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The United Nations and Authoritarianism's Renewal in Yemen

[Jamal Benomar, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, at a Friends of Yemen meeting. 6 March 2013. Image from flickr/Chatham House.] [Jamal Benomar, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, at a Friends of Yemen meeting. 6 March 2013. Image from flickr/Chatham House.]

The United Nations' stewardship in post-conflict and transitional political environments appears increasingly ineffective in the face of spreading violence in Syria, the intensification of Bahraini regime repression, and the growing popular discontent with Morsi's authoritarian measures in Egypt. In an apparent bid to remain at least partially relevant in the Middle East, the United Nations has continued to present Yemen and the GCC Initiative as a successful model for post-"Arab Spring" transitions. What it has failed to realize is that this peaceful "transition" is increasingly fragile because the root causes of discontent that triggered the uprising have not been addressed. Indeed, whether unintentionally or by design, the actions of the United Nations and its representatives have furthered an agenda that reinforces the US-driven security paradigm at the expense of the basic needs and human rights of Yemeni citizens.

This January, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a special session in Sanaa to support the peaceful transfer of power and the overall transition process. One month later, the President of the UN Security Council issued a formal statement that confirmed its strong support for the transitional process and warned, by name, former President Ali Saleh and former Vice President (and current leader of a southern secessionist movement faction) Ali Salem al-Beedh from meddling. The statement seemed firm and positive, but proved not only ineffective, but also nationally divisive.

On 21 February, shortly after the statement was issued, the Islah party—Yemen's Islamic Reform party—and supporters of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, headed by the president's brother Nasser Mansour Hadi, announced a celebration of the first anniversary of Hadi's election. The naming of Aden as the site of this commemoration was read as a direct provocation by southerners and, in particular, by supporters of the southern secessionist movement, Hiraak, who organized their own counter-demonstration. Pro-unity supporters countered that they were merely practicing their right to peacefully demonstrate and freely express their support for political unity with the north.

The unity demonstration, composed of supporters of Hadi and Islah, changed venue at the last moment and relocated to intersect with the Hiraak protest. In the ensuing clash, security forces fired on Hiraak supporters, killing three, injuring dozens, and setting off a wave of protests and violence in several southern governorates.

This incident demonstrates that the UNSC presidential statement had been understood as a clear warning to the Southern Movement and its most visible leader, al-Beedh, to discontinue their largely nonviolent struggle against the central government. While singling out Ali Saleh and al-Beedh, the statement neglected to identify the numerous other political leaders who have militias and threaten the fragile peace. These include Hamid al-Ahmar and his brothers whose militia controls some districts in Sanaa, al-Mikhlafi militia in Taiz, and al-Huthi in Saada.

In addition to the presidential statement, statements by the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar have contributed to an understanding amongst Yemenis that the United Nations (and the United States) is targeting certain elements within the broader Southern Movement. While Saudi-backed elements of Hiraak are seen as reasonable – such as those led by al-Attas and al-Jafri – the secessionist movement has more generally been identified by the United Nations (and the United States) as an inconvenient impediment to their vision of a new Yemen. Benomar referred to "the armed elements of the Hiraak movement" in his report to the United Nations on 18 December, a provocative designation given their fairly consistent adherence to nonviolent tactics. While there have been individual cases of violent action, the singling out of "armed elements" of Hiraak in a society where everyone is armed, while ignoring the other political movements that also have "armed element," such as Islah and al-Huthi, challenges Benomar's credibility as a neutral intermediary in this conflict.

Benomar went on to report that allegations had been made linking "extremist elements" in Hiraak to external sources of financial and military support. He then included "reports" about alliances between these Hiraak factions and al-Huthi insurgency in the north. Taken together, these "allegations" and "reports" seek to draw a clear connection between the Southern Movement and Iran (through al-Huthi)—a conspiracy that is prominent in the propaganda of both the Islah party and the central government.

Yemen's interim president Hadi fits very well into the US security paradigm that is driving US/UN policy. He is of southern origin, from the Abyan governorate, and was an opponent of Ali al-Beedh in two wars. Hadi's faction was defeated in the 1986 war in the south and he subsequently supported the victorious Ali Abdullah Saleh in the 1994 civil war between the south and north. Al-Beedh now represents a wing in the Southern Movement that has maintained its demand for secession, while Saudi-backed factions have openly considered softer options, such as a federated solution. Given Hadi's historical animosity towards al-Beedh, and his hardline stance against Iran (designed to satisfy Saudi Arabia and convince it to abandon its strong ally Ali Mohsen), it is no wonder that the UNSC presidential statement specifically targeted the southern leader.

Benomar’s main concern has been to reach an agreement between the influential individuals in Yemen, but his appeal to the personal interests of powerful actors has cost the United Nations its perceived neutrality. Benomar’s attitude is not atypical, however. Indeed, it has been consistent with the UN handling of Yemen that dismisses claims to social justice and the simplest human rights for the sake of political expediency, as the inclusion of judicial immunity to Ali Saleh and his partners in the GCC Initiative clearly illustrates.

Hadi continues to walk in the same steps as his predecessor, Saleh. His son, Jalal, has been appointed to a powerful political post and now holds influence in a number of key institutions, some within the army. His relatives have also been installed in important military positions. This consolidation of power has not been seen as cause for alarm within the United Nations or the crucial player behind it, the United States. Indeed, while the GCC Initiative stipulates that the term of the transitional presidency should not exceed two years, the United States Ambassador to Yemen has suggested that that term can be extended.

Taken together, the UNSC presidential statement and Benomar's actions and official statements represent a concerted effort to centralize control in the hands of the new president. Hadi has taken advantage of the provisions in the GCC Initiative—namely, the demand to reform governmental institutions—in order to supplant Saleh supporters with his own. At the same time, the United Nations has publically declared its discontent with the most hardline of the Southern Movement's leaders, giving the green light to provocations and targeted action against Hiraak and threatening any chance at a constructive national dialogue. The issues of poverty and injustice, the root causes of Yemeni grievances and suffering, remain stubbornly peripheral to an agenda that prioritizes international security above all other concerns. This policy will lead sooner or later to an eruption of violence in the streets, but this time on a scale that may not be as easy to contain. 

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