Martin Griffiths to "Khuyut":

The fighting escalation with the spread of Coronavirus shows short-sightedness and lack of rationality
May 20, 2020

Martin Griffiths to "Khuyut":

The fighting escalation with the spread of Coronavirus shows short-sightedness and lack of rationality
May 20, 2020

In this exclusive interview with the “Khuyut”, the UN Secretary-General's envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, answers questions related to the current Yemeni situation. He talks about his recent initiative, which he said he presented to the parties to the conflict in Yemen, which consists of three “elements,” the stations in which these parties responded or rejected proposals for solutions, the Sweden “Stockholm” agreement, and Resolution 2216. 

Griffiths also speaks of "peace advocates and defenders" and "extremists" who are eager to "stoke war" on all sides of the conflict in Yemen. For the latter, he describes their enthusiasm for the choice of war as being motivated either by an "ideological motive" or an "interest motive". While he mentions that the interests of regional and international parties lie in ending the war in Yemen, he does not address the motives of international interests that "might fuel" and prolong this conflict.

As "Khuyut" publishes the full text of the interview, to its readers and followers, all its team extend their sincere thanks to Mr. Martin Griffith for his positive interaction in answering the interview questions, and thanks to his office team for their cooperation and efforts to complete the interview.

Interviewed by: Mohammed Rajih and Ryan Alshibany 

1.The beginning of the most important event that dominates the world represented by the spread of the Coronavirus and its repercussions at various levels. In this regard, there was a call made by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to stop the war in Yemen, how do you evaluate the reactions of the parties to the conflict in Yemen about this invitation and how well they respond on the ground? Is there a real opportunity that is in the horizon to achieve peace in Yemen?

As you know, all warring parties responded publicly and positively to the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire in Yemen. In my two years serving as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, we have never gotten this close to a nationwide ceasefire. 

More striking, I have never seen as much public advocacy for peace in these two years. I read and listened to and watched statements, declarations and public demands for peace from civil society organizations, youth and women groups, political parties, tribal networks, everyone. It gave a great push to the political process and I thank them profoundly for that. 

Following the Secretary-General’s call, I shared immediately with the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah a comprehensive initiative consisting of three elements: 1) a nation-wide ceasefire; 2) key economic and humanitarian measures to alleviate Yemenis’ suffering, build confidence between the parties and enhance Yemen’s capacity to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19; and 3) a commitment to swiftly resume the political process, through which Yemeni parties will negotiate an end to the war. 

Following feedback from the parties, I have shared revised proposals for balanced agreements that reflect the core interests of all sides to the greatest extent possible. 

The parties have been engaging substantively and consistently with my proposals. But progress is too slow and this window of opportunity is becoming more limited and precarious by the day. I think we are getting close to an agreement, but we are not there yet. And I hope the parties will redouble their efforts needed to bring these negotiations to a close urgently. 

2. Does the United Nations intend to submit a proposal to form an independent joint specialized committee to manage the Corona crisis and supervise joint measures to address the virus and prevent its spread in Yemen, and to avoid any humanitarian consequences and living damage that might cause a large percentage of

My good colleague Lise Grande, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen, along with the World Health Organization in Yemen and other UN agencies are doing everything possible to prevent further spread of the virus and to help prepare the authorities to administer treatment and sound healthcare protocols. There is a proposal by the UN to form a joint operations unit to coordinate the response to COVID19 and we have been urging the parties to work in a coordinated and responsible manner to deliver uniform and effective response across the country. The parties must stop fighting each other and start fighting the virus together instead. 

I cannot stress this enough, because this pandemic is blind to party affiliations; it does not take sides, it can cross frontlines and it thus has the potential to affect all of Yemen if there is no proper, proportional and coordinated response to it. 

All of the economic and humanitarian measures I have proposed in my initiative will also enhance Yemen’s capacity to address the COVID-19 outbreak and the inevitable economic crisis that comes with it, such as the opening of Sana’a airport, opening access roads, releasing of prisoners and detainees, paying civil servant across Yemen and ensuring the entry of ships carrying essential commodities into the Hudaydah ports. 

3. To what extent is the UN envoy convinced of his efforts and moves for peace in Yemen, and is he satisfied with it in light of this fragmentation in the Yemeni file, the divergence of the parties to the conflict, and the difficulty of achieving any breakthrough in the file of the war and the ongoing conflict in Yemen? How long do you expect your mission in Yemen to succeed or fail?

It is deplorable that the war is still raging in Yemen. And as you mention, the longer it drags on, the more fragmented the conflict becomes and the more difficult to resolve. But I am always hopeful that the breakthrough Yemen needs is just around the corner. And I believe this because I am constantly talking to the Parties, and they are engaging on the UN’s texts. This indicates to me that they are willing to make some of the compromises needed to end the war. I hope they will be able to meet half way very soon and reach an agreement. This is what keeps us all going. 

We must remember that all conflicts can be resolved. Solutions can be found to even the most challenging and complex conflicts. Yemen is no different. But we need to remember one more thing : there is nothing anybody could do to force peace on warring parties who refuse it. But an active peace mediation always offers opportunities to the parties to find areas of convergence and build upon them. And this is what we are offering the parties now, a clear path out of the conflict. There are always things that we can do better. We, everyone in my office, are always engaging the parties in good faith and with the sole purpose of helping them come to an agreement that brings sustainable and comprehensive peace to Yemen. 

4. On April 14, 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2216 was issued, after five years of war and sharp transformations in the Yemeni scene. Is this decision still worthwhile or has the situation been overlooked, and the Yemeni situation has called for a new resolution to accommodate the changes?
5. Does Resolution 2216 restrict the efforts of the envoy and reduce its effectiveness to achieving success in its efforts for peace?

Resolution 2216 calls for the resumption of a peaceful, inclusive, orderly and Yemeni-led political transition process that meets the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Yemeni people, including women, for peaceful change and meaningful political, economic and social reform. This is the core of the resolution and it is very much relevant today as it was in 2015. It is my mandate and my privilege to help Yemeni parties reach a peace agreement that ushers Yemen into this transitional period described into 2216. 

6. Have you made any efforts regarding the August 2019 events in Aden? What is your vision to address the crisis between the transitional government and Aden? 

The signing of the Riyadh Agreement and its implementation under the auspices of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been an important step for the inclusivity of the peace process. The recent declaration (1) by the Southern Transitional Council has showed us how crucial and urgent it is for the Government of Yemen and the Southern Transitional Council to implement the Riyadh Agreement. The people in Aden and the surrounding governorates would benefit from improved services and better security. The agreement stipulates that the Government of Yemen would include the STC in its delegation for the UN-led negotiations with Ansar Allah. So, there is a plan there that has been agreed and the parties need to implement. The parties need to start working together and cooperating to respond to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Aden and elsewhere. 

I have been engaging with southern groups since I took my position and I am always advocating for an inclusive process that would lead to a comprehensive and sustainable solution to address the legitimate demands and concerns of all Yemenis, including southerners. But I believe that only through such a political process can the Southern question be addressed credibly, peacefully and transparently. 

7. How would you assess the current escalation and the Houthi group's control of large areas in Al-Jawf, attacks on Saudi regions, and Saudi attacks on Sanaa and other areas?

This recent wave of escalation has taken another huge toll on civilians with thousands displaced from Al Jawf. It is heartbreaking. Before the start of this escalation in January, we had seen the calmest period in the conflict since its beginning. However, de-escalation of violence without progress on the political track is always fragile— an issue I had been raising frequently both publicly and privately with the parties. 

The continuation of this horrible escalation while a pandemic outbreak is already starting in Yemen is short-sighted and irrational. Now, more than ever, the violence must stop. It is unrealistic to expect that a coordinated, uniform and effective response to the Coronavirus outbreak can be managed when active frontlines are tearing the country apart left and right. 

During my many meetings with those involved in the conflict, I have encountered peace advocates on all sides. I sincerely hope the COVID-19 crisis will amplify their voices and advocacy within their respective internal structures to push with us for an immediate end to the hostilities and a swift resumption of the political process.  

8. How can the United Nations and the international community put an end to widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by various parties? 

The parties to the conflict have obligations, and they are accountable under international human rights and humanitarian law when they fail to meet these obligations. 

There are many international bodies and Yemeni groups who are working to address, document and advocate against human rights violations including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other UN agencies. The United Nations Human Rights Council has specifically established the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen to carry out a comprehensive examination of all alleged violations of international law committed by all parties to the conflict since September 2014. The Group further investigates the possible gender dimensions of such violations, and establishes the facts and circumstances surrounding such violations and, where possible, identifies those responsible.  This documentation and reporting are crucial for accountability measures. 

Ultimately, the most effective way to end such violations is to end the war itself with an agreement that helps deliver a future when Yemenis can exercise their rights with the support of fairly elected legislative bodies, an independent judiciary, and an accountable executive system that ensures their access to justice and fundamental human rights, as well as a free and independent media and civil society. This is what I am focusing on. 

9. Can the UN Security Council, after five years of horrific violations, take effective accountability steps, as happened previously with Sudan?

This is, indeed, for the UN Security Council and its member states to decide. Three are tools available to it such as sanctions and special inquiries in relation to human rights violations but at the end of the day, the Security Council will have to make this decision. 

10. On the issue of relief aid, there are wide imbalances sweeping this file and mutual accusations between the various parties in corruption in the humanitarian aid system and there is an international decision to reduce the volume of aid to the areas of Ansar Allah control (the Houthis), in your opinion how can these imbalances be ended and the relief system be corrected and do you have a vision you are developing in this regard to implement it during the coming period?

The UN humanitarian agencies work under the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. And they work independently from the UN political missions including the one I am leading. I will refer you to what the United Nations Secretary-General said about this issue, however. He reiterated the importance of sustaining the humanitarian operation and expressed his support to continued dialogue with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that help reaches all those who need it in accordance with these humanitarian principles.

My colleagues in the humanitarian side of the UN will be better able to elaborate on the specifics. But we all agree that the most effective way to end the great humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people is to end the war and allow the economy to recover. 

11. What about the Stockholm Agreement, what are the success and failure aspects of it during more than a year of this agreement?

The Stockholm Agreement succeeded in averting a catastrophic battle in the city of Hudaydah and its ports. The Agreement also provided a safer environment which allowed 150,000 civilians who had fled the city to return. Hudaydah was too important as Yemen imports 90% of its basic needs including food and medicine. 70% of these imports entered through Hudaydah’s ports.  This spurred my office and the entire international community to work toward finding a solution to avert the devastating consequences of the destruction of the ports which was anticipated at the time. 

The latest developments in the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement are devastating. One of the liaison officers of the government of Yemen, Colonel Mohammed Al Sulaihi, was killed which prompted the government of Yemen to suspend its participation in the joint mechanisms to implement the agreement. The United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA),under the leadership of General Guha, is working tirelessly to rebuild the lost trust due to this last episode of violence and to re-activate the mechanisms created by the Agreements for the parties to work out their differences peacefully. But it has been very difficult lately. Tensions are high and the tragic death of Col. Sulaihi along with the military escalation on so many fronts across the country is severely testing the trust the parties had been building for many months. 

But it is important to remember that the Stockholm Agreement was not meant to be the solution to the conflict in Yemen – it was a humanitarian stopgap agreement designed to serve a specific goal. Stockholm taught us many valuable lessons and we are building on this knowledge in our efforts to mediate a comprehensive political solution. 

For example, we know that partial solutions are difficult to sustain in the absence of a comprehensive political settlement which addresses the larger questions of legitimacy, security arrangements and governance. And so, the plan is to keep working on both tracks: supporting the parties in fulfilling their Stockholm Agreement commitments one the one hand, and continuing to mediate between the parties to reach a comprehensive political solution to address those larger questions on the other hand. 

12. The Stockholm Agreement included a special agreement for prisoners and detainees, and recently you announced progress in this file after the Amman meetings. When will we witness the first implementation step in this file, especially in light of the current circumstances and in the context of precautionary measures to combat the Corona virus? 

In December 2018, the parties made a commitment in Stockholm not just to each other and to the international community, but, most importantly, to the families of all conflict-related prisoners and detainees that they will be reunited with their loved ones. It is disappointing and depressing that the parties had failed to act on this commitment thus far. 

The Amman meetings of February 2020 allowed the parties to agree on concrete steps to carry out the first official large-scale exchange of detainees since the beginning of the conflict. Since then, they have been negotiating the lists of those who will be released. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is working with the parties on the implementation plan, taking into account the new restrictions and guidelines related to the COVID-19 crisis. We hope the first exchange will happen soon.

But, as I said before, it does not have to be this difficult and it should not be this politicized. We will continue working with the parties to implement the exchange they committed to. We will continue to mediate between them to agree on more exchanges. But I wish the parties would shift gears from this transactional approach where lists are negotiated name by name and release all conflict-related detainees immediately and unconditionally. There is nothing that is stopping them from doing this. It is the humanitarian thing to do and the rational thing to do given the risk of the Coronavirus outbreak. It is also the commitment they made in Stockholm, to let everyone go. 

The constant advocacy by civil society organizations and women’s networks is crucial in this regard and I hope it continues loud and strong. 

13. In another annex to the Stockholm Agreement called (understandings about Taiz), no steps have been announced to move these understandings forward to ease the city's resident’s situation. What is the status of these understandings now? 

Our immediate goal in Taiz is mediating between the parties to open roads in and around Taiz city to improve the humanitarian situation there and enhance the conditions needed for Taiz to adequately respond to the emerging COVID-19 crisis.  Frankly, I am very disappointed with the lack of progress on this file. Taiz is a priority for me, and I could not agree with Taizzis more when they remind me that we can and must all do better. The peace advocates of Taiz are an example for the Parties that progress is possible. It has been very difficult to bridge the gap between the parties on this issue. But I hope reaching an agreement on a nation-wide ceasefire will respond to many of the concerns raised by the parties so that we can push for progress on Taiz. An agreement on a nationwide ceasefire will open up an opportunity to do more and relieve the suffering of the people of Taiz. 

14. What about the salaries of the administrative apparatus of the suspended state since the end of 2016, and why does the United Nations not press the two parties to the conflict to neutralize the economic file and pay the salaries of the employees? 

Thousands of Yemeni families rely on public servant salaries for their economic survival, and in many cases, these have not been paid for years. The Parties made another commitment in Stockholm to use the revenues from the ports of Hudayda, Salif and Ras Issa to help pay the salaries of public sector workers across Yemen but progress has been much slower than hoped. The Parties took a step forward in implementing this commitment when they agreed in November 2019 to a temporary arrangement proposed by my office designed to secure the continued flow of fuel into Hudaydah and to use customs revenues for salaries. Although these arrangements have succeeded in preventing a repeat of the fuel shortages we saw last September, a mechanism to pay salaries out of these revenues has not yet been agreed. To make matters worse, Ansar Allah recently announced that they would use the revenues unilaterally despite the agreement reached with the Government that the revenues would only be disbursed once a mechanism is identified for the payment of salaries by both parties. I have expressed my dismay to Ansar Allah and have requested they provide the information we need in order to find a way forward. I will continue to push for progress.

15. The Stockholm Agreement stipulated a commitment to continue consultations unconditionally, in January 2019, why did the parties, the United Nations, and the international community not adhere to this article?

This is a good question to address to the parties. I warned repeatedly that progress on confidence-building measures and de-escalation will never be enough without a political process to give it all meaning, direction and sustainability. 

Right now, I am focused on learning from the experiences of the past in our renewed effort to relaunch the political process. I believe it should be done without pre-conditions and without delay. 

16. How does the rule of the UN envoy evaluate the Riyadh agreement, and why do your opinions become ink on paper? 

I think both the Government of Yemen and the STC see the shared interest and value of the implementation of the Riyadh agreement. The recent declaration by the STC on April 25 and the response to it showed us again that the threat of further fragmentation is real and should be averted. The implementation of the Riyadh agreement might not be moving as quickly as we would have liked. But I am hopeful that the prospect of moving to a comprehensive political process sooner rather than later will give both the Government and the STC the motivation they need to make better progress. 

My position is the same position reflected in the successive Security Council resolutions since 2011, which commits the international community to support the preservation of Yemeni unity and sovereignty. It is important to note again that Yemen has a complex history of tensions and long-standing grievances including in the South. I believe that sustainable peace is only possible when Yemenis can address these issues in a credible, transparent and non-violent manner. My vision, and sincere hope, is to be able to mediate a comprehensive agreement that sets off a truly inclusive transitional period when Yemenis have the time, the means and the international support to resolve these questions and found a future that meets the legitimate expectations of all Yemenis. 

17. Through your communication and sitting with the various Yemeni parties, do you see a seriousness from them in stopping the conflict and thinking about the future of Yemen, and the extent of the influence of some countries related to what is going on in Yemen directly and indirectly in widening the gap and chasm between the various Yemeni parties?

Warring parties in any conflict, everywhere in the world, will always have peace advocates and hardliners who have an interest or an ideological motivation to keep the war raging. Yemen is no different. On all sides, you will find the peace advocates who push for dialogue over fighting; and hardliners who will push for military adventurism over compromise and peaceful solutions. This is a moment when the peace advocates on either side of a conflict are aligned in their goals, empowered by an evident public support for peace, and motivated by a mutual interest in saving their weakened country from a deadly pandemic. I can’t repeat it enough: this opportunity is precarious, and action is needed urgently before this alignment is broken. We should not let the spoilers win. 

Regional stakeholders have an interest in Yemen’s stability. They want the parties to use this opportunity to leap towards a political solution. They support our initiative and the call of the Secretary-General for a ceasefire. And they are engaging their interlocutors on different sides of the conflict to support my mediation efforts and push for an agreement to resume the political peace process. 

18. Mr. UN envoy, Yemeni media recently sparked what it said was the waste and waste of a large financial budget at the disposal of the UN envoy and its relationship to prolonging the war in Yemen. What is your response to that?

Our budget documents are publicly available online for all to see. Nothing is hidden. Our budget is approved, constantly reviewed and audited by 193 member states through a public process. I do not underestimate the concerns expressed by Yemenis. This is why the UN makes these documents public. 

I also understand that it could be difficult to get over the numbers and try to gain perspective on what the numbers mean. In the world of peace operations, our budget is relatively small. In fact, our approved budget for 2019 is only 2.6% of the total budget allocated for the UN’s 37 political missions.

around the world. But it is always very expensive to run a field mission with all the infrastructure that it requires, including for example, air operations, which is critical for the delivery of the mandate given that my office is based in Jordan. We are always working to reduce costs, including, for example, by sharing aircrafts with other missions. 

The labor and infrastructure associated required for peacebuilding and mediation can come at a high cost, there is no doubt about that. But it is nothing compared to the costs of maintaining active military operations to keep a war going. 

I am also aware of the circulating narrative that my agenda is to somehow prolong the war. This is laughable. If anything, I am constantly accused of impatience. I want nothing more than for peace to reign in Yemen. I would be honored if I had the privilege of contributing to that end goal.   

19. Mr. Griffiths, why do the efforts of the international community seem invisible to a simple Yemeni citizen who searches in your endeavors for a country that respects his rights, allows him to travel without obstacles, and gives him a salary?

20. Media representatives often complain that you ignored giving a press briefing on your duties, during your arrival and departure from Sana'a airport, that this thumb does not contradict the spirit of transparency and good intentions that the United Nations takes into account during its good offices

All the UN system operating in Yemen, including my office, is accountable primarily to the Yemeni people.  

It is true though that the majority of mediation efforts are taking place primarily outside the public sphere. The confidentiality and privacy of our discussions with the parties are a necessity in order to build trust and achieve progress. And I am aware that these efforts cannot be fully appreciated when the daily life is gruelingly difficult for millions of Yemenis who are forced to endure unimaginable challenges just to survive.  

I am grateful for the Yemeni public support for peace and we are always trying to ensure the Yemeni public is informed about how the process is progressing, including by engaging Yemeni media and journalists as much as possible. We are also currently exploring ways of interacting with the Yemeni public through digital tools to ask us questions and educate us about their priorities, needs and red lines. 

I hope that when I will be able to travel again in Yemen once COVID-19-related restrictions are lifted, I will be able to engage more with Yemeni journalists. Until then, my office and I are committed to continuing doing so remotely. 

(1) On April 26, 2020, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen declared autonomy and a state of emergency in the areas it controls in the south of the country.

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