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How the UN can still save the Hodeidah deal

Hopes were raised at the Yemen talks in Sweden last month but, almost a month later, there is very little to sustain those hopes. Those discussions were hailed as a rare opportunity because it was the first time in more than two years that the two opposing sides had met face-to-face.

Besides the handshake between the Yemeni foreign minister and the Houthi leader, there were two hopeful signs: An agreement to exchange about 15,000 prisoners and another to redeploy forces from in and around Hodeidah to some distance away to avert fighting over the city and its three ports. To nobody’s surprise, neither agreement has been carried out. 

If implemented, the Hodeidah agreement would have been a significant breakthrough as it would have seen Houthi and government forces leave Hodeidah and its ports and have the local security and administrative agencies run them, while the UN maintained peacekeeping and oversight. The purpose was to ensure that the ports were not used to smuggle arms or profiteer from the looting of humanitarian aid. The UN was also supposed to make sure that the proceeds from running the ports were deposited at the Hodeidah branch of the Central Bank of Yemen and used to pay civil servants’ salaries.

However, almost immediately after the Sweden talks, Houthi leaders denied to their followers that they had in fact agreed to leave the city or its ports, saying that only government forces would. Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the leader of the Houthi negotiating team in Sweden, said that the first phase of the agreement consisted of withdrawal of the “invading forces” (meaning those of the government and its allies) from the city outskirts and “the entire southern part of the province of Hodeidah,” not just the city or ports. Other Houthi leaders dismissed as rumors any reference to them leaving Hodeidah or its ports.

They tried to hoodwink UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and the new UN observer team led by retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert by pretending to redeploy some of their forces outside of the port. In what appeared to be a childish prank, they changed the uniforms of some of their militia members into those of Yemen’s coast guard and faked a handover of the main port to them. They apparently hoped that the international community would be duped into believing that they had begun the implementation of the Hodeidah agreement reached in Sweden. News organizations at first reported the move without noticing the Houthi subterfuge. The Houthis then fortified their positions in and around the city, dug new trenches and prepared for the next round of fighting. There were no real signs of withdrawal or redeployment outside the city or its ports.

Up until now, the UN has not been able to enforce the Hodeidah agreement as it was understood by the international mediators in Sweden. The UN is still hoping to coax the Houthis into implementing it but, judging from past experience, there is little chance that they will relent. 

The problem is that UN meditation has been based almost entirely on carrots and no sticks. This was true when Jamal Benomar was UN special envoy to Yemen and again when Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed was the envoy. This approach needs to change. The Houthis seem to think that the more they procrastinate, the more concessions they will get.

The Houthis also think that Yemen’s humanitarian crisis helps them put pressure on the international community. They have used it several times to avert or abort military attacks against them by government and coalition forces. According to reliable Yemeni journalists, the Houthis and their supporters control the distribution of UN aid almost entirely, from the moment it arrives in Yemen until its final destination. They use UN assistance to line their pockets by selling it on the black market. More cynically, they score political points by diverting aid to their supporters and denying it to others, and by manipulating the news of the humanitarian crisis to assign blame to the government and the coalition.

UN officials have long complained privately about the theft of aid by the Houthis. Now they are making those complaints public. Last week, the World Food Program (WFP) uncovered evidence that people entitled to food aid were not receiving their rations in the capital Sanaa and in other parts of the country controlled by the rebels. It called for concrete steps to ensure that humanitarian assistance is not misused. 

WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said that a biometric registration system of beneficiaries was utilized in Aden with the permission of the Yemeni government. He said that the WFP had proposed the same to the Houthis several months ago, but that they have not yet accepted. By publicizing this problem and the Houthis’ role in it, the UN may be able to achieve better results than by appeasing the rebels and covering up their misconduct.

The UN can be effective only if it can maintain pressure on the Houthis, which can be done in two ways: First, by assigning blame where it belongs and pointing out publicly the Houthis’ failure to implement the Hodeidah agreement; and, second, by establishing a sizable UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding presence in Hodeidah. This has been done in other countries and it can be done in Yemen. The government agreed to it in Sweden and the UN Security Council should act on that agreement. The sooner that is done, the sooner the UN can start to defuse the standoff around Hodeidah.

If the UN’s mandate and resources are robust enough, they can implement the Hodeidah agreement and achieve a handover of the port’s management to a civilian administration under its supervision, as was agreed in Sweden last month.