Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed tells Security Council that Yemen is the world's 'largest man-made humanitarian crisis'
NEW YORK, United States – In a swansong address on Tuesday, the United Nations envoy on Yemen described being tantalisingly close to a peace deal to end Yemen’s war – only for the northern Houthi rebels to pull out at the 11th hour.
Addressing the UN Security Council for the final time as UN envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, revealed that the Iran-backed rebel group had scuppered a painstakingly brokered peace deal with Yemen’s internationally recognised government.
“Today, I would like to announce, for the first time, that we were about to reach agreement on a peace proposal, developed in consultation with the parties, but they refused to sign in the last minute,” said Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who steps down at the end of the month.
“In the end of the consultations, it became clear that the Houthis were not prepared to make concessions on the proposed security arrangements. This has been a major stumbling block towards reaching a negotiated solution.”
We were about to reach agreement on a peace proposal, developed in consultation with the parties, but they refused to sign in the last minute
- Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, UN enovy to Yemen
He referred to peace talks in Biel in 2015 and Kuwait in 2016, but did not indicate when the Houthis dropped out of negotiations. The discussions had led to a “peace roadmap with a clear timeline” that was never implemented, he said.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who has worked on Yemen since 2015, painted a bleak portrait of a country that is breaking apart, and with no “peace roadmap” between the Houthis, local forces and a Saudi-led coalition, the calamity is unlikely to end any time soon.
“We see daily reports about civilians dying of poverty, hunger or illness but we should not forget that many politicians from all sides are profiting from this conflict, from trading of arms and exploiting public properties for personal purposes,” Ould Cheikh Ahmed said.
His concerns were echoed by UN humanitarian John Ging, who said three years of war had led to “catastrophic” conditions in Yemen, with some 1.1 million new cases of cholera since April 2017 and 8.4 million Yemenis on the brink of famine.
A proxy war is playing out in Yemen between Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's government against the Houthis.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed will be replaced by Martin Griffiths, a veteran peace-broker and former British diplomat who currently runs the Brussels-based European Institute of Peace (EIP) and is expected to bring fresh approaches to ending the war.
Tuesday’s meeting comes amid the change of UN envoys and heightened diplomatic focus on a conflict that has hitherto garnered few headlines and little interest from major powers despite what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
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On Monday, Washington’s UN envoy Nikki Haley threatened unilateral action against Iran after Russia vetoed a western bid for the UN Security Council to call out Tehran for not stopping weapons flows to the Houthis.
The same day, Saudi Arabia replaced some of its top military officers in a shake-up that elevates younger personnel, amid concerns over stalled progress in Yemen’s war and global outrage over civilian deaths in coalition air strikes.
Lack of strategy
James Farwell, a former Pentagon adviser, told Middle East Eye that peace-making in Yemen remained confounded by the “lack of a clear strategy” to end the war by Hadi’s government, Riyadh or its backers in Washington and London.
“You have a conflict without strategy that’s motivated by fear of Iran and a desire to checkmate an Iranian adversary that is not actually a central player in the conflict in Yemen itself,” said Farwell, an expert with the Middle East Institute, a thinktank.
“The fact that the Houthis are getting some arms from Iran doesn’t make them a puppet of Tehran.”
Yemen, a country of some 26 million people, plunged into war in 2014 after the Houthis took over the capital Sanaa and forced the internationally recognised government to flee and seek support from neighbouring Gulf countries.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed called Yemen "the world's largest man-made humanitarian crisis," on top of an economic disaster that has shrunk the economy by some 40 percent since 2015 and halved the value of the Yemeni riyal in 2017.