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Yemen ceasefire may only defer further conflict

Written by Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy


At midnight this Sunday, Saudi Arabia and other warring parties have committed to a ceasefire in Yemen. ‘This is really our last chance,’ said UN envoy to Yemen, Ould Cheikh Ahmed. ‘The war in Yemen must be brought to an end.’

The imperative to end this war is unquestionable: it has killed 6,000 people, wounded more than 15,000, and left 20 million in need of humanitarian assistance and 14 million food insecure.

But ending the conflict is not going to be a straightforward process of adhering to the ceasefire and signing an agreement for yet another ‘peaceful transition’. A peace agreement between the Houthis and the Saudis may bring a temporary pause in fighting, but it won’t bring peace.

A ceasefire won’t address the expansion of radical groups across Yemen

With the economic blockade restricting access to food and medicine, Saudi-led airstrikes pounding the country from outside, and Houthi rebels restricting movement within, Yemenis are trapped.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has stepped in where the state has stepped back, capitalising on the civil war and expanding across southern Yemen.

A Yemeni activist I interviewed a while ago described how AQAP is growing particularly popular with young people who lack options and resent the Saudi intervention. AQAP gives them structure, livelihood opportunities and, even hope. When AQAP marched into Azzan in Shabwa in January this year, it did so without a fight.

The ceasefire can help ease the conditions that Yemenis are living in, but it won't reverse the vicious cycle of radicalism unleashed in the country.

This time, accountability should be non-negotiable

Back in 2012, the UN’s carefully-engineered agreement – backed by the US and Saudi Arabia – removed President Ali Abdullah Salih without holding him accountable for episodes of violent repression that occurred while he was in power.

This time, accountability should be non-negotiable. A UN panel investigating the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen concluded that ‘widespread and systematic’ attacks on civilian targets have taken place in violation of international humanitarian law.  

The Yemeni public has little confidence in President Hadi’s ability to ensure accountability and restore peace – many suspect that his ‘path to peace’ is in fact a path to getting back in power.

Yemen needs faith in a new leadership to get past the worst humanitarian crisis it has ever had to endure. Getting the same old faces back in power will only aggravate the situation further.

More than a ceasefire, Yemen needs an honest broker

Yemenis feel betrayed by the international community – even the UK, which has continued to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia.

This conflict needs an honest broker that can press for accountability for violations by all parties; facilitate a genuine transition of power to new leadership; and rapidly create an economic reconstruction plan for Yemen, focusing in youth.   

Yemen’s crisis is a lesson for the conflict and peacebuilding community and a call for a rethink. Short-term fixes for states are long-term woes for the world. There is no short cut. Yemen has paid a heavy price for a broken transition, the memory of which will unfortunately outlast peace talks.

A comprehensive and long-term strategy based on accountability with pressure from the international community should inform the peace talks and the ceasefire. Otherwise, it may only defer further conflict.