Yemen: the Middle East’s Only Negotiated Transition
Two years ago, Yemen was on the brink of an all-out civil war, paralyzed by a political and security crisis, in a region swelling with protest against authoritarian regimes.
Today it is taking peaceful steps forward through dialogue, as the only Middle Eastern country with a negotiated transition and a clear roadmap for change.
“Yemen’s transition has been an extraordinary story and credit must go to the Yemenis,” said Jamal Benomar, the UN Secretary- General’s Special Adviser for Yemen. “Yemen was definitely heading towards a Syria-type scenario. Now Yemen is undergoing a peaceful transition.”
The crisis erupted in Yemen early 2011, as popular uprisings stirred elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. Pro-democracy protests were met with repression. There were bloody street battles, including in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, and power struggles between rival elite factions.
As the Yemenis themselves started to look for a way out, the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative on Yemen, developed and backed not only by the six GCC countries but also Yemen’s other partners in the international community including the UN, helped establish a way forward to prevent a descent into civil war.
Special Adviser Benomar facilitated an implementation agreement signed in November 2011, by which President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to stop down and transfer power to his Vice-President. This laid the grounds for a peaceful transition that is so far unique in the Arab world, responding to the aspirations of the youth for democratic change and securing the participation of youth and women in the political process for the first time.
Laying out the steps for a return to peace and stability, the transition agreement paved the way for transitional elections, which brought to power President Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi and a government of National Unity early 2012 along with steps to begin a critical restructuring of the armed forces.
Benomar recognizes the important role that international consensus played in supporting Yemen’s transition, particularly “the sustained leadership and support of the GCC throughout the transition”.
Today, carrying forward the next steps in the transition, Yemenis are engaging in broad-based national dialogue supported by the United Nations. Benomar has called it “the most genuine, transparent and inclusive national dialogue the region has ever seen.”
Almost a third of participants in the National Dialogue Conference are women and a fifth are youth – an unprecedented degree of participation in the political process. Its 565 delegates work on issues ranging from political reforms to transitional justice and are being supported by a Yemeni secretariat composed of over a hundred staff. The conference proceedings are being widely covered in the media, and an outreach program is engaging with citizens around the country.
Special Adviser Benomar and his team continue to support the Yemeni-led process through political facilitation, technical assistance and outreach initiatives. In addition, a UN-established trust fund is pooling international resources in support of national dialogue and constitutional reforms. The UN team is now operating out of a light-footprint office on the ground, in the capital Sana’a.
“While we have no recipes to solve Yemen’s many challenges, sharing comparative experiences from other country situations has enabled the delegates to make more informed decisions as they explore different options,” says Benomar.
UN support and consensus among international players, including the Security Council and the GCC, was vital, yet the key ingredient of Yemen’s success story is the courage and political will of Yemenis themselves, Benomar stresses.
Maintaining this commitment will be crucial to address other serious challenges on Yemen’s horizon. From battling Al-Qaeda-backed militants to ending impunity for human rights abuses, from re-establishing security to delivering humanitarian aid, there is no shortage of fires to fight.
It is particularly vital to reach a sustainable solution for Yemen’s South, where unrest continues and calls for secession grow louder and louder. What is needed are urgent government measures to address Southerners’ long-standing grievances over land confiscation and their unjust dismissals from military and civil service.
In a recent report to the Security Council, Benomar notes that “after nearly two decades of discrimination, repression and unaddressed legitimate grievances, the people in the South are wary and skeptical of promises of reform.” The government should also work with Southern leaders to make sure that they reject violence and embrace dialogue.
Benomar has also called on the government to meet its obligation to establish an inquiry into the bloodshed of 2011 and to adopt a law on transitional justice.
Meanwhile, nearly half the population suffers from food insecurity and is cut off from clean water and other basic services, with a quarter of a million severely malnourished children. Unless donors follow through on their pledges, the humanitarian situation will only worsen.
Still, Yemen’s transition continues to move forward. The target is to conclude the national dialogue process, agree on a new constitution, and hold a referendum general elections are held in 2014.
United Nations support for the transition has been evident at the highest levels, in visits over the past year by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and members of the Security Council, and reflected in Council resolutions.
A successful negotiated transition is within reach if Yemenis remain committed to inclusive dialogue and if the international community supports it until the end. Speaking to Yemeni youth in May this year, Benomar said: “You have come close to a Syria-like quagmire, but with your wisdom you chose the path of peaceful change. There is no other way but dialogue, and there is no other time but now.”