Political Analysis

Jamal Benomar to UN Security Council: scale of Yemen’s humanitarian crises “unprecedented”

National Yemen

United Nations envoy Jamal bin Omar

By: NY Staff

On Tuesday, May 29, United Nations envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar addressed the UN Security Council. Benomar’s report covered a wide variety of issues facing Yemen at present and in the future, including preparations for and obstacles to the upcoming National Dialogue Conference, growing malnutrition numbers, and government and military efforts to combat Al-Qaeda militants.

A full transcript of Benomar’s address follows.

Mr. President, the political transition in Yemen has recently entered the six month mark since the signing of the transition agreement on November 23rd 2011 in Riyadh. The Yemeni sides have made much progress in implementing the agreement and Security Council resolution 2014. The formation of the government of national unity, the beginning of restructuring the armed forces and the holding of the presidential election with overwhelming public support in February secured a peaceful transfer of power and marked a successful completion of the first phase of Yemen’s transition. These steps, combined with the recent launch of initial preparations for an all-inclusive National Dialogue Conference, indicate that Yemen’s transition remains largely on track.

Since assuming office, President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi has shown strong leadership and determination to lead the country through the transition. The president has continued to take important steps to advance the transition. His efforts have received overwhelming support and the goodwill of Yemenis. In this context, he began the process of reform of the military and security services by issuing several decrees announcing the appointment of commanders to new positions. The military affairs committee established under the transitional agreement has made considerable progress in the militarizing urban areas despite many difficulties. Most checkpoint and battle positions have been removed in Sana’a and Taiz.

Having said that, Yemen’s transition is taking a place against a backdrop of serious security concerns and unprecedented humanitarian crises and many unresolved conflicts. The timeline of the transition is tight and there is no time to lose. One of Yemen’s key challenges is to assert the authority of the state in an environment that is dominated by a multitude of armed none-state actors competing for power. Al-Qaeda in particular continues to pose a major threat. However, President Hadi’s efforts to counter the advance of Al-Qaeda in the south and elsewhere are beginning to bear fruit. During my eleventh good offices’ mission to Yemen during the 18th to the 30th of April 2012, new tensions arose as a result of President Hadi’s decision to replace the commander of the air force, Mohammed Saleh Al-Ahmar, a half-brother of former president Saleh, and the commander of the presidential guard, Tariq Saleh, Saleh’s nephew. Their refusal to allow the president’s instruction to move to other positions created a dangerous situation. During this mission, I worked very closely with President Hadi and met several times with former president Ali Saleh and his son Ahmed Ali, the commander of the republican guard, to help defuse the standoff. Finally, we reached the agreement to allow the handover to take place and I personally witnessed the handover ceremony of both air force command and the third battalion. I regret however that after my departure and as of today, an open defiance and standoff to prevent the colonel appointed by the president to lead the third battalion. It should be noted that the third battalion is one of the well-equipped and resourced military units in Yemen and is located next to the presidential compound in the capital Sana’a. These developments demonstrate that the underlying causes of tension remain in place.

Obstruction of President Hadi’s reorganization and control of the military and security forces could derail Yemen’s fragile transition process and could result in serious instability. All efforts must be made to keep the transition on track. The planned National Dialogue Conference could be an essential step to this end. If well-prepared, it could gain legitimacy in the eyes of all Yemeni constituencies as a forum for shaping the framework of Yemen’s future and could become an important vehicle for democratic empowerment and for creating a positive political dynamic in Yemen towards great stability and security. The main parameters of the national dialogue are outlined in the transitional agreement. Based on consultations with all national constituencies, we have identified a number of key principles accepted by all in relation to the national dialogue. First, it must be fully inclusive, which means that all relevant segments of Yemeni society must be represented, including political parties, the southern movement, the Houthis and civil society representatives, including youth and women’s groups. Second, the process must be generally participatory; that is to say, all those included in the process must have a say in its designing conduct and must be assured that their views will be heard. Third, the dialogue process must be transparent. Meaning, key decisions on its timeline, membership, agenda and methods of work should be publically shared. And finally, the dialogue has to generate results, meaning its outcomes must be fully implemented.

On the 6th of May, President Hadi issued a decree appointing a contact committee for the national dialogue process. The committee is tasked with facilitating the formation of the preparatory committee for the national dialogue by the 30th of June 2012. The appointment of this committee is a welcome first step in launching the process on time. The main task of the preparatory committee will be to develop an agreement on a concrete plan for conducting the National Dialogue Conference, including agreement on the format, membership criteria, participation and rules of procedures. The outcome of the National Dialogue Conference will feed into the constitution-making process that is to conclude in late 2013, enabling general elections to take place in 2014. To be successful, the national dialogue process must be designed and driven by the Yemenis themselves. While this will require strong international support, its footprint should be light.

Based on consultations with Yemeni actors, the UN will provide support in four key areas. First, political facilitation to asses stakeholders resolve disputes as they arise. Second, technical support to the secretariats of the preparatory committee and the National Dialogue Conference. Three, capacity-building of key constituencies – including youth, women, internally displaced persons – to assure they can effectively participate in the conference. And forth, a public information and awareness campaign to ensure that the public is properly informed and included in the discussion taking place throughout the process. My office will lead the UN effort and support the national dialogue in close cooperation with the UN country team to resend a $2 million project initiative to be funded by the UN. A peace-building fund will cover support needs during the preparatory phase of the dialogue. A small team of political advisor who will work closely with the UN country team has also been deployed to Sana’a to assess the preparatory process. The success or failure of the national dialogue is likely to make or break Yemen’s transition. Helping to ensure its success will therefore be the UN’s top priority in Yemen in the coming months and we will work closely with international actors who can offer support for this process.

Mr. President, Yemen’s security situation remains a source of major concern. Military restructuring and steps towards a unified command will take time and sustained efforts. In the meantime, the government of rule’s security capacity remains limited. In the north, the Houthis continue to assert control in Sa’ada and part of Haja, Amran and Al-Jawf governorates. In the southern Abyan province, Yemeni executive forces have stepped up their campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Ansar Al-Sharia with air and navy support with recent success. Laoder has reportedly been retaken by the Yemeni army and significant inroads have been made in Ja’ar and Zunjubar while Shukra remains under the control of Ansar Al-Sharia. However, AQAP and Ansar Al-Sharia have extended their reach into areas previously not associated with their activities. Last week’s terrorist bombing in Sana’a that targeted a military parade, killing some 96 to a hundred soldiers and wounding 300 others, and the recent fueled airline bombed float are reminders that AQAP remains the most lethal Al-Qaeda affiliate, intent on striking both western and regional targets. Ansar Al-Sharia has established governance structure in areas under their control, providing social services and administrational justice in a region that has long complained of discrimination and neglect from the government.

Separatist sentiment has been on the rise. Herak – or the southern movement – began in late 2006 as a right-based movement demanding equality and non-discrimination and a change in relations between north and south, all within a unitary state. The movement has met with depression and a few years later, groups within Herak began to advocate for independence of the south. Other security issues remain: incidents of abduction and assassinations of hostages taken increased in the last few weeks. In the streets of Sana’a and throughout the country, the presence of armed forces and militia remains a reality. Major weapons and other military capabilities can be redeployed in a matter of hours.

Furthermore, oil and gas pipelines and electricity lines continue to be attacked frequently. Many of the attacks are politically-motivated, while others are criminal acts committed in the context of lawlessness that prevails in parts of the country. These attacks and sabotage cost the state an average loss for the national budget of around $ 250 million per month or $3 billion per year. This loss of revenue is a crime against the Yemeni people; it adds more misery to the poor and vulnerable groups. Yemen remains the poorest country in the Arab world with a fiscal deficit of about 7% of its GDP.

Mr. President, the current scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is unprecedented and the figures are much bleaker than previously reported. 10 million people – almost half of the entire population – are food insecure – with half of those, 5 million people, severely food insecure. Almost one million children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition. Ongoing fighting has displaced more than half a million Yemenis within the country. Yemen also hosts 290 thousand refugees and continues to record a high influx. To address the growing humanitarian needs in Yemen, the UN’s humanitarian response has been significantly expanded in 2012, but delivery of assistance still faces a number of challenges, key among them are capacity, security and funding. Both the Yemeni government and the international community must prioritize to secure the humanitarian crisis. The Yemeni humanitarian response plan for $455 million is currently only 43% funded. However, since the original appeal, the number of people in humanitarian need has increased and the financial requirements are being revised. Substantial scale-up in support from the international donor community will be needed to meet the increased needs.

Members of the Security Council should play a more active role in bringing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen to the world’s attention. A good development is that the international community is now committing to scaling up its support. The ministerial meeting of the group of Friends of Yemen, hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on  the 23rd of May aimed to provide the framework and momentum to support Yemeni political, economic and security reform plans in-line with specific timelines.

Mr. President, an urgent issue that also demands our attention is the fate of those who were detained during the recent conflict by government security forces or by armed opposition groups hasn’t been addressed despite the best efforts of the government of national unity. Those who still hold individuals in custody must account for them, allow access and grant their rapid release. We are also mindful of the need to address the many injustices of the past. Those who committed human rights violations should be held to account. I recommend those in the government who worked hard to generate a credible law on transitional justice, a law that is the outcome of public consultations. Unfortunately, in a cabinet meeting today, ministers of the ex-ruling party, the General People’s Congress, have again failed to enter the draft. As stipulated in the transitional agreement, the draft should now be submitted to the prime minister and the president for their decision. In April, the council of ministers adopted a decision to set up an independent human rights institution and requested the ministry of human rights to follow up this decision and prepare the necessary draft legislation. This is a positive step and will require considerable support from the UN international donors.

Mr. President, President Hadi and the government of national unity led by Prime Minister Basindowa are steadily making progress in moving the country forward and realizing youth’s aspiration for change. They deserve your continuous support. While demonstrations continue to take place, youth, civil society, women’s groups and the emerging political parties has shifted their focus from contestation to preparatory efforts and initiatives for the national dialogue process and participation in the political process.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that while Yemen’s transition remains largely on track, it cannot take place under the shadow of continued military threat. For legitimate governance to take hold, the Yemeni people must be able to see that those who hold legitimate authority are in a position to exercise their powers effectively.  And those who encourage sabotage and obstruction from behind the scenes must know that they are being observed, that they will be held accountable and that international patience is starting to wear thin. Resolution 2014 is clear in this regard: it commits all Yemeni sides to play a full and constructive role in implementing the transition agreement. Those who do not live up to this commitment should be prepared to be held to account by the Yemeni people and Security Council. The Secretary General remains concerned about efforts to undermine Yemen’s transition yet asked me to continue to exercise his good office and work closely with the Security Council, the Gulf Cooperation Council and other partners to facilitate the effective implementation of Yemen’s transition agreement as a model for peaceful change that could offer valuable lessons for other situations in the region.