The United Nations Special Envoy’s initial briefing to the Security Council does not usually reflect everything he/she has to offer. However, such interaction provides a glimpse of explicit or implicit ideas and perceptions that usually form the basis of a new approach. This paper analyses the first briefing of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, to the Security Council on September 10, 2021. It intends to assess Grundberg’s new approach through the most prominent ideas and points contained in the briefing. It examines the responses to the briefing by the parties to the conflict. It foresees, in principle, what Grundberg can do quickly to establish the approach he incorporated in his briefing.

Highlights of Grundberg’s new approach

1. Reviving comprehensive settlement efforts

The briefing was meant to recall the UN mediation mission, which the envoy said was entrusted to him by the Security Council. This mission is related to “enabling a resumption of a peaceful, inclusive [and] orderly … political transition process.” Grundberg’s emphasis on this mission at the beginning of the briefing indicates that his focus is on launching comprehensive consultations and the rehabilitation of this task, suspended since 2016.

Grundberg also stressed that “quick wins” would be impossible to achieve. He may also have meant that the failure to achieve “quick wins” is less detrimental than halting the comprehensive settlement process since that pause would mean that the war would continue indefinitely. Indirectly, the briefing redefined what is meant by the “peace process.” According to Grundberg, this process does not mean anything other than talks for a comprehensive settlement of the conflict. Anything else could only be helpful if the “peace process” is not stalled.

2. A comprehensive but ‘negotiable’ approach

Grundberg’s initial briefing focused on the priority of resuming a comprehensive political process. However, it did not provide a time frame or broad outlines for a final solution. This is due to the envoy’s knowledge of the complexities surrounding the conflict and his awareness that the issues that must be included in the political process have themselves become “negotiable” and are not the same as those dictated by the Security Council resolution. It is noteworthy that the briefing did not mention Security Council Resolution 2216 as a reference for resuming the political process. Rather, it talked about being guided by the relevant Security Council resolutions concerning the planned efforts to build common ground between the various parties.

3. Inclusion of all parties

The briefing stressed the need for a UN approach to end the conflict in Yemen by including all parties. It confirmed Grundberg’s intention not to limit the international efforts to the two main parties (the government and the Houthis). He believes that there are essential roles for all parties in ending the conflict and achieving sustainable peace. However, he indicated intentions to evaluate previous efforts in this regard. He also indicated that the parties to the conflict should engage in an UN-facilitated peaceful dialogue on the terms of an overarching settlement, in good faith and without preconditions.

The principle of good faith usually relates to the implementation of agreements, and it may be the first time it is mentioned in a briefing of this kind. He perhaps did this to make the conflicting parties face their legal and moral responsibilities. The absence of preconditions means precisely that the parties abandon their conditions for negotiating, which is fundamental for the success of efforts to launch comprehensive consultations.

4. Return to ‘political domain’ and avoiding the compartmentalization approach

Consistent with Grundberg’s focus on reviving the peace process broadly, his initial briefing referred to the humanitarian and economic micro-issues. He said that it is difficult to separate them from political dialogue or address them outside the framework of a comprehensive solution. Notably, the talk about humanitarian and economic issues came only in the context of confirming the UN’s principled position on them and not because those issues are “urgent” work priorities on the envoy’s agenda.

On the other hand, talk about dealing with those issues in coordination with the specialized international agencies, the international community, and the parties to the conflict suggest a desire to free the envoy’s political role from the pressure of those issues and their daily impact on his mission.

5. Cessation of hostilities and comprehensive consultations

In his briefing, Grundberg did not use the term ceasefire. Instead, he said that “the fighting must stop, the violence has to come to an end.” Perhaps, he did not want to leave the impression that he adopts some international and regional visions that, in recent months, have focused on prioritizing a ceasefire. Grundberg put the Houthi attack on Marib in the context of the shift in “[t]he epicenter of the military confrontation … with combatants taking turns on the offensive.”

Therefore, international efforts should focus on stopping the fighting in all parts of the country through a comprehensive political process and not by situationally handling and pursuing the changing hotbeds of confrontations. When Grundberg said that the attack on Marib must stop, he attributed this to the UN and the international community in general. However, he did not indicate his intention to work directly to stop that attack.

6. Shared regional and international responsibilities

Grundberg expressed “particular concern” on the “targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure inside Saudi Arabia.” This could be the envoy’s awareness of the danger of the conflict spreading outside Yemen and its threat to regional security. It is also a message to the Houthis Yemen’s internal conflict cannot be given another dimension. The briefing also stressed that peace in Yemen is a necessity for the stability of the region.

The envoy spoke of the shared responsibility of regional and international actors, considering that the beginning of his tenure is an opportunity to reassess those responsibilities. This is a significantly evolved language. In the past, in their briefings, the envoys would focus on requesting diplomatic support for UN mediation. However, talk of the responsibilities of regional and international actors means more than just mobilizing international and regional support for the UN efforts. The briefing included “two tasks” that “external actors” must carry out within the framework of those responsibilities.

The first task is to “encourage de-escalation.” This is perhaps addressed to regional actors that have “organic” relationships with some parties to the conflict to influence their military decisions. The second is “supporting a Yemeni-led political settlement.” This relates to other “external actors” that can encourage the parties to the conflict to engage positively in inclusive consultations and have a measure of moral influence not well utilized so far.

Repercussions of and responses to the briefing

The parties to the conflict usually avoid expressing definitive positions on the “initial briefing” of envoys. The existence of a UN envoy is a fact the parties to the conflict have to live with. Moreover, the briefing is the envoy’s perception of reality rather than being the last word. The Houthis called the envoy’s briefing biased, equating the executioner with the victim, and said it revolves around the “wrong” Security Council resolutions and what they described as the pressures of major powers.

However, the briefing cannot be solely described as surprising or frustrating for the Houthis. They are also not in the process of closing their doors to the envoy’s first visit to Sana’a, given that they would use it to explain their perceptions and influence Grundberg’s positions. On the other hand, the Houthis may make this visit practically difficult to materialize, linking it to the envoy’s approach and statements going forward.

However, the internationally recognized government hastened to welcome the envoy, and its officials refrained from commenting on the briefing despite the negative repercussions it created by ignoring the three references. During the envoy’s first meeting with President Hadi in Riyadh (September 16, 2021) in the presence of his deputy Ali Mohsen Saleh, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the Prime Minister, Hadi made the same remarks about the three references as a basis for the political solution. He added that he would provide full support to the envoy to broker a comprehensive ceasefire.

Grundberg’s potential options

Based on his preliminary briefing, the task of the new UN envoy would be extremely difficult. He is supposed to start the peace process without “lifting the siege” as demanded by the Houthis, or a complete ceasefire, including in Marib, as demanded by the legitimate government. Convincing the two parties or nudging them in this direction is a dilemma that may leave the Grundberg mission in a vicious circle. The envoy would be compelled to accept one of the following two options:

The first option is to partially step back from the holistic perceptions contained in the briefing and slowly move away from the path of the political process by starting, for example, to search for partial solutions to the economic and humanitarian issues. If it does happen, this would mean that Grundberg would reach the point of the disruption of the peace process reached by his predecessor. The real question here is: How long would Grundberg resist the pressure of the humanitarian and economic issues on his primary task if the conflict continues?

The second option is a return to the principle of simultaneousness. In light of the current state of the conflict, this may mean lifting the restrictions imposed on Sana’a airport and the port of Hodeidah in conjunction with a truce in conflict zones instead of a complete ceasefire agreement, with the start of comprehensive official negotiations at the same time.

Summary and conclusions

The initial briefing of the new UN envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, included key ideas that constitute a different approach with distinct features. The most important features of this approach are focusing on reviving the comprehensive settlement efforts as a top priority and avoiding the compartmentalization approach, and narrow solutions to the issues of “urgent” nature in the conflict, such as the humanitarian and economic issues.

While the parties’ reactions to the conflict to Grundberg’s initial briefing were not positive, it could be said that the briefing was not surprising. Even the Houthis are not expected to close their doors to the new envoy soon, not to cooperate with him and to facilitate his mission, but in the hope of explaining their views directly and attempting to influence his convictions.

In the briefing, Grundberg outlined his mission as per the mandate assigned to him by the Security Council. However, his efforts may not fully comply with his understanding of the political process considering the ground reality and the pressure of humanitarian and economic issues, and perhaps also due to the influence of some regional and international mediators.

In general, the briefing indicates that Grundberg is determined not to slide toward striking partial deals or transforming the UN envoy’s mission to that of a fighter of military and humanitarian fires at the expense of his main effort to launch comprehensive consultations. It is also unclear how long Grundberg can practically maintain such a position and create conditions for the resumption of comprehensive consultations that include a political dialogue and sustainable peace framework encompassing all parties to the conflict.

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