Martin Griffiths, the new United Nations special envoy for Yemen and a British international mediator, will begin work this month on a war that is called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Griffiths is highly praised in the arena of private conflict mediation, having founded his own firm in 1999 that has brokered resolutions to insurgent situations in places in Africa, Asia and Europe. He has also led various diplomatic and humanitarian organizations and was an adviser to the UN special envoys for Syria, including the current one, Staffan de Mistura.
Griffiths was chosen by Britain and approved for the post by the UN secretary-general, António Guterres.
No matter how promising Griffiths’ background, however, the current peace talks on Yemen are based on what one diplomat called a “scandalous” framework that calls for one side, the Houthi rebels, to essentially “give up.”
So the question remains: Is UN-sponsored peace in Yemen even possible, given the weak backing by powerful Western nations and other major obstacles — like weapons sales — to stopping the war?
Griffiths’ immediate predecessor, a Mauritanian diplomat named Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, saw his legitimacy dissipate over his nearly three years in office. (His contract ended in February and Griffiths is supposed to start in mid-March.) From one side, the Houthi rebels in Yemen had virtually blacklisted Ahmed by the summer of 2017, accusing him of bias toward the Saudi-led foreign military coalition, which backed the incumbent president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
From the other side, Hadi immediately rejected Ahmed’s last peace proposal in October 2016, after which the UN envoy was unable to push the main warring sides back to negotiations.
Just getting Ahmed out of office was a step in the right direction, said Yemen experts who spoke to PassBlue. But for Griffiths to really improve on-the-ground dynamics of the UN peace process in Yemen, some civil society leaders assert that he must begin by actively involving local political figures who hold extensive power in the deeply fractured and localized country.
Past negotiations for resolution in Yemen “ignored key local actors who have legitimacy on the ground,” said Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
“A successful process will address tensions at the local level” — particularly in regions where factions have been violently engaging Houthi forces for years, as well as in the south of Yemen, where a separatist movement recently orchestrated an uprising against the Hadi government.
Griffiths’ experience in private mediation could prove useful, as it is part of his modus operandi to elevate local voices, including those of women, who can help prod warring elites toward discussions.
Yet a major dynamic to the Yemen war could severely limit Griffiths’ power to mediate, setting him up, as one expert on the situation said, “on a suicide mission.”
“The Yemen file has to be extracted from the proxies,” said Waleed Alhariri, who runs the New York office of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank. Including local actors is an important first step, but Alhariri stressed that the international community needs to abandon the notion that Yemen is a crucial proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Without strong international and regional diplomacy, the UN envoy is “a tool without arms,” Alhariri said.
Saudi Arabia is directly involved in the Yemen war, leading a regional coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, dropping bombs against Houthi strongholds. The Saudis consider the Houthis to be an instrument of influence for their regional archrival, Iran, and although Houthi forces have gained more ground than they have lost since the Saudi bombardment began, they have refused to give up their air campaign.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described the bombing as “the leading cause of civilian casualties” in Yemen. (A shake-up of the military in Saudi Arabia in February is said to reflect its lack of success in the Yemen war despite its sophisticated weaponry.)
Iran mostly denies direct involvement in Yemen, although it has long been rumored that Iranian hard-liners provide financial and military support to the Houthis — who are responsible for their own share of civilian casualties. Moreover, the UN panel of experts on Yemen concluded in a recent report, based on circumstantial evidence, that missiles launched into Saudi Arabia by Houthi forces were of Iranian origin.
Nikki Haley, the United States envoy to the UN, has seized on the report to isolate Iran for its “lawless” behavior in the region, citing its “violation” of the UN arms embargo in Yemen.
The actions of Saudi allies with permanent seats on the UN Security Council make it more unlikely that the Council will de-escalate proxy tensions. Rather, the US and Britain have used their prominent roles in the Council to highlight Iran’s alleged role in the conflict while refusing to officially criticize Saudi carnage.
In February, Britain — the Council’s penholder for the Yemen conflict — drafted a resolution, vetoed by Russia, that would have condemned Iran for its “noncompliance” with the arms embargo on Houthi leaders and called for targeted sanctions. Haley was an ardent supporter of the resolution and has been trying to rally Europe against Iranian involvement in Yemen ever since she famously gave a speech in Washington in December in front of Houthi missile parts that Saudis claimed were recovered from their territory.
The draft resolution made no mention of violations by the Yemeni government or the Saudi-led coalition. A Russian version was approved by the Council instead, renewing the arms embargo and the UN experts’ mandate, omitting any reference to Iran’s alleged involvement in supplying arms to the Houthis.
At the same time, Britain has also drafted a presidential statement that praises Saudi Arabia for pledging nearly $1 billion toward UN humanitarian relief in Yemen. The money, which will go directly to the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is due by March 31.
Paradoxically, the money could contribute to further paralysis in the peace process; as one diplomat told PassBlue, such donations have caused the UN to be “tamed by Saudi Arabia.”
The presidential statement has been delayed as some Council members argue for more forceful language regarding civilian casualties inflicted by Saudi attacks.
What may also be holding up a strong, powerful voice among the Council’s permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – to condemn the disproportionate assaults by the coalition in Yemen? Highly lucrative weapons contracts.
The desire for weapons sales has been a major source of hesitancy among certain Council members to counter Saudi Arabia’s proxy war narrative, according to a diplomat who spoke on background to PassBlue.
The US and Britain together have secured tens of billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia since the Yemen offensive began, and more than $100 billion in further deals is said to be in the works. Recently, however, three American senators proposed legislation to end to US material support for Saudi intervention in Yemen.
The number of British-made bombs and missiles sold to the Saudis since 2015 has risen by almost 500 percent, according to The Independent newspaper. Russia is also selling weapons to the Saudis worth $3 billion, in a deal brokered in 2017.
Such toeing of the Saudi line by the Council has created an imbalance that could make it exceedingly difficult for Griffiths to get the main warring parties to talk to each other.
According to Enrico Carisch, an international sanctions expert, the question for Griffiths is, “Will he be able to pursue a balanced and even-handed approach that does not favor Saudi Arabia and that gives credence to the justified grievances of the Houthis?” The fact that Griffiths is British may not bode well for an affirmative answer.
“One of the underpinnings of good-sense mediation is that the mediator is the carrot and the sanctions are the stick,” said Carisch, who has questioned the UN report’s methodology in claiming that Iran is supplying weapons to the rebels in Yemen. “In Yemen, the stick only applies to the Houthis.”
The resolution under which the UN envoy must operate only adds to the imbalance. Adopted less than a month after the Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen, the resolution places all responsibility to “end the use of violence” on the Houthis, who are expected to “withdraw their forces from all the areas they have seized.” The Council had expected Russia to veto the resolution, but it abstained.
The resolution is “outdated and, frankly, has become one of the multiple obstacles to resuming negotiations,” said Eric Eikenberry, director of policy and advocacy for the Yemen Peace Project, a US-based nonprofit group. “By asking the Houthis to unilaterally disarm and withdraw from much of the territory under their control, it places unrealistic preconditions on one party to the conflict.”
Considering that recent actions by the US and Britain support the Saudis so openly, and unless Saudi Arabia accepts Hadi’s engaging in a power-sharing agreement or a secret deal is worked out between the parties, Griffiths’ path to peace may never materialize.
As Carisch, the sanctions expert, said, “Martin Griffiths is taking on an impossible job.”
[This article was updated to confirm that Griffiths was chosen by Britain for the post.]
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Chris Gelardi has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in humanities from Villanova University. He was a reporting fellow in the Global Migration Project at the Columbia journalism school.