After declaring he would make Saudi Arabia “the pariah state they are” on the campaign trail, President Joe Biden’s recent steps on Yemen — announcing an end to US military support for to-be defined offensive operations, the removal of harmful terror designations, his appointment of a US Special Envoy, and his administration’s diplomatic entreaties to de-escalate the conflict — are a good start.
Incremental changes, however, are not enough to undo the harms of the past and move forward. Moreover, a State Department apparently happy to return to business as usual, gaslighting the public about Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen, and splits amongst administration staff about how far to go in terms of accountability for Yemen, are worrying signs that President Biden may tinker but will not, on his own, be bold in making a clean break from the past.
President Biden has a choice on Yemen: invest in lasting diplomacy, accountability, and people-centered solutions, or continue with largely the same approach that has made Yemen a microcosm of the failings of US foreign policy.
What will he choose?
THE EASY — AND WRONG — ROAD IN YEMEN
Consecutive US administrations have chosen to take the easy road in Yemen. From its abusive counterterrorism operations and willful ignorance of its own ally’s misuse of US military assistance against domestic opponents, to its outsourcing of Yemen’s post-revolution transition and conflict to Saudi Arabia, US policy has been a destructive force for decades. If the administration truly believes there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen, it cannot continue to arm one side or fuel more conflict there.
As such, the administration should seek to end all US military involvement in the country that could exacerbate conflict or spoil future peace. It can do so by publicly affirming that it will not only cancel $36.5 billion in pending weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but also institute an indefinite ban on future transfers to these countries until the human rights and other export control requirements of the Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act are met. It is also important to remember that the current situation in Yemen is, in part, a result of the United States viewing Yemen solely through a counterterrorism lens. A commitment to “do no [further] harm” in Yemen also requires a permanent end to and reparations for the United States’ destabilizing drone campaign, in addition to its support plus alleged involvement in apparent war crimes committed by “partner” counterterrorism forces.
WHAT BIDEN SHOULD DO
In addition to ending harmful policies, the United States must also seek to overhaul the international approach to the conflict and take the momentum away from the original warring parties. It should attempt to do this in three ways.
First, it must make a strong push for a nationwide ceasefire and an end to the impediments to humanitarian and commercial access to the country, including an end to the coalition’s de facto air and sea blockade. It is positive that the United States is supporting the UN’s current comprehensive ceasefire proposal, which reportedly includes “elements that would immediately address Yemen’s dire humanitarian situation directly” and remains in front of the Houthis as of writing. While it remains unclear if this will change the Houthis’ military calculus regarding its offensive in Marib, the United States should still press Saudi Arabia to declare a nationwide ceasefire and to end the air and sea blockade on humanitarian grounds. Doing so would directly support the humanitarian effort to prevent famine. Crucially, the end of the coalition’s airstrikes and blockade would help undermine a key remaining aspect of the Houthis’ domestic support: defending Yemen against foreign interference. With a comprehensive proposal on the table, this would also heighten the diplomatic stakes for the Houthis if they continue to seek escalation instead of negotiations.
It is also important to remember that the current situation in Yemen is, in part, a result of the United States viewing Yemen solely through a counterterrorism lens.
Second, while a comprehensive ceasefire is urgently needed, the United States must push the international community to recognize the failures of past ceasefires in Yemen. Time and again pivots to comprehensive peace negotiations were held hostage by the people destroying the country’s future. The United States should push for an expanded, more inclusive peace process. It could start by working with the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to formally convene the parties to the conflict that the UN’s current process has continued to formally eschew — Yemen’s robust technocratic civil service, diverse small business and entrepreneurial community, women- and youth-led civil society, political and grassroots organizations — for dialogue and negotiations that go beyond Track II engagements to build on the outcomes from the 2013–2014 National Dialogue and ensure accountability for all parties to the conflict. It could invite the armed parties, but require they publicly commit to a ceasefire and disarmament in favor of peace. By working to center those most vested in sustainable peace in negotiations over Yemen’s future — even before a comprehensive ceasefire — the international community might be able to take away momentum from the Houthis and other warring parties.
Finally, the US Special Envoy has indicated that the United States is not looking to wind down its involvement in Yemen after a ceasefire, but will remain diplomatically committed until the situation is fully stabilized. For Yemen, stabilization means right-footing local peacebuilding efforts and promoting accountability and redress for violations by all warring parties. Given the United States’ role in the conflict the last six years, US bilateral and multilateral investments in both humanitarian and peacebuilding assistance have fallen far short of what’s needed, especially in comparison to the billions of dollars spent on US and “partner” military operations in the country. It is good news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is planning more humanitarian relief this fiscal year, but humanitarian assistance is merely a band-aid. The United States should not wait for a lasting ceasefire to invest deeply in peacebuilding, it should do so now to help create public demand for peace and provide the foundation for a national-level agreement to take hold. It can start by increasing resources for locally designed, led, and implemented efforts to expand local and international de-escalation and conflict resolution models that could be utilized throughout the country.
ACCOUNTABILITY IS A NECESSITY FOR YEMEN
There won’t be peace without accountability in Yemen. It’s that simple. The roots of this conflict stem, in part, from a lack of accountability for the abuses and kleptocracy of the 33-year-old dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Without meaningful accountability for current and past abuses — by both Yemeni and international actors — the cycle of conflict in Yemen will continue. To start, the United States could use its much-needed return to the Human Rights Council to expand the mandate of the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen and fully fund its operations. Otherwise, the group’s invaluable reporting on rights violations by all parties, and the groundwork it lays for future criminal prosecutions of the conflict’s worst actors, will evaporate.
The United States can and should play a positive role for peace in Yemen, but it can’t rely on the approaches of yesterday to address the problems of today. It’s time for President Biden to make his choice clear by publicly establishing bold steps forward for the United States and international partners to assist Yemen, rather than continuing to perpetuate the destructive status quo.
Kate Kizer is the policy director at Win Without War.