A large part of the United Nations’ legacy in Yemen may be the political empowerment of women during the country’s transition. That’s according to outgoing UN Special Adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar. In this interview with Politically Speaking, Mr. Benomar discusses his four years promoting an inclusive, Yemeni-led process to peacefully resolve the ongoing conflict.
What is the United Nations’ value-added role in the Yemeni peace efforts?
What is very interesting about the case of Yemen is that the Secretary-General took an early decision in the early days of the uprising in Yemen to send a mission. He asked me at that time to lead this mission. The objective of this mission was – we called it a listening mission – it was to consult all stakeholders. In that context, we met with the youth demonstrating in squares, we met with women’s groups, we met with all different political sides, and an agreement came back with the report of the Secretary-General that described the situation but one also that suggested that the UN may be able to help facilitate a process that would lead to a negotiated solution in Yemen.
So first, it was early intervention. Second, we spent several months shuttling back and forth in Yemen and keeping the Member States informed, the Security Council, but during that time we developed good access to all the major groups, not only the major ones that were represented in Parliament but particularly those that were disenfranchised, those who were marginalized, those who were excluded from the process.
What was unique about UN action at that time was that we made a point of explaining to all stakeholders that youth will need to have a seat at the table. It is the youth who went to the street and started this process of peaceful change and they need to be able to participate in any deliberations that will lead the country to prospect for peace and stability.
You've made considerable efforts to include women in the discussions. Can you point to the value that having a gender perspective brings to the process?
We also did everything we could to empower them, to support them so they can develop alliances, so they can develop more full-fledged ideas on how they see their dreams realized. They succeeded, I must say. We asked, after the end of the National Dialogue, the women’s groups what they achieved.
They achieved 100 per cent of their agenda. We discovered later on, though, that it’s not enough to have women participate in the political process, they need to be also empowered enough to be able to network, build alliances, and build smart ideas and initiatives that would enable them to sustain their gains. So in the drafting of the new constitution, there were difficulties but still they were able to, with the support of the United Nations, they were able to introduce and draft in the Constitution very important safeguards on women’s rights based on the outcomes of the National Dialogue.
In a nutshell, what we promoted is an inclusive process. Inclusion was very important in our approach. Second, in this process, we promoted the idea that the process will need to be Yemeni-led. And overall it was a facilitation role but it involved also providing a lot of expertise and support throughout the process of the National Dialogue and drafting of a constitution, and so on.
The one thing that was unique and will be the legacy of the UN in Yemen is that we made it very clear from day one, from the first mission in April 2011, that women were half of the population. They needed to be given the opportunity to participate in the political process. So we did two things. One is, in every mission, we made sure that we consulted with women’s groups. Second, in all the deliberations with other political parties, we always brought forward the views of women and their demands in the context of the peace process.
Then, very important, when the time was right, and both sides asked me to be the facilitator mediating and facilitating the transition agreement in November 2011, that we made sure despite the reluctance of all the politicians who were negotiating that they need to address women’s issues and women’s participation.
We succeeded in making sure that the agreement that we brokered at that time included some important elements that opened the way for women’s participation in the process, particularly by recognizing that women should be a constituency in its own rights in the National Dialogue Conference. And also by forcing all the other constituents to make sure that when they participate they will have to have fair representation of women in their delegations. This is what enabled women in the context of preparations for National Dialogue to develop a women’s agenda, a women’s human rights agenda.
So one lesson from all this is that when it comes to UN norms and standards, particularly when it comes to women’s human rights, we will have to uphold these values which we stand with as the United Nations, and despite the fact that Yemen is generally a conservative society and there was opposition, I think all sides had a respect for the UN for its principled approach and it helped us also to develop a whole constituency that supports UN aims and objectives in Yemen.
Are there lessons to be learned -- and applied elsewhere -- from the UN experience in Yemen so far?
Each country is unique. Each country has a unique set of dynamics and history and culture and so on. But there is a common thread for us operating in particular in transitions and in countries of the Middle East. One thing very important that we need to keep in mind is that these dynamics are not that easy to understand. So getting the analysis right is very important.
Second, as the UN, we are confronted with many challenges and dealing with many constituencies. Navigating these difficulties is always a challenge but at the end of the day, our capital really is our impartiality as the United Nations. It’s the values that we uphold. People, even if they disagree with us at times, they come to respect the United Nations for being an actor that has no special interest other than the interest of people and the interest of a process moving forward for peaceful change. So the impartiality aspect is very important.
Then also, UN support for these mediation and facilitating transitions, it requires us to draw on what we learned and what did work. In this context, it was very useful working with the Standby Team [DPA’s Standby Team of Mediation Expert], drawing on the expertise of the team. So mobilizing expertise is very important. We cannot reinvent the wheel every time we are involved in a process.
All this requires leadership. In the case of Yemen, I think the Secretary-General demonstrated a lot of leadership. First, by making that decision to intervene early, to deploy me as the Envoy of the UN. Second, by following through with these interests in trying to support whatever we were doing in Yemen, supporting the transition. The Secretary-General visited Yemen. The Security Council visited Yemen also. These high-profile visits where very helpful.
We had also tried to find new ways also of operating with a very light, small print. This is a very small political mission. It’s comprised of a small number of political offices. And the idea was to focus our comparative advantage as the UN, which is mediation and facilitating that political process, leaving many other important tasks to other UN agencies or to other international partners. So a focused UN, I think, was an advantage.
The situation changed after that definitely, it required using another tool box, other approaches, other combination of thematic efforts.
When we started to support a peaceful transition, we had to draw definitely on what we learned. One of the lessons is that these transitions are complex. One of the lessons is how you address issues such as impunity, issues such as compressed transition because there is always a rush for short transitions that rush to elections, how you organize an effective national dialogue was a challenge. We had to draw from past experiences of the UN in other countries, such as Afghanistan with the Loya Jirga, Iraq the National Conference in the summer of 2004, and other experiences in sub-Saharan Africa.
The UN is always in this unique position drawing on this wealth of expertise that the UN has, but the challenge is always how we can use all these expertise and analysis and smart ideas to advance processes like the one in Yemen. And again, in all this, the lesson that we had is that doing a job like this it requires a lot of patience, and perseverance, and a thick skin.