Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

UN’s Yemen Envoy Says Dialogue is the Answer | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Jamal Benonmar (Source: Zakia Alia)

Jamal Benonmar (Source: Zakia Alia)

Jamal Benomar (Source: Zakia Alia)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Yemen is perhaps the most troubled state in the Middle East with a history of poverty, civil war and division. Uncertainty about its future following the instability that led to and followed the resignation of its former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has prompted regional and UN intervention in a bid to prevent the state from descending into chaos.

The first meetings of a conference that brings together political parties, regional factions, interest groups and civil society organizations from across the country will get underway soon, in a bid to stabilize the situation. Prompted by the UN and Yemen’s neighbors, Yemen’s quarreling groups will attempt to thrash out a settlement on elections and a new constitution among other issues, a settlement that many hope will allow Yemen to avoid secession and possible civil war.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Jamal Benomar, an Assistant Secretary-General of the UN and the organization’s special envoy to Yemen, who has played an important role in the organization of the forthcoming National Dialogue Conference. Speaking by telephone, Benomar told Asharq Al-Awsat about his hopes for the conference, the obstacles it faces, and the efforts of the UN and Yemen’s neighbors to assist the process of a peaceful transfer of power in the troubled state.

Asharq Al-Awsat: The National Dialogue Conference is due to start very soon, on March 18. What is your assessment of the situation in Yemen at the moment?

Jamal Benomar: The situation in Yemen has changed a great deal during the past few months. We should not forget that Yemen was on the verge of a civil war, and the capital, Sana’a, was like Beirut at the time of war: divided, the roads were cut, and violence and the presence of armed men was widespread. Now, we see competition among the Yemenis to participate in the dialogue. All the political movements, including the youth and women, focusing on preparing their programs for a conference unprecedented in Yemen and in the region.

Contrary to the tragic situation in Syria, the Yemenis have chosen the peaceful way of change and the transfer of power. This is despite the fact that Yemen is the second in the world, after the United States, in the spread of weapons among the population. The Yemenis have succeeded in moving with relentless steps toward achieving their aim of peaceful change, for which the youth have taken to the street. The Yemenis are halfway there more than a year after the beginning of the political process, but the issues to be dealt with during the remaining year still are grave and complex; with regard to the National Dialogue Conference, it will deal with issues of national dimension, such as the issue of the south, the issue of Sa’dah, the drafting of the constitution, and the holding of the elections.

Q: In light of the objections from some quarters, do you believe that success is still possible?

First, I must say why the National Dialogue Conference is needed. The idea of conducting a comprehensive national dialogue was agreed at the negotiations that took place in November 2011 between the Joint Meeting Parties and the General People’s Congress Party, which was then the ruling party. The aim was to establish a framework for widening the circle of political participation to include non-parliamentary groups, such as the Al-Hirak, the Houthis, the youth, the women, civil society, and other activists. This agreed framework would allow the inclusion of the youth, who were the first to call for change, in the process of decision making, and push forward the change process to which they aspired.

Within the context of the transfer of power agreement, it was agreed not only to conduct a national dialogue, but also to identify the participating sides, the principal subjects, a preparatory stage, and a special body for preparing it. Also the principle of effective participation by all sides, including the women, was agreed.

This was a significant development in the thinking of the political elite compared to the original text of the GCC initiative, which was announced in May. In the GCC text, the idea of the national dialogue does not exist. Despite the difficulties, the preparatory committee, after five months of consultations and negotiations, was able to reach an agreement on a comprehensive and detailed vision of the process of organizing the conference, its mechanisms, and controls.

Perhaps for the first time in the history of Yemen, this committee has reflected the cooperation of all the political constituents, including the youth, the Houthis, women, civil society, the defenders of Al-Hirak, in addition to the traditional parties and other emerging parties. Theoretically, the Yemenis have agreed on the best model I have ever known for organizing the dialogue conference compared to dialogues we have supported in other countries. However, in practice, there still are great challenges.

Q: With regard to the GCC initiative, what has been achieved so far, and what remains to be done?

First of all, the greatest achievement has been the success of the Yemenis in avoiding a war along the lines of the Syrian scenario. The Yemenis have agreed to transfer power in a peaceful way, to reject the option of violence, and to a detailed and clear road map about a number of principles, measures, and mechanisms that will govern the transitional stage according to a timetable. It is the clearest road map for a transitional process within the Arab Spring’s revolutions.

The Yemenis have done this without any foreign dictates. The negotiations that took place in November, and led to the transfer of power agreement, which I call the “executive mechanism,” were purely a Yemeni effort. These negotiations were not attended by any foreign side, apart from me and my team as facilitators and at the request of both sides. Only hours before the signing of the agreement in Riyadh, under the sponsorship of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, copies were distributed to the ambassadors of the UN Security Council member countries, the ambassadors of the GCC countries, and the GCC Secretary General Dr Abd-al-Latif Al-Ziyani, and that was the first time they saw the agreement. This agreement has been purely a Yemeni achievement, and it has been accomplished because of the political courage of all the then Yemeni leaders, who decided to avoid war.

However, I would like to emphasize that despite the fact that the political process in Yemen has progressed since the beginning of the transitional stage, the most prominent remaining challenges are the existence of some problems that could destroy the process. This includes the spread of armed groups, the threat posed by Al-Qaeda, the weakness of the state’s authority in some regions, the continuous attacks on the petroleum and gas pipelines and electricity lines, the weakness of the trust among the sides, and the continuation of the media war. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that the Yemenis, because of their wisdom, will be able to resolve these difficulties during the upcoming period in order to make the conference succeed, and fulfill what remains of the missions of the transitional stage according to the executive mechanism of the GCC initiative.

Q: A few days ago, the UN Security Council threatened to impose sanctions upon those accused of hindering the political process, especially former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and former vice president Ali Salim Al-Bayd. Is the departure of Saleh from the country still desired by the United Nations, provided that he would return as a citizen after the end of the transitional period?

The most important issue is that the UN Security Council has proved that it will continue to exert all efforts in order to make the transitional process succeed, and with the full cooperation of the GCC countries. The UN Security Council was been speaking with one voice when it called for a political settlement in Resolution 2014, and also when it ratified that it is prepared to impose sanctions and measures against anyone who wants to destroy the political process.

Since my first visit to Yemen in April 2011, the UN Security Council has met more than 18 times. The latest UN Security Council statement reiterates again that the Council, contrary to other cases, still speaks in one voice, and remains prepared to adopt more measures if necessary. Naturally, I hope that this will not happen, and I hope that all sides will cooperate in a constructive way to make the national dialogue conference succeed, to draft a new constitution, and to prepare for the general elections next year. The Yemenis ought to grab the opportunity offered by the international community and regional states. It is not by chance that the pledges of the friends of Yemen have exceeded USD 7 billion, at least half of which is from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, and we might see more aid if the Yemenis make progress in the transitional process.

Q: Previously, you announced that the issue of the south will not be avoided at the National Dialogue Conference, and you said that it would be admissible to present the issues of secession, self-determination, and disengagement. Will the issue of partitioning Yemen remain on the cards despite the fact that the UN Security Council regularly stresses the unity of Yemen and its territorial integrity?

The UN Security Council has stressed repeatedly the unity, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Yemen. This reflects the fact that the council prefers this option. At the same time, the UN Security Council recognizes the need to hold a comprehensive national dialogue conference with the full participation of all the constituents of the Yemeni society, including representatives of the south and other regions, and with full and effective participation of youth and women. The council has called on all parties to participate effectively and constructively; this means the need to represent all the viewpoints related to the southern issue at the conference, with the exception of those who want to use violence as a means to achieve political aims.

For this reason we have tried to convince all the sides of Al-Hirak of the need to participate in the dialogue, and to present their proposals and visions, including those calling for secession. We have emphasized to all that there is no way to find a just solution on the southern issue other than constructive and direct dialogue between the sides. Naturally, there are many different view on the issue, but I have said it repeatedly that I do not call for any ready-made solutions or specific models. All that I call for is the dialogue to work as a mechanism that allows the Yemenis to assess all options, and agree the model that suits them. The solution will not come except through dialogue.

Q: A few weeks ago, President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi ordered a comprehensive reform of the army, which is divided between the opponents and supporters of Saleh. Are you optimistic about the chances of success of this reform?

The agreement of the transfer of power stresses the need to reform the security and military institutions. Within this framework, the military affairs commission was formed, and President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has issued a series of decrees related to these institutions. President Hadi’s latest decree, in which he announces the new structure, enjoys wide popular support. Yemenis of all stripes are unanimous that it is necessary to rebuild a national military institution that works under unified professional command within the framework of the law, an institution that is not monopolized by a specific family or party. Indeed, I am optimistic because the president has made courageous decisions, supported by public opinion in Yemen and in the international community.

Q: There is widespread apprehension about the smuggling of weapons to different groups in Yemen, including the Al-Hirak separatists. What is the United Nations doing to prevent the return to violence, and what stage has the UN investigation of weapons smuggling in Yemen reached?

The leaders of Al-Hirak, with whom I communicate continuously, reject violence and emphasize the peaceful nature of their movement. There are dangers and some people are apprehensive, but also there are serious efforts underway to ensure the continuation of peace in Al-Hirak. In its latest presidential statement, the UN Security Council has expressed its concern about the reports of funds and weapons getting into Yemen from abroad. At the request of the Yemeni Government, a committee of experts affiliated to the UN Security Council will be conducting a detailed investigation.

Regardless of this, the preparations continue at all levels to launch the National Dialogue Conference soon. Here, I renew my invitation to all sides to participate constructively and effectively in the conference, because it will be the unique and golden opportunity to get Yemen out of its chronic crisis. Now, the ball is in the court of the Yemenis to develop their country according to their visions and aspirations so that it becomes a country that encompasses all, and over which prevail the values of citizenship, democracy, freedom, and human rights.