UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N.'s outgoing special envoy for Yemen expressed “deep regret” Tuesday that he failed to mediate a cease-fire and peace talks between Yemen’s warring parties, but said he hoped a recent diplomatic effort by Oman “will bear fruit.”
Martin Griffiths, who painted a bleak picture of the Arab world’s poorest country, said in his final briefing to the U.N. Security Council that Yemen is in the throes of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Griffiths said Yemenis are forced to “live under violence, insecurity and fear, with limits to their freedom of movement, religion and free expression.” He blamed the lack of courage of leaders on both sides — the government and Houthi rebels — for failing to choose a path to peace over continuing conflict.
“Yemen is a tale of missed and then lost opportunities,” he said. “And perhaps most tragically, we have seen the hopes and aspirations of a generation of young Yemenis for a peaceful future dashed.”
But Griffiths said he thinks the recent diplomatic entry of Oman — which on other Mideast issues has played a neutral, bridging and sometimes mediating role — is more hopeful than his efforts.
Oman sent officials to meet with the Houthi leadership to try to advance negotiations and Griffiths said he thinks the Houthi leader “would want to reach his hand out to Oman in a way that’s different from to the U.N.”
Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war since 2014, when the Iranian-backed Houthis swept across much of the north and seized the capital, Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognized government into exile. A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict the following year on the side of the government to try to restore it to power. But more than six years later, the war has killed over 130,000 people and fighting continues.
Griffiths, who will start his new job as the U.N.‘s humanitarian chief sometime in July, said that in a lifetime of dealing with conflicts and trying to restore peace, “the opportunities are often there but that courage needed to take it is rare” and “Yemen is no different.”
During his recent visit to Sanaa, Griffiths said, the Houthis’ religious and military leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, said there must first be an agreement on reopening Sanaa Airport and key Hodeida ports and only after that is implemented would the Houthis begin negotiations on a cease-fire, a first step toward reviving peace negotiations.
The government, he said, insists that an agreement on the ports and airport and the start of a cease-fire be implemented as a package.
“With the focus on getting that cease-fire started, we have offered different solutions to bridge these positions,” Griffiths said. “Unfortunately, as of now, none of these suggestions have been accepted.”
He told a news conference after briefing the council that the king of Saudi Arabia asked the sultan of Oman to help advance negotiations. The sultan said “yes" and sent a team to meet with Houthi leaders. He said the outcome of that meeting isn’t known, but he expects to hear in the next few days when he visits the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Wednesday and from the Omanis themselves.
Griffiths told the council he hopes efforts by the Sultanate of Oman, following his own visits to Sanaa and Riyadh, “will bear fruit and that we will soon hear a different turn of fate for Yemen.”
He told reporters the “crucial” focus is a cease-fire agreement by the Houthis and the opening of the airport and ports, especially to desperately needed fuel shipments.
Griffiths said “time is not on Yemen’s side,” pointing to the multiplication and fragmentation of “armed and political actors” since the conflict began.
“Foreign interference has grown,” he added. “What was possible in terms of conflict resolution years ago is not possible today. And what is possible today may not be possible in the future.”
Griffiths raised the possibility of holding “an international conversation” to restate realistic goals for peace negotiations. But he said his worry is not so much about a cease-fire as it is the future of Yemen.
“Yemen needs a pluralistic political future, and the U.N.-facilitated political process must pave the way for them to achieve just that,” he said.