After reaching no tangible results following the Stockholm agreement, a new round of talks between Yemen’s warring sides kicked off in Amman on 4 February, focusing on thrashing out a deal for a prisoner exchange and advancing implementation of the Sweden accord.
The UN special envoy’s office described that round of meetings as “technical”, adding that the supervisory committee tasked with following up on the prisoner exchange deal would convene 5 February in the attendance of government and Houthi representatives in addition to Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen, and Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who will be present on the first day of talks.
The statement released by Griffiths’ office made no mention of the timeframe slated for the Amman talks, suggesting that the supervisory committee would “remain open to provide the parties an opportunity to continue working together to enhance the level and quality of information, to enable the expected finalisation of the lists in the near future.”
Jordan agreed Saturday to host another round of talks on an exchange deal of more than 15,000 prisoners held hostage by both parties and to advance the Stockholm accord whose implementation came to a halt because the warring parties differed over the interpretation of some of its articles.
In Jordan, Griffiths said: “The two parties remain committed to the release of all prisoners and detainees, missing persons, arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared persons, and those under house arrest, based on a phased implementation.
They furthermore have reaffirmed their readiness to do their utmost to achieve this shared objective, recognising the urgent need to reunite detainees with their families.
“The committee has made important progress in moving the release process forward, including by providing additional information on the status of individuals included in the lists of prisoners.”
The sub-committee on dead bodies and human remains held its first set of meetings and agreed to a joint plan of action based on specific principles and a timeline to complete the exchange of bodies, including that of late president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Griffiths said his office and the ICRC will “continue to support the parties’ efforts in implementing the agreement, including by providing technical assistance”.
Hamad Abul-Ahmar, head of the Houthi committee on dead bodies, said the two parties signed a deal to exchange dead bodies during negotiations in Rimbo city, north of Stockholm, 5-13 December 2018, as they exchanged lists of 15,000 detainees that were expected to be released following agreement between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.
A few moments before the conclusion of the Amman meeting the Houthis placed new obstacles, driving the media to either suggest prolonging the talks or to pronounce them a failure if the Houthis insisted on their conditions.
This, the media said, would put the UN and the Stockholm agreement between a rock and a hard place.
In Amman, Houthi representatives suggested both parties release 200 prisoners. The internationally recognised government of Yemen rejected the segmentation of the prisoners file, insisting that negotiations include all prisoners held by the two parties.
Yemeni Minister of Human Rights Majed Fadel, a member of the team negotiating the prisoners swap, said “the government rejected the Houthis’ proposal that the swap take place in phases, with 200 being exchanged in the first stage. It contradicts the agreements we had previously reached.”
Fadel explained the government was seeking the release of prisoners primarily because they are civilians that didn’t partake in fighting. “The militia is requesting the release of its fighters only, which we, as a government, don’t approve of.”
The Yemen government presented a roadmap for the release of the prisoners in line with the UN-backed Stockholm agreement, while the Houthis said they were ready to release only 10 per cent of the government’s prisoners.
A source at the governmental delegation said they presented the final list of names of prisoners to Griffiths’ office and the ICRC.
Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani had predicted that the Houthis would resort to stalling in order to prolong negotiations over the prisoner swap. The new deal, he said, stressed the consistency of terms in the statements presented by both parties, dividing prisoners into five groups in the list, each including information on the condition of prisoners.
The UN regards the exchange of prisoners, agreed upon in Stockholm, is a “confidence-building measure” to bring the warring parties to the negotiation table to end the war.
Director of operations at the ICRC Dominik Stillhart said in New York that the prisoner swap deal was facing obstacles because of the lack of trust between the two fighting parties, adding that each party presented a list with 8,000 names and that it was not possible to run checks on many of those.
The Stockholm agreement called upon the Houthis in its first phase to move their main fighting forces out of Hodeida, Ras Issa and Salif ports, putting their supervision back in the hands of the administrations that governed them before the arrival of Houthis in late 2014.
It also called for a ceasefire in Hodeida and giving the UN a role in monitoring the ceasefire and the three ports. A UN statement reported a humanitarian aid bridge didn’t open as scheduled on 29 December between the capital Sanaa and the port city of Hodeida.
The second phase of the Sweden accord called for redeploying forces and withdrawing all military forces from Hodeida. The warring parties also agreed on swapping thousands of prisoners and new security arrangements in Taiz, the largest city in the southwest of Yemen cordoned by the militias.
None of the resolutions agreed upon in Stockholm has been adopted so far. The Houthis didn’t redeploy their forces and instead handed out uniforms to their supporters at the port of Hodeida and claimed that they were autonomous local security forces.
This led to the failure of the mission of retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, chairman of the UN monitoring mission in charge of overseeing the ceasefire in Hodeida. No development was made in the prisoner exchange nor Taiz security arrangements fronts.
Meanwhile, the UN has been trying to salvage the remains of the Stockholm accord. Griffiths held a series of meetings with the Houthis and their allies to reach an agreement and secure the UN mission, hoping to fly to Hodeida next month.
Griffiths received a new condition in Sanaa, where Houthi supporters demanded the political isolation of Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar from the political process in the country.
Amid all these political impasses, the Yemeni people are left to suffer and endure the horrors of war. The dollar saw an upward surge, reaching 600 Yemeni riyals.
In a country on the brink of famine, the UN has urged the warring parties to give it access to grain stores in Hodeida large enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month. The UN says the grain store “is at risk of rotting”.
On Monday, Griffiths and emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock warned that the urgency of gaining access to the Red Sea Mills south of Hodeida was “growing by the day”.
“The World Food Programme grain stored in the mills has been inaccessible for over five months and is at risk of rotting,” they said in a joint statement.
“At the same time, the United Nations is in the process of scaling up to provide food assistance to nearly 12 million people across Yemen who struggle to meet their daily food needs. Our main concern is for their survival and well-being.”
The UN officials emphasised that ensuring access to the mills was a “shared responsibility among the parties to the conflict in Yemen”.
Lowcock added that grain stores have been unreachable since 2018 and that more than a million Yemenis left Hodeida since the outbreak of war.
An anonymous source at Sanaa airport told Anadolu news agency that Danish general Michael Anker Lollesgaard, the new head of the UN’s monitoring mission in Hodeida, travelled from Aden, south of Yemen, to Sanaa Monday.
Lollesgaard was scheduled to meet with the Houthis and Griffiths to discuss means to implement the Stockholm agreement, theoretically in effect since 18 December.
With ongoing UN efforts to mend fences between the warring parties and the impending danger resulting from the rotting grain, Yemenis are dying of famine and war. Will the grain stores be opened to save the people, or will the parties watch as in droves Yemenis die?
Humanity is at stake here and if the grain stores are not opened swiftly the Yemenis will write in the annals of history the names of those that killed their children by starvation.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Darker shadows of death in Yemen