Parties reflect on UN’s Benomar
As Yemen teeters on the brink of civil war, it has been almost five years to the day that Jamal Benomar was appointed UN special envoy. In response to airstrikes on the Presidential Palace in Aden and deadly bombings in Sana’a and Sa’ada last week, Benomar has issued repeated calls for participants to return to negotiations. “Peaceful dialogue is the only way forward,” he said following a UN Security Council meeting on March 22, the same day he left Yemen for the Saudi capital Riyadh.
However unlikely that may now seem, some in Yemen are resentful of Benomar’s involvement and now see little point in national talks that appear to have only delayed the inevitable.
Once a beacon of hope, Benomar has proven a controversial figure during his tenure in Yemen. He brought with him decades of experience in conflict resolution, having previously worked in Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He developed a particular approach to peacemaking, one that stresses the continued involvement of political actors removed from power as well as more marginalized ones, including civil society organizations, women, and other minority groups.
His was a piecemeal process based on dialogue and power-sharing to ensure stability during the political transition. With hindsight, however, many feel that his “transitional model” has brought more violence than peace. Some believe Benomar’s experience and political acumen also enabled him to impose himself on the political process in a way few mediators could, leaving them to question his impartiality and to hold him personally accountable for its divisive outcomes. The UN envoy has been criticized by all stakeholders and the wider public, but accounts of where he went wrong vary.
Accounting for Benomar’s failure
As Islah Party spokesman Abdulmalik Shamsan suggests, Benomar’s failure may lie with the nature of high-level politics, an arena closed to all but the most senior stakeholders. Talks at the Movenpick Hotel in Sana’a were not as inclusive as the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), and their daily proceedings remained inaccessible to the public. Benomar may have become disconnected as negotiations dragged on, and Shamsan says he ought to have listened to criticisms aired on social media and local news outlets within Yemen. “I think the United Nations and Benomar should pay attention to the reasons the public have lost trust in them,” he said.
Others think those criticisms are over-stated and may not reflect public opinion in the country. Ali Al-Sirari, a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party, believes most of the negative press surrounding Benomar to be part of a “systematic media campaign to undermine his efforts and distort his reputation.” He is confident Benomar was the right man for the job, and that without him Yemen would have plunged into turmoil long ago.
That Benomar was able to stave off conflict for as long as he did may be viewed as a success in itself, but many feel he was merely postponing the inevitable and making it worse in the process. Moreover, for some his policy of involving powerful political actors in the process, like GPC members and later the Houthis, went beyond inclusion to become an expression of weakness at best, and even unwarranted privileging.
Soror Al-Wadei, a member of the Salafi Rashad Union Party, says Benomar played a “destructive role” in national politics. “On Sept. 21 the Houthis took over the capital and he knew what would happen, it’s treacherous,” says Al-Wadei. He and his supporters are especially resentful of Benomar’s response to the conflict between Salafis and Houthis in the Dammaj district of Sa’ada in 2013, which resulted in the former being displaced from their homes in January of 2014.
Benomar “always sides with the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable,” says Al-Wadei. “Why didn’t he visit Dammaj when he went to Sa’ada? He would have seen the destruction caused there, but he didn’t bother to look.”
That Benomar’s policy of avoiding confrontation at any cost was flawed, or that he was too weak to stand up to those flouting peaceful dialogue, is a common grievance amongst participants.
Hatem Abu Hatem, a leading figure in the Nasserist Party and member of its Central Committee, says Benomar’s failure to stand up to Houthi aggression cost him his reputation. “Benomar’s initiative was praiseworthy, but as time went on people lost faith in him, especially after the Houthis took control of Sana’a,” he said. “He never even addressed the Houthis’ constitutional declaration [of Feb. 6] and their refusal to revoke it.”
Grievances against Benomar’s peculiar approach to peacemaking were already evident when he took up the position in April 2011. Tawwakol Karman, a prominent anti-regime protester and later recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the national uprising, had called for his removal shortly after he was appointed. Any deal that would hand Saleh and members of his former regime immunity would serve to legitimize violence against protesters, she argued.
For their part, members of Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), claim they were disadvantaged in the peace process. Abdulmalik Al-Fuhaidi, the editor-in-chief of GPC mouthpiece Al-Motamar Net, said members of his party hold grievances against Benomar because “he has not dealt with all political parties fairly.”
“The GPC is a leading political party headed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but Benomar condemned Saleh for derailing the transitional process. This is unfair and misleading,” said Al-Fuhaidi, before adding that Benomar should not be held personally responsible for its failure either.
Like Al-Fuhaidi, prominent Houthi activist Hussein Al-Bukhaiti feels responsibility for the failure of the national dialogue ultimately rests with its participants. “Benomar is only a mediator, we should be self-reliant and solve our own problems,” he said. “Saudi Arabia imposed the Gulf Initiative, and the international community imposed Jamal Benomar—we shouldn’t need to rely on foreign interference. Benomar can not help Yemenis if they can not help themselves.”
Another popular grievance—one that serves the interests of both Houthis and members of the former regime—is that outside interference has been the cause of Yemen’s derailed peace process. Much of the rhetoric surrounding foreign intervention may be just that, but the role that foreign interests played in Yemen’s transition may have had a real, if less sinister, part to play.
Accusations that Benomar was overstepping his mandate first became public when, in September 2013, 46 delegates signed a petition condemning him for reporting to the UN Security Council that agreement had been reached on a six-region federal plan while discussions remained ongoing. Leading members of Islah, the GPC, and the Houthis complained that he, together with Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, had flouted procedure to force through decisions.
With so much already invested in Benomar’s so-called “Yemen Model,” some feel that the international community tried forcing through a transition while ignoring the reality on the ground.
Al-Fuhaidi goes so far as to accuse Benomar of misleading the international community with regards to the political situation in Yemen in an attempt to ensure a successful outcome. “If he thoroughly and accurately reported on the situation in the country, I think the Security Council would have made more informed decisions,” he said. “Benomar’s briefings were intended to misrepresent the situation in Yemen.”