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Keith Vaz MP: There is a rare opportunity to bring peace to Yemen - will we grasp it?

Keith Vaz MP: There is a rare opportunity to bring peace to Yemen - will we grasp it?
6 min read

A New Year’s resolution to which we can all aspire in 2019 is peace in Yemen, but what needs to occur to make that happen? Keith Vaz MP explains.

Looking through the images and videos emerging from Yemen, it is almost impossible not to feel a profound sense of shock. Yemenis, including many children, continue to endure starvation, disease and the constant threat of violence. Thousands of land mines have been laid while hopes have been dashed at the prospect of any resolution to a conflict now into its fourth year. 

However, we start the New Year with a rare opportunity to bring peace to Yemen. 2018 ended with much activity on the political front in Yemen, where the two warring parties – the Houthi-backed rebels, and the Coalition-backed government – met in Stockholm in December for their first talks since 2016. The headline result was a truce agreed in Hudaydah, whose port will be managed by the UN. We cannot welcome this enough: after years of stalled reconciliation and regressive violence, a pathway to peace has been opened.

Discussion is the key to making sure this peace happens. The work of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has been invaluable in bringing together the various actors after three sets of talks broke down. His meetings with the relevant states – including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the US, and the UK – have emphasised the urgency of the situation. The measures announced are only to build confidence ahead of more substantial talks, but at this early stage it is still credible and real progress.

The UK has been part of this process in recent weeks. The arrival of the new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has made a real and substantial difference. Whereas the UK-sponsored draft Resolution placed before the UN Security Council in November 2018 failed, it secured support for a Resolution after the Stockholm talks – the first UN Resolution in over three years. Given the sprawling nature of a conflict that involves factions and states across the region and beyond, pressure placed at the highest levels of the UN can help bring about movement.

Further peace talks are planned in January. As of this moment, the scope of what will be discussed remains uncertain, but it is not rash to suggest that the New Year – a time of resolutions – offers a glimmer of hope to a country that has suffered unimaginable trauma. 

There are immense challenges to the peace process that cannot be overlooked. The country outside of Hudaydah remains in the depths of a severe conflict that has likely claimed the lives of over 60,000, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). The UN estimates 20 million Yemenis are food-insecure, while Save the Children believes 85,000 children have died of malnutrition. These stark figures underline that complacency is not an option. 

Away from events on the ground, regional geopolitics continue to fuel this local conflict. The Saudi-led coalition secured Western backing to prevent the spread of Iranian influence, yet the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has angered many in the United States. Meanwhile, disagreements have emerged between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

This also makes any agreements difficult to implement on the ground. It remains to be seen if what was promised at Stockholm will last: recent reports accuse the Houthis of hampering food-aid distribution. It is up to each side, working with international partners, to ensure a political situation remains viable.

One international partner whose presence is central to any development is the United States. With growing disenchantment at their involvement in the conflict, the Senate passed a resolution in December calling for an end to US support; against the wishes of President Trump. The position of the US on Yemen remains crucial to any settlement of the conflict, and so these conflicting positions will need careful monitoring in 2019. What is important is that Western powers retain a united front that condemns violence on all sides and strives towards an immediate ceasefire.

We should also highlight how charities and development groups are essential to alleviating the most catastrophic effects of conflict in Yemen. The work of organisations such as Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam among many others continues to remind different governments of Yemen’s dire situation. 

They act as advocates for its people and as suppliers of humanitarian aid. We need to make sure they have access to the most intense areas of conflict and can operate freely in the regions agreed in Stockholm, such as the humanitarian corridor to Taiz.

Growing international attention for what has long been described as the ‘forgotten war’ may force the various sides to a political settlement. Jeremy Hunt has visited the region, including Iran, while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is planning to discuss America’s Middle East policy in Cairo this month. Western governments must keep up this energy. Martin Griffiths has just this week visited Sana’a and Riyadh to press the importance of maintaining the Stockholm agreement.

All need to make further visits to the region and meet their counterparts in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Tehran. They also need to attend future peace talks to show there is no doubt that the highest levels of government – both in Britain and its allies – endorse this route to ending conflict in Yemen.

So where does that leave us? Two paths lie ahead. The first is continuing conflict, regional splits and the rise of independence movements in north and south Yemen. The second sees the steady and incremental spread of peace that can lead to a provisional government, representing a united Yemen. This would establish the basis for its future safety. 

2018 highlighted how it is possible to make those initial steps, which could be amongst the most important. But we need agreements to be carried out on the ground. 

A New Year’s resolution to which we can all aspire in 2019 is peace in Yemen. What needs to occur to make that happen? The initial truce in Hudaydah must become permanent and expand its spatial scope; humanitarian access must be allowed without delay; and, in the longer term, Yemeni institutions, infrastructure and homes must be rebuilt. But first, there needs to be further talks and confidence-building measures, agreed upon by the two factions and with the support of their various backers. 

Peace in Yemen can only be achieved if there is a permanent settlement guarantee by the UN and cosponsored by the Saudi-led Coalition. Not one child must die as a result of the conflict in 2019. For Britain and the British Parliamentarians that must be our red line in the sand.

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