Local and focused: European support for peace in Yemen
The EU should provide targeted support to local communities and organisations in Yemen. This would help sustain the ceasefire and restore Europeans’ credibility in the country.
On 2 June, the warring parties in Yemen extended their ceasefire by two more months. Many observers see the first eight weeks of the truce as a success, with the violence in the country diminishing to its lowest level since the beginning of the conflict. The extension presents an important opportunity for progress on peace talks. And the European Union and its member states are eager to support these efforts. However, Gulf states have spearheaded all recent initiatives in Yemen – meaning that Europeans have limited influence on peacemaking at the national and regional levels.
Yet the EU can still support the peace process by backing local initiatives to improve security within communities, while also ensuring Yemeni actors are better represented in international discussions on the issue. This would help close the gap between local and international discussions and initiatives, which has only widened during the seven years of fighting. The prevailing narrative within the international community that the war will soon end might be compelling, but it does not reflect everyday reality for most Yemenis: despite the cessation of overt hostilities, the conflict continues to have a devastating impact on their lives.
The fighting has forced millions of Yemenis to flee their homes. Many of them live in dire conditions, under a constant threat of further violence and displacement. Meanwhile, armed groups have blocked roads throughout the country to repel enemy advances, strengthen their control over important regions, and collect taxes. Alternative routes are often unpaved and run through minefields – heavily restricting both private and commercial movement. This affects Yemenis’ ability to reach family members and their access to essential goods, medical care, workplaces, public services, infrastructure, and other resources.
For instance, blockages on the road running from eastern Marib to southern Al Bayda prevent Yemenis from travelling between northern governorates and the south and east of the country. Similarly, many farmers in Al Dhale are unable to access their land. In Taiz city, which is under the control of the internationally recognised government, most residents have severely limited access to water – because the Houthis, who are besieging the city by blockading vital roads, control the relevant resources and infrastructure.
Furthermore, the fighting and a lack of maintenance have damaged or destroyed essential infrastructure across the country, including sanitation networks in northern Sana’a. Raw sewage runs through neighbourhoods, polluting drinking water and agricultural land. Diseases such as cholera follow closely behind.
Unsurprisingly, Yemenis prioritise efforts to improve their living conditions. Therefore, the ceasefire will lose public support unless it results in greater security and a better quality of life.
That said, community leaders and civil society organisations are making important contributions to peacemaking and living conditions. Local mediators have sometimes negotiated road access and created communication channels that run across front lines. In Taiz, for example, they have established one such channel between opposing authorities to restore some access to water. Civil society organisations also repair infrastructure; help failing state institutions provide services; and conduct training for state officials, members of civil society groups, and activists in areas such as human rights, administration, and Yemeni law.
Yet local efforts will require targeted support if they are to have a major impact. There are many avenues through which Europeans could provide this. Local Yemeni leaders and civil society organisations are often forced to abandon projects due to a lack of resources. For instance, the mediation process between Houthi and government water authorities in Taiz has ground to a halt because they do not have the funding they need to repair wells. And leaders in governorates such as Al Dhale, Abyan, and Shabwa can benefit from support in forming mediation groups for initiatives to reopen roads.
The EU and its member states should address such shortfalls after engaging in targeted assessments of local infrastructure, mediation, and capacity-building needs – in consultation with local organisations. They should also provide direct support to sanitation authorities, healthcare facilities in rural areas (many of which lack access to electricity and water), and road-paving projects.
However, it is critical that these efforts remain locally led and owned: there is a high risk that uninformed external programmes would merely disrupt valuable initiatives. Foreign powers’ involvement in local mediation efforts could inadvertently link local problems to national goals, thereby complicating these initiatives. International actors could exacerbate local conflicts if they blindly wade in to rebuild infrastructure or restore access to resources. Information sharing will be essential if they are to understand how to support local initiatives effectively.
Given that Yemen suffers from weak state institutions and widespread corruption, Europeans could facilitate the formation of community bodies to oversee the selection and implementation of development and infrastructure projects. By working with and through local civil society organisations and initiatives, they could help these groups connect their efforts to the formal peace process and thereby sustain the ceasefire.
Civil society organisations are unable to monitor front lines, as the warring parties still block their access to these areas. But they can monitor the ceasefire’s impact on communities. European support for a network of local organisations that report on the status of roads, internally displaced people, and access to water and public services would help civil society groups take on a greater role in peacemaking.
Meanwhile, Yemen-based representatives of civil society groups need better representation in international discussions. The recent Yemen International Forum in Stockholm, which gathered more than 150 Yemenis from across the country, was an important exercise in such inclusivity. However, domestic and international travel restrictions on Yemenis make such conferences expensive and logistically complex. They can also put Yemenis travelling from Yemen in danger. As such, Europeans need to find ways to help Yemen-based journalists and researchers communicate internationally, so that their perspectives inform international discussions on the war.
The EU and its member states are well placed to support local actors and initiatives – and, accordingly, the ceasefire and any emerging peace process. By doing so, they could also regain some of the credibility in Yemen that they have lost during the course of this long war.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.