In the last week of September 2020, the efforts of the Special Envoy of the United Nations (UN) to Yemen Martin Griffiths and his team managed to achieve an important breakthrough on the issue of the prisoners and detainees that had long stalled since the agreement concluded on it in the Sweden consultations at the end of 2018. The recent progress made on the issue of the prisoners, if effectively implemented, would give more impetus to Griffiths’ mediation in order to achieve a greater and more significant breakthrough on the path of his proposed peace plan in Yemen.

The content of the agreement

Nearly ten days after the start of the fourth round of the UN-sponsored direct consultations on this issue on 18 September 2020 between representatives of the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthi Ansar Allah group, in the Municipality of Montreux, in the suburbs of Geneva, Switzerland, which was also attended by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Arab Alliance countries and during which the two parties exchanged lists of the names of 1,420 prisoners and detainees, an agreement was reached to release 1,081 prisoners and detainees by both sides as a first batch. The Houthi-affiliated Al-Masirah TV quoted a source it described as well-informed as saying that the agreement provides for the release of 681 prisoners of the group in exchange for 400 prisoners belonging to the Legitimacy and the Coalition, provided that the exchange procedures be immediately started according to the implementation plan drawn up by the ICRC, which provides for the start of the prisoner exchange process on 15 October 2020.

According to Al-Masirah, the implementation plan includes a two-day time frame for the exchange process during which the prisoners would be transferred from both sides by aircraft. The two sides also committed themselves in the signed agreement not to conduct any side exchange of names included in the agreed lists within the period specified in the implementation mechanism. According to the same source, the parties “agreed to convene a subsequent meeting of the Supervisory Committee [emanating from the Sweden Agreement] with the aim of implementing the remainder of the outcomes of the Amman meeting held in February [2020 immediately upon completion of the first part of the agreement]". The statement of the UN sponsor of the agreement indicated that the two parties also committed themselves “to making all efforts to add new numbers for the purpose of releasing all prisoners and detainees[,] including the four mentioned and covered by the resolutions of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in accordance with the Stockholm Agreement and through working with the Supervisory Committee”.

For its part, sources in the internationally recognized Yemeni government said that the UN tended to divide the Amman Agreement into two stages, whereby in the first stage, 1,080 detainees would be released, while the second stage would lead to the release of 390 prisoners from both sides. According to the information circulated in open sources, the Montreux Agreement included a timetable for the completion of the first phase of the prisoner exchange deal, during the period 1-14 October 2020, during which logistical preparations by the ICRC would be completed, and ensuring that the signed lists of names match the identities of those in prisons. Subsequently, the second phase, which was set for 15 October 2020, would begin, during which the transfer of prisoners of the two sides would start by aircraft from Riyadh and Ma’rib to Sanaa and vice versa, simultaneously, under the auspices of the ICRC and the UN. One day after the completion of the transfer process, the prisoners of both sides would be transferred from Aden to Sanaa and vice versa, simultaneously, by the ICRC.

Within the same framework, unconfirmed information was circulated stating that the two sides agreed to release the four leaders covered by UNSC Resolution 2216, but in batches, as follows: the release of former Defence Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi after the release of the first batch, provided that Major General Nasser Mansour Hadi (President Hadi’s brother), Major General Faisal Rajab, commander of the Fourth Military Region, and leading figure in the Islah (Reform) Party Muhammad Qahtan are released in a later stage or stages.

Implications of the agreement on the settlement path

In his comment on the agreement, the UN envoy Martin Griffiths considered that the exchange of prisoners and detainees, which is expected to take place soon, would constitute the largest release that has occurred in the history of the Yemeni conflict since 2015. In a press statement he issued on 27 September 2020, Griffiths stressed that "it is essential now to move swiftly and decisively towards implementation. We have no time to waste. Releasing the 1,081 individuals would and indeed will represent the largest release operation during the history of the conflict in Yemen”. Griffiths called for building “on this very important achievement and” moving “together towards a negotiated solution to bring lasting peace to Yemen", expressing his aspiration “to hold further discussions” very soon “about further release” of prisoners and detainees "and making sure that this release happens quickly and effectively and completely".

The UN mediation, which has been unable to curb the military escalation between the parties to the conflict in regions such as Ma’rib, Al-Jawf, Al-Bayda and Al-Hudaydah, aspires that any advanced steps on the humanitarian issue of the prisoners would contribute to building the confidence that was lacking among the Yemeni parties and entering into new understandings, starting from the military or economic side down to a comprehensive solution. In theory, it can be said that the recent progress made in the prisoners' file, after a long stumble, would actually give more impetus to Griffith's mediation in order to achieve a greater and more significant breakthrough on the path of his proposed and amended peace plan, of which he previously sent to both parties to the conflict in Yemen in September 2020 an "advanced draft", reflecting mutual observations produced by previous indirect rounds of dialogue about it, although this breakthrough may not be available in the short term, and ultimately, without the exercise by regional and international powers affecting the Yemeni issue of more intense pressure on the parties to the conflict in order to speed up agreement on the final version of the proposed joint declaration, as the UN envoy hopes and clearly expressed in his recent briefing to the UNSC.

In this context, some observers of Yemeni affairs claim that despite the great international pressure that was put in place to end the issue of prisoners and detainees, doubts still hover over the possibility of its full success, leading to the exchange of all detainees in the custody of the conflicting parties, in light of the accusation by each party of the other of exaggerating the numbers of prisoners and detainees and presenting "incapacitating" lists regarding those who died in action or as a result of air strikes and whose fate has been unknown.

Nevertheless, the Montreux Agreement will continue to constitute a glimmer of hope that a "breakthrough" on the path of the hoped-for settlement in Yemen is on its way to becoming a tangible future reality. This does indeed constitute an important moral and political impetus for the mediation of the UN envoy Martin Griffiths, who despite all his efforts exerted since his assumption of the conduct of this thorny file has not succeeded so far in achieving much of what was promised or expected, in light of the increasing contradictions that govern the interests of the parties to the conflict in Yemen, the lack of trust between them, and the preoccupation of the major and most influential international powers in this issue with renewed political, economic and security crises that they think are today more important than the Yemen crisis which has been protracted, becoming more complex and intractable with the passage of time.

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