Government Offices of Sweden/Ninni Andersson Secretary-General António Guterres (center), Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström (center left), and UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths (center right), with participants of the Yemeni political consultations in Sweden on 13 December 2018.

The Yemen Agreement Demonstrates the Continued Relevance of the United Nations

Representatives of Yemen’s warring factions signed an agreement in Sweden in the first major diplomatic breakthrough of Yemen’s devastating civil war. The agreement is not a peace deal. Rather, the parties agreed to a ceasefire in the key port city of Hodeidah and also to establish a humanitarian corridor for aid to reach residents of Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city.

This is a crucial humanitarian breakthrough that the UN mediators expect to lead to more comprehensive peace talks to resume next month. In the short term, this agreement may ensure that famine does not strike the people of Yemen.

The agreement asks much of the United Nations.

The agreement sets up a “Redeployment Coordination Committee” to be chaired by the United Nations and composed of representatives of the warring factions. This committee is responsible for overseeing the redeployment of armed forces outside of the port city to agreed upon locations. This kind of mediation and coordination is something that the UN has a good deal of experience conducting and so long as parties are cooperative would not be the heaviest of lifts.

This is in contrast to another role crafted for the UN in this agreement, which is to oversee operations of the port of Hodeidah and also expand its inspections of cargo ships that dock in the port. The Saudi-lead coalition will not let a ship enter the port of Hodeida until it receives clearance from the inspectors with the UN Verification and Inspection Mission in Yemen, known as UNVIM. Ostensibly, this is to ensure that no arms or military goods are smuggled to Houthi rebels. But the effect has been to seriously disrupt the shipment of food, aid and other goods. Presumably, enhancing the inspections would give the Saudi’s the assurances they need to let more ships dock at the port, which is responsible for some 80% of all food imports in the country.

Finally, the agreement vaguely calls for “A strengthened UN presence in the city of Hodeidah and Ports of Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Isa.”  It adds no further details to that end.

The warring parties, and their backers, are turning to the United Nations to help implement and monitor this agreement. But now, the UN needs the Security Council to back it up. Two weeks ago, the United States pulled its support from a UK drafted resolution calling for a ceasefire in Hodeidah. The timing was curious, but the official explanation was that a ceasefire resolution would be pre-mature pending the outcome of the talks in Sweden. Now that the sides have agreed on a ceasefire, though, a Security Council endorsement of the ceasefire would strengthen the agreement. It is expected that after a Friday briefing by senior UN officials tomorrow, the UK will quickly draft a new resolution.

This flurry of diplomatic activity, in which the United Nations is playing a central role, will not end the conflict in the near term. But it will help avert a famine in Yemen that threatens hundreds of thousands of children, who are the first to die in a famine. But because of UN mediation, in particular from the Secretary General’s special envoy Martin Griffith, that worst case scenario may be avoided. And because of the guarantees that parties expect the UN to provide to ensure the implementation of the agreement, there is a decent chance that this ceasefire agreement may lead to something more enduring and comprehensive.

Just last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted the United Nations in a speech in Brussels, claiming that it had outlived its usefulness. But this agreement on Yemen is a good demonstration of just how valuable the United Nations continues to be.