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UN expresses despair over Yemen

The outgoing envoy blames all sides for failing to grasp peace opportunities

Three years ago, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed was appointed special representative on Yemen for the UN secretary-general. He took up the post shortly after the Saudi-led offensive against the Houthis and their allies had begun. Still, he was hopeful that international diplomatic intervention could soon bring the conflict to an end. Three years later, the war continues. Diplomacy, despite the constant efforts of the UN and international community, has failed.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed could barely hide his frustration in his final report to the Security Council this week. He recalled beginning his assignment in April 2015 "with Yemen already embroiled in a conflict that has gradually destroyed…everything that Yemenis need in order to live and prosper."

Yet the warring parties had "continued the destructive pattern of zero-sum politics which has led the country to plunge into more poverty and destruction. Decision-makers in this conflict perceive concessions as weakness and dissent as a threat. Regrettably, they have consistently taken irresponsible and provocative actions, disregarding the daily suffering of Yemenis generated by this conflict."

In 2016, the UN envoy managed to persuade the main parties to the conflict to hold talks in Kuwaitthe best opportunity so far to end the war. But the talks broke down without agreement and the fighting in Yemen intensified.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed is particularly frustrated that all sides have agreed in principle to a roadmap for ending the war. "The only missing part," he told the Security Council in his final report, "is the commitment of parties to make concessions and give priority to the national interest." The retiring envoy said this attitude "makes us doubtful of their real intention to end this war".

The envoy's assessment confirms what has become increasingly clear over recent months: the Yemen conflict has gone beyond the point where conventional diplomatic intervention can be effective. Like Syria, Yemen has become a playing field for fractured domestic and regional groups with a range of differing objectives. This makes it difficult to know who might be invited to negotiations and which Yemeni leader, if any, might reunite the country.

In the absence of effective diplomacy, the only hope of bringing an end to a war that no party seems able to win is for either the Saudi-led coalition or the Iranian-supported Houthis to unilaterally put down their arms. At present, there seems no hope of that happening.

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