Yemen faces great challenges if a peace agreement is forged
Today, Yemen has three million individuals who have fled conflict, and are displaced both within the country and outside of its borders. Creating the right conditions for their return home is both a humanitarian imperative and critical to regional and global security.
The April 2016 ceasefire in Yemen led to very welcome peace talks. While ceasefire violations and competing agendas have hampered negotiations, the coming months will hopefully see an end to the conflict.
It is crucial that the international community begins to work together to prepare the way for reconstruction, including the return of refugees. Reconstruction and return will not be an easy task given that post-conflict Yemen will still likely be plagued by extremist groups, endemic poverty and distrust.
To enable the successful return of displaced Yemenis, the following set of key actions, informed by lessons learned from past conflicts and tailored to the specific context on the ground, should be followed.
Access to information is critical. It enables refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to make informed decisions, increasing the likelihood that returns are voluntary and sustainable.
Currently, UNHCR runs return help desks that provide Somali refugees in Kenya with information on returning home. In Yemen, new in-country platforms must be established that provide IDPs with up-to-date information so that they can feel confident about planning their return. These could include in-country help desks, providing information on conditions in IDPs’ areas of origin, or technological solutions, such as mobile platforms listing nearby resources.
Security must also be strengthened through national and local coordination against extremist groups. Persistent violence after formal ceasefires disincentivises returns: ongoing security issues in Somalia, for example, has slowed the pace of return. In Yemen, which has one of the highest rates of arms per capita, it will be some time before criminal violence can be contained. However, at the very least, regional, national and local stakeholders can come together to coordinate against common threats such as that posed by Al Qaeda and ISIL, and investing in coordination mechanisms will be critical. A particularly instructive example of security coordination is the joint effort in recent years to combat maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa.
There must also be investment in economic development and opportunities. Failure to think long-term can have consequences. In Guatemala, for example, a rapid wave of repatriations in the mid-1990s occurred even before the official end of the civil war, but subsequent lack of economic opportunity prompted some families to resettle back to Mexico. In Yemen, damaged infrastructure has devastated the economy. Rebuilding Yemen will depend on massive outside investment geared toward equitable development, particularly in infrastructure. GCC countries will need to play a leading role, such as in providing concessional trading terms to provide Yemen access to key markets.
There must also be safeguards to the rights of the displaced written into any political agreements. Alongside the international legal framework for the protection of refugees, accords tied to particular conflicts should include context-specific provisions that facilitate returns: Guatemala’s October 1992 accord included strong rights for refugees, such as dignified returns and freedom of association, organisation and movement. In Yemen, there is a risk that the current negotiations’ focus on political arrangements may lead to ignoring needs and rights of IDPs, as well as the comparatively smaller number of refugees. This must not happen: their needs must be taken into account and incorporated into any formal political agreements, especially given strong fears of retribution or exclusion for returnees, including due to sub-regional politics.
Finally, it is important to establish an inclusive governance framework. The needs of returnees must be situated in the broader context: in Bosnia, reconstruction efforts, such as land restitution, at times neglected the specific needs of returnees, while ethnic minorities specifically experienced continued discrimination. In Yemen, addressing sectarian, regional, and tribal divisions and tensions will require finding ways to allow all groups to make their interests heard during negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction. Exclusion from governance structures could lead to a quick deterioration of the agreements ending the conflict and to a lack of trust on the part of displaced persons in their future in Yemen, which could lead to more far-reaching consequences.
The current negotiations provide hope that one of the humanitarian crises in the Middle East may come to an end. However, the challenges facing Yemen are significant and the planning to ensure that the millions who are displaced can return to their homes needs to begin now.
Taufiq Rahim is executive director of Globesight and Paul Callan is a partner at Dalberg
Updated: July 24, 2016 04:00 AM