United Nations special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths realizes that several doubts cloud the Iran-backed Houthis’ political pledges. Any Yemeni opponent of the group agrees with these doubts and believes that the Houthis do not even know the meaning of peace, citing the nearly 15 years of wars waged in their country.
Griffiths, however, said that he received pledges from the militias and will leave it up to the September 6 consultations in Geneva to reveal exactly what these pledges mean to them.
The third UN envoy to Yemen in seven years told Asharq Al-Awsat that his ultimate goal from the consultations was to reach a signed agreement on forming a national unity government and making security arrangements.
In a series of emails to Asharq Al-Awsat, he explained that the General People’s Congress (GPC) and southerners must be part of the political process in Yemen.
Griffiths, who assumed his position in March, is hoping to reach a swift settlement to the conflict based on previous negotiations rounds. He explained that a settlement will not lead to peace, but stop the war in Yemen.
Griffiths expressed his disappointment over how some people use the media to make polarizing statements. His duty, he explained, was to find a middle ground between the rival parties. This is the role of a mediator, not a negotiator, he clarified. The solution will come from the Yemenis themselves, not the mediator or anyone else. He said that he, along with the UN, were there to help the parties reach this solution.
The envoy reiterated statements he had made at the UN Security Council in which he said that the Yemenis have to live with people they do not like, meaning that condemnations against them should stop. Building peace means that each side needed to respect the other and their different views, instead of denouncing and condemning them.
It is important to reach an agreement on using the media to build alliances instead of condemning enemies, Griffiths said, while adding that he seeks to build hope and goodwill among the Yemenis.
He also explained that he tries not to speak ill of any of the warring sides because they are all needed for the solution to the conflict. He revealed that some sides urge him to condemn this side or that, but he always refuses. He instead highlighted what he called one of his best assets: His ability to listen. By listening, he elaborated, he will be able to find common ground, not causes for division, among the parties.
The September 6 consultations in Geneva will kick off from many good and bad lessons learned from previous rounds of talks held in Biel, Geneva and Kuwait, Griffiths told Asharq Al-Awsat. He added that he also took many lessons from his meetings with several Yemenis, diplomats and leaders in the past few months.
The main goal, he remarked, was to reach an agreement between the Yemeni government and the Houthis on several central issues that would stop the war and lead to a national unity government that brings together all sides. This will demand a signed agreement by all concerned parties. The deal must include the establishment of a political transition period and a unity government based on Security Council resolution 2216. It will also demand security arrangements whereby all armed groups would withdraw from their locations and lay down their weapons.
The woman, South and GPC
Resolution 2216 calls for comprehensive political dialogue, stressed Griffiths. This includes bringing in the Yemeni woman to take part in the consultations because of the important role she can play in finding middle ground and prioritizing peace.
The people of the South should also be part of this process, he added, noting that the situation there had changed. They should be part of the future of Yemen and not be ignored.
The political parties, specifically the GPC, should also be part of this process. Most of the parties are represented in the Yemeni government or among the Houthis, but not all of them. Options must be available to find a way to include them in the peace process, said Griffiths.
He hoped that a swift settlement based on all previous rounds of negotiations can be reached. The end of the war will first and foremost allow Yemeni families and children to end their reliance on humanitarian aid. It will also include a transition process that will lead to peace. The settlement, he stated, will not build peace, but end the war. Peacebuilding, he continued, will take some time and will include other parties besides the ones concerned with ending the war.
Difference between consultations and talks
At the moment, continued Griffiths, consultations are being held to set the stage for negotiations. Consultations are an official process. Consultations do not necessarily need to be held face-to-face between parties, but they are still possible. Talks are the official process between parties and are held one-on-one in order to reach a settlement, the UN envoy added. Talks will be held once consultations are complete. He stated that Geneva was chosen for the September consultations because it is a neutral location.
Doubts over Houthi commitments
Griffiths told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Houthis, including their leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi, had expressed to him their willingness to return to the negotiations table. In fact, he revealed that they had criticized him for being slow in calling parties to the table. The UN envoy said that he was very pleased to hear that the Houthis were committed to holding negotiations to reach a solution. He revealed that they even told him that they are aware of what was needed to reach this settlement.
He acknowledged the doubts that surround these claims, saying that the Geneva consultations will reveal what the Houthis truly mean by “commitment.”
As for the Yemeni government, Griffiths said that President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was a good interlocutor, as were the prime minister and foreign minister. They asserted to the envoy their complete understanding of what was required during this process.
The settlement demands that the exclusive right to carry arms be limited to one side and that is the new Yemeni government that will be formed from this process. All armed groups must, therefore, be disbanded. This will take time and it is no secret that this is what is being demanded, Griffiths said. Both sides are aware of this.
Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Red Sea
Addressing Saudi Arabia, he remarked that the Kingdom has a legitimate right to see its borders secured and stable. It territory should not be targeted and the UN is based on such principles.
No country must play a role in determining Yemen’s future. This is up for the Yemenis to decide, he stressed. He also revealed that everyone he had met, including officials in Saudi Arabia, had underlined this principle to him.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is not the only side that has an interest in seeing a stable Yemen. Europe has a major interest in ensuring safe trade through the Red Sea. This is very important, noted Griffiths. Stability in Yemen does not concern the Yemenis alone, but a solution there is very strategic.
Should the situation in the country deteriorate, Griffiths warned that that would lead to a greater threat from terrorism and extremism given that al-Qaeda and ISIS are already present there. This will pose a greater risk to trade. On this note, he highlighted the recent rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which he said presents a major opportunity for the Red Sea to play a greater role on the trade and environmental levels. Yemen should play a primary role in this issue.
Moreover, Griffiths remarked that stability in Yemen, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, would not be possible without economic relations with the Arab Gulf. Yemen’s economy, income, stability and living conditions will be based on reconstruction and trade with its neighbors. This is how real peace is established: By making sure that neighbors need each other. They should not fear or fight each other, he stressed.
No guarantees without a will
Observers on Yemen always wonder about the future. What will happen if an agreement were reached on everything? What guarantees that the Houthi militias will not betray their partners like they did in December when they turned against Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president who went against them.
Griffiths said that everyone should know that the only real guarantee for any agreement is the will of all sides. The Security Council could offer guarantees, or even sanctions, but if the sides do not want the operation to succeed, then it will not. Many people say that solutions must be imposed, but Griffiths stressed that efforts are being made to reach an agreement. Agreements are voluntary, not imposed.
The UN envoy said that it was necessary for the residents of the South to be aware of what will take place at the consultations, and later the negotiations, because it will affect them. The future of the South will not be addressed at Geneva in September. It will be discussed during the transition period. This was explained to the southerners, he revealed, and they were in agreement over it.
As a UN envoy, said Griffiths, he believes in the sovereignty, unity and security of any country. These are the values of the UN. It does not support separatism unless it was part of a consensual agreement. He stressed that he believes in the importance of the unity of Yemen, saying its separation will be a disaster.