How the United Nations exacerbates the war in Yemen

Yemen continues to be engulfed in a raging war that has seen the onset of one the worst humanitarian crises in modern history in one of the poorest Arab countries. The Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE continues to bombard Houthi positions, many of which are embedded in populated areas, leading to a tragically huge death toll.

As media coverage expands over a complex war that has seen Yemen firstly descend into civil strife before being dragged into the Saudi-Iran proxy war, increased pressure has fallen on the UN to find some sort of solution to the war that can bring about respite to the Yemeni people.

However, despite going through three different representatives (Jamal Ben Omar, Ould al-Sheikh, and now Martin Griffiths), the UN appears quite simply incapable of bringing the parties to the table to take part in genuine negotiations.

It is easy to blame the political parties hell-bent on protecting their gains. The internationally-recognised government is keen to reassert itself with the help of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The Houthis are keen to maintain control over their remaining territory after suffering military setbacks following the forced halt of their impending march on Aden.

However, although much can be said of the domestic scene, the reality is that the United Nations’ approach of equating both the Houthis and President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi’s government as equally justified parties, or parties with equal political weighting, does far more harm than good. In other words, the approach is not one of addressing wrongs, but on achieving peace, however fragile or false it may be.

This approach is reflected across Western think tanks who focus on socio-economic concerns, security, terrorism and tribal differences, conflating the complex dynamics of the political scene with the simplistic nature of this particular conflict.

This is not necessarily an unjustified approach. It stems, in fact, from the inability of the internationally-recognised government to retake its lost territories and is generally fuelled by altruistic intentions of ending the conflict and seeking more peaceful means of restoring order. However, far from encouraging the political parties to the table, this approach has in fact encouraged Houthis to dig their heels in and entrench themselves for as long as possible.

UN emboldens Houthi

Houthi has found in the UN an efficient organisation capable of calling a halt to the coalition advances when it is on the verge of breaking Houthi lines. With the UN exerting force on the Arab coalition, Houthi uses the interval period where the UN representative shuttles between the different parties to regroup, rearm, stockpile, entrench, and reform their armed groups before imposing impossible conditions that lead to an inevitable breakdown in talks and a renewal of fighting anew. An example would be Hodeida where Houthi used the UN proposal for negotiation to regroup, rearm, before imposing a condition that the UN administer the Hodeida port, knowing that the proceeds would go to the Yemeni Central bank in Sanaa, which is under the control of the Houthis, which essentially means that the Houthis will continue to have access to the benefits of the port that have contributed to their survival in the war.

The United Nations is surely not ignorant of this. Therefore, it beggars belief how they could have presented these conditions to the Arab coalition, leading some to suggest that Griffiths’ efforts are being driven more by a personal desire for a Nobel Peace Prize than securing a genuine lasting peace on the grounds of democratic values, justice and freedoms.

This would not be the first time a UN representative has been accused of selfish motivations. Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic in his autobiography ‘Inescapable questions’ raised concerns over then-UN representative Lord David Owen’s motivations during the brutal war in the Balkans in the early 90’s, claiming that he played on Lord Owen’s desires for a Nobel Peace Prize to buy time and halt the Serbian advance into Igman plateau (which, had the Serbians taken it, would have meant defeat for the Bosniaks).

The UN’s failures lie not solely in its conduct during the battle of Hodeida. When Houthi took the capital Sanaa in 2015, then-UN representative Jamal Ben Omar seemed to suggest that if the Houthis could set up a military council, the UN would be prepared to recognise it. Western embassies failed to follow suit with the Arab nations in withdrawing their ambassadors and moving them to Aden. The Houthi initiative of setting up the military council failed after President Hadi’s grand escape and the subsequent fall-out between the political parties who claimed the Houthis were bullying them.

Subsequent attempts to broker an agreement in Switzerland between the parties also failed. With Houthis on the reversal, negotiations were drawn out. Officials speak of Houthis making promises that they would sign a peace agreement and then reneging the next day, claiming they wanted to renegotiate, buying time while they awaited the outcome of key battles in Taiz, Lahj, Dhamaar and other places that might strengthen their bargaining power.

It is inconceivable that the UN are not aware that such tactics are being employed. However, in the pursuit of impartiality, the UN conflates the aggressor with the victim, believing that it is irrelevant how the conflict started, or who is right and who is wrong. For the UN, it appears that peace by agreement that would end the humanitarian crisis, however fragile, is what it must achieve.


The question here is, what should the UN have done, or do? The answer is simple. It should protect the agreement agreed upon by all the Yemeni political parties, including the Houthis; that which was agreed upon by the National Dialogue that brought about President Hadi’s government. In other words, the UN should have joined the efforts by the Arab coalition to oust Houthi and foil plans for military conquest, then facilitate Houthi’s return to the political scene as an unarmed political party exercising their rights to political participation.

It is important to note that this is not the same as engaging in Saudi Arabia and UAE’s destructive campaign. There is a stark difference. Had the UN been involved in the military campaign, it is likely that it may have been conducted differently. For example, there may have been the establishment of safe zones, less reliance on air strikes, more focus on training Yemeni forces on the ground, attempts to force Houthis out of populated areas and into open battlefields. The scenarios are endless as to how UN involvement in the war against Houthi could have panned out.

Moreover, the UN would have sent a major signal throughout the world; that it is the protector of democratic values and is willing to use force to ensure the survival of these values.

Instead, as it stands, a militia that marched from Saada, reneged on an agreement made between all parties, and brought down a government by force currently finds itself being treated as an equal party to a legitimate government (however flawed it may be). Moreover, with the UN approach of equating aggressor with the victim, even if a peace is brokered, the message to the rest of the parties is clear; if you take up weapons, seize cities, and survive the backlash long enough, the UN will eventually secure negotiations whereby you will have a greater say than any other political party and be able to secure concessions you otherwise would not be able to.

This is the reality. The UN must realise therefore that there are some values that are simply worth fighting for.