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Department of Political Affairs

Political Transition in Yemen: a Step toward Peace

March 2012

Millions of Yemenis cast ballots in late-February presidential elections that marked an important milestone in the political transition taking place under a UN-mediated agreement designed to bring greater peace and stability to the country.

An earlier version of the following article, focusing on the mediation of UN Special Adviser Jamal Benomar, first appeared in the E-News of the Department of Political Affairs.


For Yemen, a fragile state facing an insurgency in its north, an independence movement in its south, deep poverty and an alarming expansion of Al-Qaeda within its borders, the Arab Spring, with its calls for sweeping political change, added a new layer of complexity to the country’s long-running troubles.

Youth-led street protests for democracy were met with repres­sion, and then military clashes erupted between supporters and opponents of the longstanding President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The fighting brought more blood­shed and destruction while dis­tracting from the other security challenges in the country.

 

UN-Mediated Political Agreement

Yet out of these newest difficulties there is a chance, under a UN-mediated political agreement, for Yemen’s lead­ers to turn the recent political turmoil into an opportunity to begin moving the country in the direction of greater stabil­ity and peace.

The UN envoy to Yemen (top left) meets with security officials in Taiz, the country’s third largest city. December 2011.

UN envoy Jamal Benomar, who helped to broker the agreement in November at the request of Yemen’s government and political opposition, cautions that the two-year “roadmap” for transition is only one step in what would be a long and difficult road forward.

“It is not an agreement that will solve all of the problems,“ he says. “What it does is to provide a framework for processes and insti­tutions that could lead Yemenis to address together, in a spirit of dialogue, all of these different con­flicts that have taken place.”

Benomar discussed the agree­ment, and the negotiations leading up to it, with DPA E-News while visiting New York in late November to update the Secretary-General and the Security Council on his diplomatic efforts. He had just arrived from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the agreement was signed by President Saleh on 23 November following marathon negotiations in Yemen’s battle-scarred capital of Sana’a.

The accord offers a “detailed roadmap” for transition, laying out a series of steps beginning with the transfer of key powers of state to Yemen’s Vice-President, fol­lowed by the establishment of an interim government, the holding of transitional elections, and a broad-based national dialogue leading to further reforms and the adoption of a new constitution.

The signing of the agree­ment, with support from key UN Member States, the Security Council and Yemen’s Gulf neigh­bours, marked the culmination of an intensive effort at preventive diplomacy and mediation.

 

Challenging Negotiations

With support from the Department of Political Affairs, including its mediation and electoral divi­sions, Benomar traveled to Yemen repeatedly throughout 2011, engaging in dialogue with a broad cross-section of actors and develop­ing ideas on a possible transition.

An initial power transfer agree­ment had been struck under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in May 2011. However, that agreement was not being implemented and violence was spiraling along with humani­tarian suffering.

The first challenge for the UN mediation effort, Benomar recalled, was to get a direct dialogue going between Yemenis. “The politi­cal actors, the opposition and the ruling party, had gotten used for several months to the idea that they could just pass on messages through Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and foreign diplomats in Sana’a. We told them very clearly that this cannot continue. This delays the resolution of the conflict. We need to engage in face to face dialogue.”

Direct discussions under UN facilitation took place in July, lead­ing to informal agreements that shaped the eventual accord struck later. “These initial talks proved, in the first place, that face-to-face dia­logue was possible and, secondly, that when Yemenis meet, they are less maximalist in their demands and they are able to work through their differences,” said Benomar.

 The northern city of Sa'ada, where the UN envoy held talks with the leaders of the Houthi insurgency.

Breakthrough after Action by Security Council

The opportunity to forge a formal agreement came later, aided by a Security Council resolution adopted in October. The resolution called on the Yemeni parties to agree expeditiously on a transition, and to cooperate fully with the “good offices” of the Secretary-General.

Benomar believes the Council speaking with one voice on the situation strengthened his hand in the final negotiations. When the moment was ripe, solutions had been thoroughly considered.

“Our team had worked for several months on all the potential scenarios and options, including an optimal structure for the transition. We identified all of the contentious issues, and tried to come up with answers,” says Benomar. “We were not starting from scratch.”

The challenge ahead will be keeping a transition on track amidst the centrifugal tensions tearing constantly at Yemen’s politi­cal, social and economic fabric.

   

Elections of new president mark latest milestone

By early March 2012, a number of important steps forward had been taken: the swearing in of an interim power-sharing government, the establishment of a bipartisan com­mittee to oversee immediate and long-term stabilization measures including the standing down of rival militias. The presidential elections late-February marked another important milestone, confirming Yemen’s former deputy president as the country’s new leader.

Still, tensions remained at a high level, as youth kept up their protests in the streets and violence continued to flare.

A key point of contention was the amnesty provision of the earlier agreement reached under GCC auspices. Benomar has made the UN’s stance clear on that point: There can be no condoning of any blanket amnesty covering serious human rights crimes, as it would contravene international law. This was made clear throughout the negotiations and reiterated after Yemen’s parliament adopted amnesty legislation in January. While the law contained welcome provisions that the UN had encour­aged on transitional justice, the scope of the amnesty it granted was still too broad, Benomar said in a statement issued in Sana’a.

UN envoy Jamal Benomar speaks to youth at Sanaa’s “Change Square” — seat of popular protests in the Yemeni capital. December 2011.

Meeting in December with youth in Taiz, Aden, and in Sanaa’s “Change Square” — the seat of the popular protests — Benomar saw a movement still “hungry for change” but also open to dialogue on the way forward in Yemen.

“The voices of the youth must be heard,” he said.

So, too, do those of other key constituencies who need to be brought into the process, says Benomar. Traveling the same month to the northern city of Sa’ada, Benomar held talks with the leadership of the Houthi insur­gency, encouraging them the move into the political process.

A UN electoral team was deployed to provide technical sup­port for elections.

 

Situation Remains Fragile

Meanwhile, Benomar has also called on the international com­munity to “upscale” its level of support for Yemen’s political, eco­nomic, humanitarian and security needs and has indicated that the UN system — agencies, funds, programmes — would be retooling its assistance with an eye toward supporting implementation of the transition plans.

“The situation in Yemen remains highly fragile. Now is not the time for complacency,” the UN envoy said.

  

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