance to successfully restore a lasting peace.


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Author: Giulia Ferrara; Editor: Xavier Atkins

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