The United Nations is planning to hold talks on Thursday, September 6, inviting Yemen’s warring factions to Geneva for the first round of negotiations among the parties since 2016. UN-sponsored negotiations held in Kuwait in 2016, saw the Houthis rejection of a plan to withdraw from major cities and form a unity government and marked the last attempt at using peaceful political talks, ushering in two long years of violence, devastating Yemen. Both the Yemeni government and rebel opposition Houthis have asserted their willingness to attend the upcoming talks, but not all were optimistic about reaching a peace deal at this stage.
Special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths appeared optimistic about the task at hand but realistic about inevitable challenges as he spoke with the United Nations Security Council. He stated, “I hope to begin a difficult and uncertain journey to end this war,” citing the first round of consultations will give parties the opportunity to discuss the framework for negotiations as well as the necessary confidence-building measures required to begin the process of peacebuilding. While most commentators are cautious of the challenges that lay ahead, some are less optimistic about the outcome of the talks due to the complicated agenda and division within Yemeni parties and Houthi factions. Randa Slim, director of Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogue Program at the Middle East Institute, noted, “assuming they take place, they will be difficult negotiations… a lot has taken place since the Kuwait negotiations which will complicate the agenda of talks.”
While all attempts to negotiate peace should be welcomed, the situation on the ground is not one which appears conducive to it. The same day that the UN announced the talks, 55 civilians were killed and another 170 injured in an air raid on the Houthi controlled Yemeni Red Sea town of Hodeida, according to reports from the Red Cross. The bombing appeared to target Yemen’s largest hospital, the Al-Thawra hospital, and the town’s fish market. These attacks appear to be part of a systematic and strategic attempt to target civilians or at least ensure the existence of civilian suffering. 70% of Yemen’s food imports pass via Hodeida and it is a vital area as a gateway for humanitarian aid into the country. The 22 million people requiring aid in the country cannot afford to have this city and the Red Sea used as a theatre in the war.
Over 10,000 deaths have resulted from the conflict which has merged into what is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iranian backed Houthi rebels campaign to seize control of Yemen has been met with a fierce Saudi and UAE backed military campaign since 2015. Both sides have committed grave atrocities, however, a recent UN report cited that the actions of the coalition which have resulted in thousands of deaths of civilians in airstrikes, tortured detainees, raping of civilians and using child soldiers may amount to war crimes. The Saudi-led coalition has developed its own ‘no-strike list’, yet this clearly has not been consulted evidenced by its strikes of refugee camps and hospitals, noted the UN report. Last month 40 children were killed on a school bus after being hit by a Saudi-coalition strike.
The UN-sponsored negotiations are undoubtedly necessary and will slowly shape the future of Yemen. It is likely that the UN will offer to manage the Hodeida port, a concession that should be agreed upon by all parties as it is vital for millions of Yemeni’s in dire need of food and assistance. These talks mark an important first step towards a long and tough journey to peace. However, it is important that these talks are not held captive to the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran.