The people of Yemen have had enough. More than three years of war have killed thousands, displaced more than 500,000, created the worst cholera epidemic and brought about 14 million Yemenis to the brink of starvation.
Desperate to escape famine, to be reunited with their loved ones, to mourn the dead, to save the future of their children, Yemenis are picking through the scattered signs of hope that this conflict might end.
On Thursday, for the first time in two years, the government of Yemen will sit down with Ansar Allah, who are commonly referred to as the Houthis, in Sweden. It took many false starts and missed opportunities before the opposing sides agreed to come together and offered us a glimmer of hope to restart a peace process in Yemen. It is an important beginning to see warring parties sit together and talk — a conversation that requires both sides to suspend their belief in the possibility of a military victory.
Over the past eight months, in my capacity as the United Nations mediator in this conflict, I have repeatedly warned that it is war that takes peace off the table. Peace has stronger prospects today, and it is time to push forward initiatives to put out the flames of the fighting.
The Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah, and the so-named city, has been a major flash point in this war. Since June, the population of the city has dwindled to 150,000, during months of severe fighting. Every month the U.N. food program provides aid to eight million people, but my colleagues are bracing for the threat of famine as many more millions of Yemenis cannot afford to buy food even where it is available.
I believe that this week’s meeting in Sweden can bring good news for Al Hudaydah, and for the people of Yemen. We have been working to reach a negotiated agreement to spare both the city and port the threat of destruction, and guarantee the full operation of the port. Reaching such a deal will not only put an end to the battles but also save the main humanitarian pipeline for the people of Yemen from being obstructed or destroyed. This will help ensure that the looming specter of famine is chased away.
Over the past weeks, both parties have showed their willingness to make significant humanitarian gestures. Some of the prisoners of war from both parties, who have not been allowed to contact their families in four years of war, were finally allowed to do so. Fifty Yemenis were able to fly out from Sana to Muscat to get treatment — something that has not happened for years. As we convene in Sweden, we will announce the signing of the long-awaited agreement on the exchange of prisoners, the first formal agreement between the two parties since the beginning of this conflict. Thousands of families in Yemen, who have been waiting for their missing relatives, can finally expect to be reunited with their loved ones.
These political consultations in Sweden are the first step toward putting Yemen on the path to peace. I hope that by the end of this round, the Yemeni parties will agree on the outline of an eventual comprehensive agreement, which will then be submitted to the United Nations secretary general and then to the Security Council for endorsement. I hope it will become a public road map to peace.
As a mediator, I believe that ending a war is not the same as building peace. In any peace process, the leading role goes to those who can stop the fighting, then the people at large whose nation deserves peace and whose families, now victims, may become beneficiaries. Over months of meetings with Yemenis from diverse backgrounds, I found that they are marvelous at finding common cause and masters of the art of sitting together to reach agreement.
This was clearly illustrated at their National Dialogue Conference, which convened in Sana from March 2013 to January 2014, when 565 people representing a cross section of Yemen’s population sat together and discussed what the future of the country should look like. The conference was, and still is, a leading international example of inclusive, careful and considered compromise. It is that kind of Yemen to which we all want to return.
It gives me some confidence that when the two parties meet in Sweden, their guiding principle will be that concessions are the central principle of negotiation, that compromises will benefit both sides and the people of Yemen at large. We hope that achieving progress on confidence-building measures and reaching an agreement on a political framework will be the manifestation of such a spirit of compromise.
At no other time has there been such a palpable international urge for the warring parties in Yemen to find a solution. Yemen has been on the top of the agenda for the United Nations secretary general. The Security Council is united in the desire to end this conflict. Countries of the region have demonstrated their full cooperation with our work to restart the political process. Yet, it is only those around the table in a serene, remote part of Sweden who can deliver on these hopes. For the sake of Yemen’s children, we hope they will deliver.
Martin Griffiths is the special envoy of the United Nations secretary general for Yemen.