The UN’s Yemen Problem

The International Community and an Elusive Peace

A protester shouts near a banner showing crossed-out pictures of United Nations (U.N.) special envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar and the leader of Yemen's Houthis Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, during a demonstration against the Houthi movement in Sanaa January 28, 2015. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

After four years on the job, on April 16, UN Special Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar resigned. The decision was met with surprise and criticism: Benomar had been the face of Yemen’s internationally backed post­–Arab Spring political transition, and his departure is perceived by Yemenis as an admission of failure and guilt for the transitional government’s breakdown into skirmishes with the Houthis for control of the country. Yemen has witnessed several such failures over the past five decades, so the demise of recent efforts to build a stable government should not be a surprise. To prevent it from happening again, the international community should look to its history of intervention in Yemen before proceeding with new mediation efforts.

Benomar was the last of many UN diplomats who have tried to orchestrate peaceful transfers of power from the dictators that the Arab Spring swept out of office. As late as 2013, Yemen’s own transition of power was praised as a model. But the process, orchestrated by the Gulf Cooperation Council and brokered by Benomar, only delayed eventual turmoil: new Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi followed Benomar’s prescriptions, forming a national dialogue council, announcing national elections, and attempting to enact overly optimistic political reforms. Hadi was then forced to flee the country in the face of military and political opposition to his government in March. 

The UN’s frustrated efforts in Yemen mirror its past peacekeeping failures during the 1962 Yemen civil war. In September of that year, a cadre of young military officers who called for a Yemeni republic overthrew the last Yemeni imam, Muhammad al-Badr. Six years of civil war ensued, constituting one of the darkest periods in modern Yemeni history as Egypt and Saudi Arabia armed opposing sides in a war that seemed destined to go on forever. Within months of the start of hostilities, UN Secretary-General U Thant asked the Nobel Prize–winning diplomat Ralph Bunche to serve as a special envoy to Yemen. Bunche then

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