Interview with Jamal Benomar, UN SRSG for Yemen

In this interview, Jamal Benomar, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Yemen, discusses the serious challenges facing this country in a democratic transition, including a humanitarian crisis and an expanding insurgency that is providing opportunities for al-Qaeda to gain influence. And as the state struggles to hold power in some regions, hopes are pinned on the crucial National Dialogue Conference slated for next year. “This is the first time in Yemen’s history that all the different factions, political trends, [and] social groups will meet to look at the big challenges facing Yemen and, hopefully through an inclusive dialogue, develop a new social contract leading to a new constitution and then elections to be held by the end of the transition period in February 2014,” he says.

Mr. Benomar also discusses the Yemen model as a way to deal with Syria. “I cannot just offer the Yemeni solution, what worked for Yemen, as the alternative to Syria, because the Syria situation has its own characteristics and its own challenges,” he says.

The interview was conducted by Nur Laiq, Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Nur Laiq (NL): Welcome, Mr. Jamal Benomar, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Yemen. What is the situation in Yemen today?

Jamal Benomar (JB): The situation is characterized by one, an agreement that is on track, unlike other situations in the region. Luckily, in Yemen there is a transition agreement and implementation is under way, but it is a situation that is characterized by a number of challenges in the security, political and economic field. So there is progress on the transition, but against a backdrop of some serious challenges and obstacles.

NL: You’ve talked about the process taking place against this backdrop of challenges. Could you expand on how these could be tackled, and here I mean the security concerns and unprecedented humanitarian crisis as well as the unresolved conflicts in the south, for example?

JB: What is unique in the Yemen situation is that there are a number of conflicts running concurrently. It wasn’t the usual classic uprising of youth against an ailing regime. There was an Arab Spring in Yemen and it’s continuing, but also Yemen has had an insurgency in the north that expanded dramatically in the last few months. Now Houthis control the whole of Saada province and then part of several other adjacent provinces.

In the south, one extraordinary thing that happened also during the month of the crisis that al-Qaeda took advantage of the crisis and lack of presence of government in the south, grievances that people have in the south. And then it managed to occupy significant territory until it took just a few days to occupy most of the province of Abyan and pockets of various other provinces in the south, occupying five cities, establishing a police force, delivering justice, providing social services, and also expanding. But recent efforts by the government led to their withdrawal from these various areas.

But still, the challenge of al-Qaeda continues. The al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen is a very lethal one, and proved to be lethal since it carried out many attacks on government forces and was involved in plotting operations outside of Yemen.

The big challenge also is the fact that during the months of the crisis the state lost its authority over a large part of the country. So there is fighting sometimes going on between many non-governmental entities. For example, Houthis are reported to have been fighting in various areas in al-Jawf, in Amran, and other provinces against Salafi groups. Sometimes Houthi forces clash with tribal militias aligned with [the] Islah Party. So this is very general on the security front. The army is still divided, and with multiple loyalties. Although there have been more recent efforts by the new president to bring the army, or various bits of the army, under a unified command.

Then there is the humanitarian crisis. Our humanitarian colleagues have documented the situation, and the figures are very alarming. Ten million Yemenis are food insecure. One million children could die as a result of malnutrition or could suffer severe damage to their health if the situation is not addressed. So this is a serious issue, but it’s not attracting the attention from the international community at a level that can lead to an upscale support of Yemen on the humanitarian front.

The economy collapsed during the months of the crisis, and there is now an effort to address economic issues with the Friends of Yemen, with the support of the international community.

And then the upcoming big challenge now is holding of the National Dialogue Conference. This is the first time in Yemen’s history that all the different factions, political trends, [and] social groups will meet to look at the big challenges facing Yemen and, hopefully through an inclusive dialogue, develop a new social contract leading to a new constitution and then elections to be held by the end of the transition period in February 2014.

NL: You’ve mentioned a lot of issues which I’d like to delve into further. I will come back to the issue of the National Dialogue, but before we get there I’d like to go back to what you said about al-Qaeda and how people’s grievances make it easier for them to attract fighters. Just on that issue, I want to ask you about the drone strikes which many see as creating an opportunity for al-Qaeda to attract people to its cause. Do you view the strikes as a source of stability or instability?

JB: What helps al-Qaeda is the instability and collapse of government control in various parts of the country. Prolonged crisis, combined with economic deprivation, youth unemployment, and genuine grievances that people in the south have about discrimination and related issues. This is a very general situation that led to the radicalization of poor youth in the province of Abyan who joined al-Qaeda in large numbers. So with the recent progress now, definitely on the military front, the government is making progress. But it’s a combination of efforts that are needed, that are more in the political, social and economic front. A more holistic approach is needed. Al-Qaeda is not going to be defeated just through military means.

NL: So on the issue of the drones, what should be done with that policy?

JB: I don’t have enough information about the frequency of the drones nor the effect of these drone attacks. But the one thing I know is there have been aerial bombardments that claimed the lives of many people. It’s unclear to see who is a combatant and who is not. This information is not really that available for you to make a very clear objective assessment on what’s been the impact. But that’s not the determinant factor. Yes, there have been some drone attacks, but there has been progress because the government is taking control of the armed forces. There has been progress because the government developed a strategy, because the president, through new military appointment, tried to begin the process of the restructuring of the armed forces. So slowly the Yemeni army began to take the initiative, and I think these efforts are bearing fruit now.

NL: Let’s zoom back out now and go back to the issue of the National Dialogue Conference coming up. What role can internal mediation play there? And could you talk a bit more about the actors who will be involved in the National Dialogue, the issue of who is represented and who isn’t, and how you see that playing out?

JB: During the negotiations that took place in November 2011, the negotiations that I facilitated which led to the transition agreement, one major concern was to address the inclusion deficit of the political process. That’s why we argued for a process that is inclusive. We argued for a mechanism that can bring the youth into the political process, a mechanism that can ensure the effective participation of women, a mechanism that can also bring some of the major political sides who had never been to a dialogue with the government, either the ruling party or other parts of the opposition, such as the Houthi insurgency and the Heraq movement.

In the agreement, the November agreement, the transition agreement, there was consensus to organize a National Dialogue Conference that would bring together the Houthis, Heraq, youth, women, [and] civil society, in addition to the ex-ruling party and the JMP, the coalition of parliamentary opposition parties. There’s a clear agenda for this conference. First, addressing the southern question, the issues of Saada, the constitution-making process, issues of transitional justice and national conciliation, and then issues related to development and vulnerable groups. So there is an agenda that is clearly stated in the agreement. The participants are clearly identified. There is a reference to a process that is inclusive and transparent and the need for proper preparations, and this is what is underway now.

NL: Talking of the inclusion deficit might be a good time to turn to the role of regional and international actors, who might not necessarily be part of that deficit. I’d like you to address the role that they might play in the mediation process and also in the rebuilding process. And here I mean neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, but also the others.

JB: Saudi Arabia played a very positive role supporting [the] effort aimed at finding a political solution to the crisis. Saudi Arabia also is now clearly the largest donor to Yemen, committing 3.5 billion very recently to reconstruction in Yemen. This role is very highly appreciated obviously. There was close cooperation between the United Nations and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) as a regional organization. It’s not a coincidence that although we, the UN, negotiated the agreement, we called it the GCC implementation mechanism.

Also I suggested in addition to this that the agreement be signed in Riyadh which is what happened. It was our suggestion. So there was a close, close cooperation between [the] GCC and the UN. And also the Security Council speaking with one voice playing a positive role for the resolution of the crisis and also the post-agreement phase. So all these combined efforts were very helpful, and that’s what produced the positive result that we see.

NL: You talk of the united front being put forward by the international community vis-à-vis Yemen and how that helped broker the deal. Now, of course, the Yemen model is being talked about as an option for Syria. But my immediate reaction to that is the international community is not united when it comes to Syria. So how would the Yemeni model work out in this case? Do you think it’s still a possible option?

JB: Well, the arrangements that have been agreed on in the context of the November agreement, the transition agreement, are working for Yemen. The implementation of the transition agreement is on track. There are challenges. I don’t deny that. I emphasize that there are serious challenges that could impede the implementation of the agreement in the future, but it’s largely on track.

It would be very difficult to transplant this model on a situation that is completely different. We need to make sure that this model works. We need to mobilize the international community to support Yemen during this very delicate implementation phase. But each situation is unique. Each country has a long history, culture and political dynamic. So I cannot just offer the Yemeni solution, what worked for Yemen, as the alternative to Syria because the Syria situation has its own characteristics and its own challenges.

NL: As a final question, what would you suggest for Syria?

JB: I will emphasize some basic principles. One is, I think it would be very helpful if the Syrian crisis is resolved through a Syrian political process, a Syrian-led process. So, that’s one. At the end of the day, the Syrians are the ones who will need to live with the consequences, long-term consequences of the decisions they are going to make. For any solution that is sustainable, it will have to come from the Syrians themselves, not outside.

Second, it would be very helpful for the international community to speak in one voice, as we have seen in the case of Yemen where the international community played a very helpful role, and in particular, the UN Security Council, and also the close cooperation between the United Nations and the regional organization, the GCC.

I think having that principle applied also to the case of Syria will go a long way. But the most immediate issue now is for the violence to come to an end, the violence that claimed the lives of hundreds, [of] thousands of people.

We should not forget that the total number of people who died during the Yemeni uprising, according to Human Rights Watch, is 265. According to Amnesty International, it seems it’s around 200. While in Syria we’re talking about, there are no precise statistics, of course, but it’s well beyond ten to twelve thousand. So that’s what makes the situations also very different.

NL: There are so many more questions we’d like to ask, but I think our time is up. So, thank you very much for the interview.

JB: Thank you.