Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—In August of 2012, few jobs could have appeared as thankless and difficult as that as the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy to Yemen. The enormous challenges faced by the poorest state on the Arabian Peninsula—political, economic, social, environmental—must have made helping search for some kind of solution seem an impossible task.
Nonetheless, Moroccan-born diplomat Jamal Benomar, previously the Secretary-General’s special advisor on Yemen, agreed to take it on. A longtime UN employee and colleague of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as well as a political activist—he once served as an Africa researcher at Amnesty International’s London office—he developed expertise in attempts to set-up and run National Dialogue Conferences in Iraq and Afghanistan, making him a natural candidate for the job as Yemen’s new government began making plans to undertake the same project.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Benomar as Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) drew to a close, having endorsed a new six-region federal political system, laid plans for a new constitution, and mandated Yemen’s president to reshuffle the cabinet and Shura council to include more Southerners in response to the region’s desire for more representation and autonomy.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is your opinion on the outcomes of the NDC?
Jamal Benomar: I first want to emphasize that over the past few months, the conference’s participants have come up with a fantastic model for a participatory process in which all political and community elements, including women, youth and civil society, can partake. I think that this model will become a reference for other types of national dialogue across the Arab world. The NDC in Yemen operated on the principles of transparency and the effective participation of all political forces. The conference has reached its final leg, and a great victory has been achieved for all Yemenis. The peaceful push for change in Yemen that began more than two years ago was paramount in realizing these gains.
Q: Are you concerned that the gains produced by the NDC will be hijacked by political parties?
In terms of outcomes and conclusions reached, the NDC established the foundations for a new beginning that jettisons the painful conflicts of the past, in which power and corruption ruled. This was done so that we can build a new civilian state and a strong, modern nation. Yemen will be prosperous.
The NDC and the new system of governance, the likes of which the country has never seen before, will be the pillars upon which Yemen will stand. The foundations will be laid for a radical change in state institutions.
Q: Ongoing sporadic skirmishes in different parts of Yemen have stoked fears that a civil war could soon erupt. Do you think that Yemen will be able to overcome this crisis?
The United Nations has always condemned acts of violence, and we also condemn the acts of violence in the North and South of Yemen. We call upon all parties to exercise restraint and to ignore the acts of provocation and incitement which aim to undermine the country’s stability. Resolutions issued by the UN Security Council have called upon Yemenis to reject violence and resolve conflicts through peaceful means instead of using violence to achieve political goals. Yemen faces foreboding security challenges. We must not forget that at the beginning of the transitional process, Al-Qaeda was in control of an entire province and roads were closed.
Unfortunately, many of these obstacles are still present today. Yemen is a poor country with many humanitarian crises, and these random acts of sabotage and destruction have taken hundreds of millions of dollars from its already-strained financial reserves. Half of the population is malnourished. These acts constitute crimes against the Yemeni people. We must cooperate with all political parties in order to implement the provisions of the NDC and rebuild our state, which will provide social services and benefit our citizens.
Q: How can a national reconciliation government address the current security issues?
Unfortunately, in spite of the political settlement that was reached in 2011 and the commitment of various political parties to help the nation through the transitional phase, some powers continue to obstruct the transitional phase. We can see this clearly through acts of terrorism and the continuous targeting of the country’s infrastructure, along with the rise of parallel armed groups. However, the NDC has emphasized that throughout the coming stages we must all cooperate in order to construct a new, cohesive state. A special task force has been charged with overseeing security issues and the army. We must continue reforming security and military institutions and apply basic principles to transform civil–military relations in Yemen. This must happen until a cohesive identity and doctrine is formed for military and security institutions that operate professionally under the framework of the rule of law.
Q: Does the UN maintain that there is an alliance between some political forces and extremist terrorist groups?
What we have seen happening in Yemen is commensurate with the reality of the current circumstances. I will give you an example: The election of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Turnout was much higher than we expected, and I think that that was a strong vote for change and a mandate for turning over a new page. Many Yemeni political forces want a modern civil state, and what happened throughout the NDC is a very significant achievement towards that end, seeing how the principles of a modern civil state with basic democratic foundations were agreed upon. These include the rule-of-law, equal citizenship, and the establishment of a new government in Yemen.
Q: Will the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with Saudi Arabia at the forefront, be able to constrain the actions of some political groups in Yemen?
The Gulf states are the ones that formulated the Gulf Initiative in order to resolve the crisis in Yemen, and the process of change began with young people going down to the streets to participate in peaceful demonstrations and make demands. The essence of the Initiative was the principle of peaceful change and solidarity between the Gulf and Yemenis. The goal of the Initiative was to help extricate Yemen from a situation that could have led to a civil war. And even after the agreement was signed in November 2011, support from the Gulf continued unabated.
The biggest example of this is the Riyadh Conference, in which a number of countries pledged various amounts. Saudi Arabia was the leading donor. Saudi Arabia was also the first country to fulfill its financial promises to Yemen, an extremely important move in light of the humanitarian and economic situation. This aid is continuous. Yemen also benefits from the support of the UN, the Security Council, and the GCC. In 2014, the Security Council supported a political settlement in Yemen, having previously issued a resolution that recognized the existence of obstacles undermining the political process. Thus the Security Council waived sanctions under Article 41 of the Charter of the United Nations, and they continue to meet every 60 days to follow up with implementation of the resolutions that have been issued.
Q: What’s your final take on the situation, in your capacity as the UN’s special envoy to Yemen?
I want to stress that Yemen’s experience in transferring power was unique among Arab countries, as Yemen had been on the brink of civil war. Yemenis avoided a conflict through the negotiation process, agreeing to the Gulf Initiative and its implementation mechanisms in Riyadh. These mechanisms came complete with a roadmap that outlined a number of principles and procedures and provided for the creation of new institutions in order to kickstart the process of change that Yemenis, and especially Yemeni youth, desire. What is truly groundbreaking about the NDC experience is how it was able to expand participation and include segments of society that had hitherto been excluded from the political process. Women, youth, members of South Yemen groups, and the Houthis all participated in this new type of dialogue. Those who tried to impede the wheels of progress were overcome. The resolve of the Yemeni people is formidable. It is a proud and storied people. And despite the fact that Yemen has [among] the most weapons per capita worldwide, it still chose the peaceful path towards change.
This is an abridged version of an interview that was originally conducted in Arabic.