What are the prospects for peace in Yemen in 2019 and beyond?

Less than a month after the signing of the Stockholm Agreement between the Houthi movement and Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s internationally-recognised government, concern for its implementation grows.

It was agreed in a rush, under international pressure, for two main reasons: first the humanitarian crisis had reached catastrophic proportions by late 2018, making daily headlines around the world. This, combined with the international outrage following the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s Istanbul consulate (with evidence pointing to the direct involvement of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince), led to worldwide public outcry.

These events provided an incentive for the United States administration to put meaningful pressure on the Saudi regime to make some concessions in Yemen. Calling for a ceasefire by the end of November, senior administration officials also forced the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to accelerate preparations for a new meeting, after a failed attempt in September. After years of prevarication, caused by the influence of the leading coalition partners, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the UK finally submitted a draft UN Security Council Resolution on 19 November.

Its passing was delayed thanks to the resistance of the coalition members (who acted via Kuwait which was then on the UNSC), although the draft explicitly stated that the resolution did not challenge UNSC Resolution 2216 on which President Hadi relies for his own position and the Saudis for the legitimacy of their intervention.

The new resolution focused on the urgency of addressing the humanitarian crisis, calling for a halt to the coalition’s offensive on the port city of Hodeidah and facilitating access for supplies to the areas under greatest stress and in greatest need, most of them under Houthi control. Given that lack of cash is a major contributor to the food emergency, the draft also called for international cash injections in the economy.

Stockholm Agreement

As a result of further pressures on the coalition, including discussions between UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Bin Salman during the Argentine G20 summit, a meeting sponsored by the UN took place in early December in Sweden between Houthi and Hadi government emissaries.

Lasting a week, assisted by the additional pressure of the presence of Guterres himself on the last day of the meeting, the parties signed what is officially called the ‘Stockholm Agreement’, consisting of three sections: the first, a general statement; the second, a brief commitment to form a committee to discuss the situation in the city of Taiz [editor’s note: which has been under siege by Houthi rebels for the past four years]; and the third concerning the Hodeidah governorate and the access to basic necessities for the country via the Red Sea ports.

However, the meeting failed to agree on two other major issues: the opening of Sana’a airport and discussion of the UN Special Envoy’s ‘framework for negotiations’.

In addition, the vagueness and brevity of the agreement showed that insufficient preparation time simply pushes problems further down the line. The agreement thus contains built-in flaws, leaving plenty of space for multiple interpretations which, unsurprisingly, each side made to its own advantage.

Following the Stockholm agreement, a very watered down UNSC resolution (2451) was finally passed on 21 December. In addition to endorsing Stockholm, its main contribution was to authorise the Guterres to deploy a UN team to monitor the implementation of the agreements. However, since the ceasefire came into force on 18 December 2018, predictably, there have been multiple breaches, some more serious than others.

The Houthis skilfully stage-managed the apparent handover of the port of Hodeidah to the Coast Guard, but it was a Houthi-managed entity who took over – a model which is likely to be reproduced in future as both groups have parallel institutions. To what extent either party is able to persuade UN monitors that their apparent implementation of the agreement is genuine will largely depend the monitors’ actual detailed knowledge of the situation on the ground and, the persuasive capacity of the members of the committee and other official spokesmen (there are no women involved, as usual).

Regardless of its weaknesses, the Stockholm agreement is a first sign of hope for 29 million Yemenis who are desperately waiting for peace and have been surviving war for close to four years, and in particular for the 20 million who are facing ‘severe acute food insecurity’ which is UN-speak for starvation.

However, the likelihood of peace in 2019 is extremely low: history has shown on multiple occasions that such talks are the beginning of very long and protracted processes and, at this point, there is no indication that any of the warring parties has come to the conclusion that negotiations and peace are a better option than continuing to fight in anticipation of victory, regardless of the suffering of the population.

What is the future for Yemen’s children?

Yemen’s children face a multiplicity of immediate and long-term challenges. Prior to the war, Yemen had the highest illiteracy rate in the region; today, it is creating a new generation of illiterate adults, as more than two million children (a quarter of the school-age population) are not in school. More than 2,500 schools (16 per cent of the total) are unusable, either because they have been damaged or destroyed by military action, because they have been closed due to lack of staff or because they are used as shelters for displaced people or have been taken over by the military.

In a country with limited natural resources, any successful future economic development will depend on highly-educated adults able to participate in the modern economy. Better-educated people find higher paid jobs and their likelihood of unemployment is significantly lower, and are therefore less likely to join or support extremist groups.

In addition to the generation of children who remain out of education, those schools which are actually functioning only do so minimally, without equipment and with staff who, in many cases, have not been paid their salaries for well over two years. Many teachers have stopped work, seeking an income elsewhere, or are simply unable to afford the transport costs. Not only is education essential for the country’s future but, even now, while children are at school, they are far less vulnerable to risks such as recruitment as child soldiers, child labour or, in the case of girls, early marriage.

Leaving aside the implications for the future of Yemen of millions of uneducated adults, children are currently suffering from many immediate problems which will affect them in the post-war period.

As has been amply demonstrated worldwide, low birth weight children are more vulnerable to diseases and early childhood malnutrition reduces people’s intellectual and physical abilities throughout their lives.

As of December 2018, about 1.1 million pregnant or breast-feeding women and 1.8 million children were malnourished. Many are basically starving, as we have seen on our screens in recent months. As UNICEF has pointed out repeatedly throughout 2018, one Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes from malnutrition, while more than seven million Yemeni children go to bed hungry every night.

All the malnourished children who survive will suffer varying levels of physical and intellectual incapacitation throughout their lives, simply because of early age malnutrition due to the war. More than 6,700 children have been killed or severely wounded, while 85,000 children are estimated to have died of hunger, directly or indirectly.

Trauma and child soldiers

Close to 1.5 million children have been displaced, millions more are suffering from the trauma resulting from proximity to war zones, including the many active fronts, but also fearing attacks by drones, air strikes and other terrifying events which can happen anywhere in the country suddenly out of clear skies, day or night.

The fear and terror induced by this situation, combined with increasingly difficult, not to say, unbearable survival conditions, are creating a generation of psychologically scarred people, many of whom will never be able to live normal lives. UNICEF and other organisations are providing training to teachers and others in psycho-social support, but at best it can merely alleviate the problem and help victims cope with their trauma. It cannot solve the deep psychological impact of living for years under war conditions and with complete uncertainty about present and future.

Then there is the issue of child soldiers: in an environment where there are no jobs, where families are desperate and adults [when ‘employed’] have not been paid, joining a militia or other military organisations features as a positive option for boys from an early age.

The official figure of 2,700 child soldiers is probably an underestimate, as for many desperate families their sons’ involvement with the military is the only possible source income in desperate conditions where prices have doubled and incomes disappeared.

Not only are child soldiers used by the Yemeni warring factions, but it appears that the coalition is also importing child fighters from Sudan. Notwithstanding this reality, efforts to implement the action plan to end use and recruitment of child soldiers by armed forces are important.

The cholera epidemic which was the biggest medical crisis in 2017 thankfully affected fewer people in 2018, but between January and mid-November 2018 more than 280,000 cases occurred, 32 per cent of which affected children under the age of five. Other diseases have also become prominent, but malnutrition alone weakens children and makes them vulnerable to suffer and die from a wide range of diseases which are insignificant to stronger children. As pointed out by UNICEF MENA’s regional director Geert Cappelaere last month: “The interests of Yemeni children have hardly been taken into account in any decision-making for decades.”

Most importantly, once this pointless and murderous war ends, the future of Yemen will depend on its children. They will inherit a country destroyed by the self-serving leaders that have brought horrific and unprecedented levels of suffering to Yemenis, showing neither compassion nor commitment to find solutions to Yemen’s fundamental problems. If psychologically and physically scarred for life, how will they be able to create a better governed country able to provide adequate living standards for its people?

This is an abridged version of an article that was first published on openDemocracy.