With hope as a weapon, Griffiths said his goal in 2020 is to launch political negotiations between the parties
Exclusive interview: UN envoy Martin Griffiths discusses prospects and plans to end Yemen's war
In an exclusive interview with Almasdar Online’s Moath Rajeh, UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths condemns the recent missile attack that killed more than 110 in Marib, discusses the challenges in implementing the Riyadh Agreement and describes his hope and vision for Yemen’s peace process in 2020.
Griffiths believes that the Stockholm agreement has accomplished its main task of protecting the coastal city of Hodeidah and its port from the devastation that would have awaited if the war engulfed it. Unlike many stakeholders and observers, Griffiths believes the opportunity is suitable for a comprehensive agreement to end the war.
With hope as his weapon, Griffiths said his goal in 2020 is to launch political negotiations between the parties to the war without pre-conditions.
"A day of violence like we have witnessed last Saturday could threaten to shut this window (of opportunity for peace negotitations)," he said. "I am determined to make every effort to protect this opportunity, so this moment of hope materializes into a peaceful future for all Yemenis."
Full text of the interview:
Rajeh: How do you view the attack by the Houthis against a government military camp in Marib?
Griffiths: This was a tragic, horrible event. Dozens of lives have been lost showing us again the fragility of the situation and why a political solution is urgently needed. This solution must be supported by a conducive security environment. The hard work of confidence building, of de-escalation, and creating a positive environment that is conducive to the peace process takes months to start producing results. But it takes a few hours of violence to undermine all this progress. Any military activity with the potential to derail the de-escalation process would be a cause of distress regardless of who starts it. I am deeply alarmed and troubled by the military escalation of January 19, particularly the attack on Al-Istiqbal (Reception) camp in Marib.
Rajeh: To what extent do these attacks impact the prospects of a peaceful solution and the launch of political consultations? Does it mean the Houthis are not serious in engaging with the UN efforts to establish peace as President Hadi said?
Griffiths: Yemeni leaders on either side of the conflict have a choice to make. This is the real test for their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. They can either throw away all the hard-earned progress they have made so far, causing more grief and dragging their country through many more years of conflict, or they can let it stop here and acknowledge that the Yemeni people deserve better than living in a state of perpetual war. It is much easier to attack than it is to compromise and to remain calm, even when provoked. This is the test of true leadership. I am alarmed over the recent events, but I have received some reassurance that such spirit of leadership exists. And so, I hope this spirit will prevail and that we will see renewed commitment to reduce violence.
Rajeh: With the arrival of the new year 2020, what do you want to say to the Yemeni people?
Griffiths: I hope 2020 will be kinder to the Yemeni people than in the past five years. I wish Yemenis peace and all of its gifts. I hope no Yemeni is ever plagued with senseless loss again. I hope for the day when no Yemeni ever starves for food, when all Yemeni children are back in schools with a future to look forward to, when you can all live with dignity and in safety again.
The world is not blind to your suffering. I am not blind to your pain. The progress is slower than any of us would want. But your determination, courage and wisdom against the impossible odds of war, poverty, disease and famine inspire me to never give up the hope that peace will come to Yemen one day soon because this is what Yemenis deserve.
Rajeh: 2019 was a year of political stagnation and stagnation in the peace process. Do you have a plan to break the political deadlock and bring all conflicting parties to the negotiating table?
Griffiths: Moving from a state of war to peace negotiations is a very difficult transition for any country going through conflict. In Yemen, it is even more complicated because of the multitude of active players, the regional tensions surrounding this war and Yemen’s history of unrest. And I understand that it is difficult to see positive trends when everyday life continues to be very difficult for Yemenis. But 2019 did witness many positive developments and we plan to continue building on these developments with the aim of resuming the peace process in 2020.
For example, we have seen significant reduction in the tempo of the war. There remains considerable violence on several frontlines, but the overall rate of airstrikes and cross border attacks has dramatically decreased, especially in the last quarter of 2019. The Riyadh agreement showed us that there is hope for avoiding a new frontline and averting further fragmentation of Yemen as we move towards peace talks. Several initiatives for prisoners’ release are also positive signs that parties are more willing to fulfill their Stockholm commitments. The rhetoric in Yemen and the region shows that everyone is now more convinced that military action has too high of a cost for the future of Yemen.
This being said, Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Yemenis are forced to endure unimaginable agony day in and day out. It has gone for far too long now. What is more is that all this progress I described above is incredibly fragile as the events on Saturday have shown us in the most tragic way.
My vision is to support the parties to reach to the extent possible a balanced and sustainable agreement which will launch an inclusive transitional process that allows Yemenis to hold their leaders accountable on their commitments, reconstruct their country and state institutions and guarantee that they will not slip into civil strife again.
My goal this year is to launch the political process between the parties without pre-conditions. This is the only way we can ever see an end to this conflict. The time is right now, and not a minute later. I think the parties know that too.
Rajeh: Many see that the Stockholm Agreement has become a stumbling block to any new negotiations requiring the parties to the conflict to implement it. Is this description accurate?
Griffiths: The Hodeidah agreement was never meant to be a comprehensive solution for the conflict in Yemen. It was negotiated in Stockholm under the agenda of confidence-building measures. It was mainly a humanitarian stop gap agreement to avert a looming disaster that almost hit Hodeidah port city . In that respect, the Hodeidah agreement partially managed to achieve that goal. Let me remind you that the alternative was going to be the likely destruction of the ports through which 70 percent of all Yemeni imports entered the country, and we are speaking of a country that imports 90 percent of its food and medicine to begin with. The cost of this battle would have been devastating.
I believe the parties now understand that we need a peace agreement that deals with the big questions of legitimacy, governance and the organization of a transitional period. Specifics will be very difficult to set out beforehand in a conflict that is as complex as Yemen’s. But this is a lesson learnt through the shortcomings of the Stockholm agreement. This was the most challenging aspect of Stockholm: trying to go into specifics when the larger issues remained hanging. Now we all know better. And so, we are all prepared to move towards a comprehensive solution that will make the full implementation of Stockholm much easier. In the meantime, my office and the United Nations Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) remain committed to continue working with the parties to help them make progress in the implementation of the Hodeidah agreement.
Rajeh: The UN envoy was criticized late last year for lack of progress on the prisoners’ file. The Houthi and the government comments matched, as they held Mr. Griffiths responsible for not making any progress. Are there new initiatives or plans by the United Nations to move this file and put pressure on both parties to the conflict to achieve progress?
Griffiths: After the Stockholm agreement, the UN facilitated the exchange of prisoners’ lists and discussions about release. Most of the prisoners who were released through several initiatives this past year largely belonged to the Stockholm lists. But at the end of the day, the responsibility to release all detainees related to the conflict as per the Stockholm promises lies with the parties. This was a promise made by the parties to the Yemeni people, first and foremost, particularly to the thousands of families who await reunion with their loved ones.
In 2020, we will continue working with the parties until this commitment is fulfilled with the utmost sense of urgency. As mentioned in my most recent briefing to the Security Council, I am planning to reconvene soonest the prisoners’ exchange committee created under the Stockholm agreement.
Rajeh: Is the comprehensive peace process currently affected by the implementation of the Riyadh agreement between the government and the Transitional Council. How will this be reflected in the mission of the UN envoy if they continue to hesitate on implementation?
Griffiths: I think both Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council see the value of implementing the Riyadh Agreement. I believe they understand how important it is to avoid further fragmentation and division at this sensitive moment of Yemen’s history. The implementation of the Riyadh agreement might not be moving as quickly as we would have hoped. But I sincerely hope it will be fully implemented sooner rather than later. It will be devastating for the peace prospects of Yemen if the Riyadh agreement falls apart.
Meanwhile, we are working with the parties to resume the political process that will allow Yemenis to address the longstanding Southern question in a transparent, inclusive and peaceful way during the transitional period.
Rajeh: You have always talked about hope and optimism, and admitted that it is your weapon to push towards peace. Is there hope for an end to the war?
Griffiths: What is a peace mediator without hope that peace is possible? If I do not see the potential of diplomacy, the viability of the prospects of peace in Yemen, and if I do not genuinely believe in the Yemeni people’s appetite for social cohesion and a future of harmony and prosperity, I should not have this job. The alternative to peace is war, collapse of state institutions and more fragmentation. It has been five years of that already. What good did it do to anyone? And my hope is not unfounded.
As I mentioned before, it could be difficult to see how the big picture is changing when your everyday life is so unforgivingly challenging, but the big picture is indeed shifting. Reaching a peaceful solution seems more plausible today than any other time in the past five years. We have a window of opportunity to push for negotiations to start. This window of opportunity is limited and precarious. A day of violence like we have witnessed last Saturday could threaten to shut this window. But without hope, you cannot see opportunities and they pass you by. I am determined to make every effort to protect this opportunity, so this moment of hope materializes into a peaceful future for all Yemenis.