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UN-Brokered Yemen Prisoner Exchange Negotiations: What is Next?

On Sunday, January 24th, the city of Amman, Jordan, became the host to negotiations between the warring sides in the Yemen conflict.

UN-Brokered Yemen Prisoner Exchange Negotiations

By Maya Garner

On Sunday, January 24th, the city of Amman, Jordan, became the host to negotiations between the warring sides in the Yemen conflict. The day marked a new round of prisoner exchange talks between the Houthi rebels, officially known as Ansar Allah, and Saudi-backed Yemen government. Sunday’s meeting was the fifth meeting of the Supervisory Committee on the Implementation of the Prisoners and Detainees Exchange Agreement in talks brokered by the UN.

The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths co-chaired the meeting. In his opening statements, he said: “I urge the parties to prioritize in their discussions the immediate and unconditional release of all sick, wounded, elderly and children detainees as well as all arbitrarily detained civilians, including women. I also urge the parties to discuss and agree on names beyond the Amman meeting lists to fulfill their Stockholm commitment of releasing all conflict-related detainees as soon as possible.”

Yemen’s Stockholm agreement was a ceasefire signed in December 2018, which sought to end fighting in Hodeidah port city and also included a prisoner exchange agreement. The agreement was endorsed by the UN Security Council through resolution 2451. The Yemen Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council had named the agreement the “the most hopeful development in five years of war,” but called the continued fighting “a wake-up call.” 

The Supervisory Committee is co-chaired by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen, and comprises representatives of the Yemen government and of Ansar Allah. The Committee had held previous meetings in Amman over the years with the most recent in late September, 2020, in which the parties to the conflict agreed to the immediate release of 1,081 prisoners and committed to continued negotiations over prisoner exchanges. (The eventual figure allegedly amounted to 1,056 releases).

In a January 14 briefing by Griffiths, the Special Envoy described the year of 2020 ending on a “harrowing note” for Yemen, referring to a recent attack in Aden airport, targeting the new Cabinet of the Yemeni government, where there were civilian casualties that “may constitute a war crime” under international humanitarian law. Griffiths also addressed the recent decision by the then Trump-led U.S. government to designate Ansar Allah as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, which he described as “inevitably” having “a chilling effect on my efforts to bring the parties together” and would “contribute to the prospect of famine in Yemen.” The decision took effect the day before the inauguration of President Biden and had been announced two weeks earlier by former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

As the new U.S. administration has taken over, the State Department announced that it has initiated a review into this decision. Antony Blinken, the Biden administration’s choice for the U.S. Secretary of State, stated “deep concern” over the designation “that at least on its surface it seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table, while making it even more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it." He proposed an immediate review.

Humanitarian organizations had condemned the designation with the head of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband calling it "pure diplomatic vandalism." Furthermore, Blinken had stated at his nomination hearing that “the President-elect has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.” Whether withdrawing support would include ending a billion dollar arms trade with Saudi Arabia, as activists and human rights organizations have repeatedly called for, remained unclear. Blinken stated instead that the Biden administration would review the support without specifying any further.

Yemen is now six years into a military conflict that has repeatedly been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 24 million people, eighty percent of the population, are in need of humanitarian aid, 14 million of which are in need of acute aid. Since 2015, three million people have been displaced and public institutions, such as healthcare and sanitation facilities, and schools, have collapsed, contributing to the spread of cholera and food insecurity. Such facilities have also been targeted by airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition. Before the military conflict, Yemen was already an impoverished nation, a fragility that let the country to be severely devastated by the effects of the military conflict.
The mitigation efforts by the UN Special Envoy have led to criticism from both sides to the conflict with accusations of partisanship. Ansar Allah has maintained that Griffiths is biased in favor of the Saudi-led coalition while the official Hadi Yemeni government is outraged at his call to reverse the recent U.S. designation of Ansar Allah as a terrorist organization. After six years of a devastating military of conflict, the people of Yemen have already waited too long for a solution while bearing the brunt of the military intervention. In the wake of the latest UN-brokered talks, the new U.S. administration will have to step up and commit to protecting the people of Yemen, which the international community has failed thus far.