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Prospects for Yemen in 2019 and beyond

The fear and terror induced by this situation, combined with unbearable survival conditions are creating a generation of psychologically scarred people, many of whom will never be able to live normal lives.

lead lead A boy waits for the arrival of UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths at the international airport of Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 5, 2019. Mohammed Mohammed/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Less than a month after the signature of the Stockholm Agreement between the Huthi movement and Hadi’s internationally-recognised government, concern for its implementation grows.

It was agreed in a rush, under international pressure, for two main reasons: first the humanitarian crisis had reached catastrophic proportions by late 2018, hitting media headlines around the world daily. Images of starving children were made more poignant by knowledge of the scale of the emergency detailed in frightening figures from the World Food Programme and other UN institutions. The issue featured regularly in UN Security Council discussions on Yemen. 

This extreme urgency combined with the international outrage following the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoqji in his country’s Istanbul consulate. Evidence soon emerged pointing to the direct involvement of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. 

The worldwide public outcry was an incentive for the US administration to put meaningful pressure on the Saudi regime to make some concessions in Yemen. Calling for a ceasefire by the end of November, senior administration officials thus also forced the UN’s Special Envoy for Yemen to accelerate preparations for a new meeting, after the failed attempt in September. After years of prevarication, caused by the influence of the leading coalition partners, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the UK finally submitted a draft UN Security Council Resolution on 19 November. After years of prevarication, caused by the influence of the leading coalition partners, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the UK finally submitted a draft UN Security Council Resolution on 19 November.

Its passing was delayed thanks to the resistance of the coalition members (who acted via Kuwait which was then on the UNSC), although the draft explicitly stated that the resolution did not challenge UNSC Resolution 2216 on which President Hadi relies for his own position and the Saudis for the legitimacy of their intervention.

The new resolution focused on the urgency of addressing the humanitarian crisis, calling for a halt to the coalition’s offensive on Hodeida and facilitating access for supplies to the areas under greatest stress and in greatest need, most of them under Huthi control. This involved both opening roads closed by military action and interrupting administrative constraints put in the way of humanitarian agencies, national and international. Given that lack of cash is a major contributor to the food emergency, the draft also called for international cash injections in the economy.

Stockholm Agreement

As a result of further pressures on the coalition, including discussions between UNSG Guterres and MBS during the Argentine G 20 summit, a meeting sponsored by the UN took place in early December in Sweden between Huthi and Hadi government emissaries.

Lasting a week, assisted by the additional pressure of the presence of Guterres himself on the last day of the meeting, the parties signed what is officially called the Stockholm Agreement, consisting of 3 sections: the first a general statement, the second a brief commitment to form a committee to discuss the situation in Taiz and the third concerning the Hodeida governorate and the access to basic necessities for the country via the Red Sea ports.

An earlier agreement on an exchange of prisoners advanced to the point where lists of 16,000 individuals were exchanged and mechanisms for its implementation agreed. The meeting failed to agree on two other major issues: the opening of Sana’a airport, a demand of the population throughout the northern part of the country [Huthi and non-Huthi controlled areas alike] and discussion of the UN Special Envoy’s ‘framework for negotiations’.

Composed of a ceasefire in the Hodeida governorate, the withdrawal of both parties’ military forces to agreed positions and supervision by the UN of port management, the agreement also includes the payment of port revenues to the Hodeida Branch of the Central Bank of Yemen and their use for the payment of salaries.

The vagueness and brevity of the agreement showed that insufficient preparation time simply pushes problems further down the line. The agreement thus contains built-in flaws, leaving plenty of space for multiple interpretations which, unsurprisingly, each side made to its own advantage. A Redeployment Coordination Committee of 6 members (3 from each side) chaired by the UN was set up to oversee ceasefire and redeployment, and a Dutch retired senior military officer was appointed as chair.

Following the Stockholm agreement, a very watered down UNSC resolution (2451) was finally passed on 21 December. In addition to endorsing Stockholm, its main contribution was to authorise the Secretary General to deploy a UN team to monitor the implementation of the agreements. Among others, references to accountability for contraventions to International Humanitarian law were removed.

Since the ceasefire came into force on 18 December, predictably, there have been multiple breaches, some more serious than others. 

The Huthis skilfully stage-managed the apparent handover of the port to the Coast Guard, but it was a Huthi-managed entity who took over, a model which is likely to be reproduced in future as both groups have parallel institutions. To what extent either party is able to persuade UN monitors that their apparent implementation of the agreement is genuine will largely depend on two factors: first the monitors’ actual detailed knowledge of the situation on the ground and, second, the persuasive capacity of the members of the committee and other official spokesmen (no women involved, as usual). Regardless of its weaknesses, the Stockholm agreement is a first sign of hope for 29 million Yemenis who are desperately waiting for peace.

Meanwhile, regardless of its weaknesses, the Stockholm agreement is a first sign of hope for 29 million Yemenis who are desperately waiting for peace and have been surviving war for close to  4 years, and in particular for the 20 million who are facing ‘severe acute food insecurity’ which is UN-speak for starvation. 

The likelihood of peace in 2019 is extremely low: history has shown on multiple occasions that such talks are the beginning of very long and protracted processes and, at this point, there is no indication that any of the warring parties has come to the conclusion that negotiations and peace are a better option than continuing to fight in anticipation of victory, regardless of the suffering of the population.

What future for Yemen’s children?

However, to put the urgency in perspective, the following is a brief survey of the impact of the war and its continuation for the future of Yemen, and particularly of its children. They face a multiplicity of immediate and long-term challenges. Yemen, prior to the war the country with the highest illiteracy rate in the region, is now creating a new generation of illiterate adults, as more than 2 million children  (a quarter of the school age population) who should be in education are not.[1] More than 2500 schools are unusable (16% of the total), either because they have been damaged or destroyed by military action (2/3 of cases) or because they have been closed due to lack of staff, are used as shelters for displaced people or have been taken over by the military. Yemen… is now creating a new generation of illiterate adults.

In a country with limited natural resources, any successful future economic development will depend on highly educated adults able to participate in the modern economy. Better-educated people find higher paid jobs and their likelihood of unemployment is significantly lower, and are therefore less likely to join or support extremist groups.   

In addition to the generation of children who remain out of education, those schools which are actually functioning only do so in a minimal level without equipment or other basics and with staff who, in many cases, have not been paid their salaries for well over two years now. Many teachers have stopped work, seeking an income elsewhere, or simply unable to afford the transport costs. Not only is education essential for the country’s future but, even now, while children are at school, they are far less vulnerable to risks such as recruitment as child soldiers, child labour or, in the case of girls, early marriage.

Leaving aside the implications for the future of Yemen of millions of uneducated adults, children are currently suffering from many immediate problems which will affect them in the post-war period. As has been amply demonstrated worldwide, low birth weight children are more vulnerable to diseases and early childhood malnutrition reduces people’s intellectual and physical abilities throughout their lives.

As of December 2018, about 1.1 million pregnant or breast-feeding women and 1.8 million children are malnourished. Many are basically starving, as we have seen on our screens in recent months, no more than skin and bones, too weak to cry or move.As UNICEF has pointed out repeatedly throughout 2018, one child dies every 10 minutes from malnutrition. More than 7 million Yemeni children go to bed hungry every night, they are half of the 15 million people suffering severe malnutrition.  

All the malnourished children who survive will suffer varying levels of physical and intellectual incapacitation throughout their lives, simply because of early age malnutrition due to the war. More than 6, 700 children have been killed or severely wounded, 85, 000 children are estimated to have died of hunger, directly or indirectly.

Close to 1.5 million children have been displaced, millions more are suffering from the trauma resulting from proximity to war zones, including the many active fronts, but also fearing attacks by drones, air strikes and other terrifying events which can happen anywhere in the country suddenly out of clear skies, day or night. 

The fear and terror induced by this situation, combined with increasingly difficult, not to say, unbearable, living (or more accurately, survival) conditions are creating a generation of psychologically scarred people, many of whom will never be able to live normal lives. UNICEF and other organisations are providing training to teachers and others in psycho-social support, but at best it can merely alleviate the problem and help victims cope with their trauma. It cannot solve the deep psychological impact of living for years under war conditions and with complete uncertainty about present and future.

We have not even mentioned here the issue of child soldiers; in an environment where there are no jobs, where families are desperate and adults [when ‘employed’] have not been paid, joining a militia or other military organisation features as a positive option for boys from an early age.

The official figure of 2700 child soldiers is probably an under-estimate, as for many desperate families their sons’ involvement with the military is the only possible source income in desperate conditions where prices have doubled and incomes disappeared. Not only are child soldiers used by the Yemeni warring factions, but it appears that the coalition is also importing child fighters from Sudan.[2] Notwithstanding this reality, efforts to implement the Action Plan to end use and recruitment of child soldiers by armed forces are important.[3] ‘The interests of Yemeni children have hardly been taken into account in any decision-making for decades.’

The cholera epidemic which was the biggest medical crisis in 2017 thankfully affected fewer people in 2018, but between January and mid-November 2018 more than 280,000 cases occurred, including 32% of them children under 5 years old.[4] Other diseases have also become prominent, but malnutrition alone weakens children and makes them vulnerable to suffer and die from a wide range of diseases which are insignificant to stronger children. As pointed out by UNICEF’s Geert Cappelaere last month ‘The interests of Yemeni children have hardly been taken into account in any decision-making for decades.’

Most importantly, once this pointless and murderous war ends, the future of Yemen will depend on its children. They will inherit a country destroyed by the self-serving leaderships which have brought horrific and unprecedented levels of suffering to Yemenis, showing neither compassion nor commitment to find solutions to Yemen’s fundamental problems. If psychologically and physically scarred for life, how will they be able to re-create a better governed country able to provide adequate living standards for its people?


[1] Most of the figures in this article have been taken from the statement by Geert Cappelaere,  UNICEF  Regional Director for the Middle East.  https://www.unicef.org/mena/press-releases/yemens-children-15-million-lives-scarred-and-voices-not-heard

[2]  https://www.vox.com/2018/12/30/18161667/saudi-arabia-outsourcing-yemen-war-child-soldiers

[3]  See Tweet by Relano Meritxell on 18 December 2018 about an agreement made with the internationally recognised government of Yemen

[4]  World Health Organisation data on 07 12 2018

About the author

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years.  She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere. Her new book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October, 2017.


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