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Yemeni National Dialogues—Lessons Learned

Yemeni National Dialogues—Lessons Learned

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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Elayah, M., Schulpen, L., van Kempen, L., Almaweri, A., AbuOsba, B., & Alzandani, B. (2020). National dialogues as an interruption of civil war – The case of Yemen. Peacebuilding, 8(1), 98-117. https://doi.org/10.1080/21647259.2018.1517964

Talking Points

In the context of Yemen:

  • National dialogue, if designed properly, could be a crucial element of any future peace process.
  • Absence of trust has been a serious impediment to the success of national dialogue processes in the past; therefore, any future process must include a “slow start” to establish basic levels of trust among involved parties.
  • Since external actors have significantly contributed to armed conflict in Yemen, their participation in national dialogue has proven crucial to the success of these processes.
  • Local knowledge should inform national dialogue processes, as well as broader conflict transformation strategies, especially insofar as it can shed light on the distribution of power in these processes.

Summary

Yemen has repeatedly used national dialogue as a tool for resolving political conflict. Yet, the authors contend that these dialogues have been largely unsuccessful due to the fact that they have only functioned to interrupt civil war rather than to resolve underlying conflict issues. The purpose of this research is to investigate why this has been the case—why national dialogues have not been more successful at generating solutions to conflicts and ultimately ending the violence in Yemen.

The authors identify six preconditions for successful dialogue from existing research: 1) trust; 2) inclusion; 3) clear and shared vision of a dialogue’s objectives; 4) power balance; 5) perception that outcomes will actually be implemented; and 6) local ownership. Applying this preconditions framework, the authors analyze interviews and secondary sources related to the national dialogues conducted between 1962 and 2013 to illuminate why these dialogues have only interrupted—rather than ended—civil war in Yemen.

As only one dialogue process facilitated an end to armed conflict, the authors conclude that the Yemeni national dialogues, as they were implemented, were largely ineffective. The authors attribute this failure to the absence or weakness of several preconditions outlined above. Interestingly, the research demonstrates a dynamic relationship between the six preconditions, meaning that the impact of one precondition may be constrained by the weakness or absence of another.

The first precondition, trust (1), impacted two additional preconditions: shared vision (3) and implementation mechanism (5). The absence of trust prevented the emergence of a collective vision and stymied the implementation of any agreements that were reached in the dialogues. With the exception of the Harad dialogue in 1967, all the dialogue processes lacked trust from the outset. Consequently, the Harad dialogue was the only process that had a shared vision and a strong implementation process. With regards to the last precondition, the prevailing thought is that dialogues must have a high level of local ownership (6). Yet, in comparing the dialogue processes, the authors note the constructive role played by the international and regional communities. For instance, the influence of external actors was critical to the success of the Harad dialogue. Yemeni parties were at a deadlock, and it was not until Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who were aligned with opposing sides, put pressure on their respective allies that the Yemeni parties reconciled in 1970. Similarly, regional and international actors played a constructive role in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in 2013. Although the NDC was ultimately unsuccessful, there was potential early on largely due to the influence and actions of regional and international actors, particularly in shaping the “excellent” format of the NDC. Unfortunately, there were still challenges. The NDC was highly inclusive (2), yet it was still unable to overcome the power imbalances (4) of Yemeni society. The research demonstrates how “traditional actors” can drive the agenda and outcomes of a dialogue in a way that secures their power and neglects underlying issues of the conflict. Traditional actors used the NDC merely as a stopgap measure to overcome temporary unrest, thereby stifling development of a long-term vision for the future of Yemen.  

Despite the failures and challenges of previous dialogue processes, the authors maintain that dialogue, if designed properly, could be a crucial element of a “renewed peace process that might…eventually emerge in the future [of Yemen].” Accordingly, they provide four recommendations to overcome the challenges identified. First, with regards to building trust, the authors contend that any future dialogue process must include a “slow start” to establish trust among involved parties. Second, although local ownership is important, the dialogue process must directly involve regional actors who can assist in overcoming political conflict between domestic parties. Third, because of insurmountable societal power imbalances in the NDC, the authors assert that any future NDC must be reserved for a diverse array of civil society actors in the absence of traditional (elite) actors who should instead engage in a parallel political dialogue at the leadership level. Having parallel processes would ensure that traditional actors do not drive the NDC agenda in their own interests, away from meaningful change; at the same time, the political dialogue could demonstrate a readiness to implement the agendas set forth by the NDC. A separate political dialogue would provide a space for leaders to prepare for long-term, constitutional political change that can include power-sharing and constitutional arrangements for grievance resolution. Finally, the authors make a recommendation related to the broader peace process in Yemen. Peace practitioners should rely upon local knowledge to inform their understanding of conflict stakeholders, at their various levels, and their relative power and interests. At every step of the national dialogue process—initiation, execution, and implementation of outcomes—local knowledge should be integrated to determine who is best suited to take action and move the process forward.

Informing Practice

The authors provide several recommendations for a successful national dialogue process. In this section, I will discuss one such recommendation: the direct involvement of regional and international actors. The authors maintain that direct involvement of external actors was helpful in facilitating the dialogue process once it became stalled due to the political disputes of internal parties. One defining characteristic of conflict in Yemen is the country’s position within a region where more powerful actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, regularly intervene in domestic affairs. When external actors were not directly involved in national dialogue in Yemen, they did more harm than good because internal parties would solicit the support of neighbors in an attempt to strengthen their internal positions. These actions eroded trust during the dialogue. The authors’ conclusions are specific to the case of Yemen, but this insight could shape the work of practitioners elsewhere. In their March 2019 report discussing conflict trends, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) noted that the “number of countries involved in internationalized conflicts has exploded over the last 15 years.” Internationalized conflicts refer to internal (civil) conflicts in which third-party governments are involved. Depending on the geopolitics of the region and the dynamics of the conflict itself, external involvement in conflict resolution could be an asset. This insight challenges the prevailing notion that local ownership, and by extension exclusion of external parties in the dialogue process, is necessarily conducive to success. Peace processes, and specifically negotiations, can be structured in a way that is locally led but also welcomes participation from external conflict parties in mitigating internal political disputes.

Throughout the research, the authors note the composition of actors and their relative power as contributing to or constraining the dialogue process. This speaks to the larger point that various social actors and their identities can have differing roles in the peace process (see Special Issue: Peacebuilders in Continued Reading). International and regional communities may not be well suited to determine the most equitable and appropriate form of governance for another country, yet their unique roles, and influence, in the conflict can assist in other ways. By virtue of their participation through military or financial support and the power internal parties derive from this support, external actors can be critical in overcoming entrenched domestic political disputes that would otherwise stall dialogue (as was the case during the dialogue process after the September 1962 revolution). External parties can leverage their influence, namely by restricting material support, to sway parties toward reconciliation. If a domestic party is reliant on external military support (meaning they derive power from this external support), then the reduction of such support may incentivize the domestic party to come to the bargaining table and make concessions. Those interested in pursuing peace in internationalized conflicts should be aware of external and internal actors and their sources of power, so that they can work within the framework of these conflict party relationships and leverage power sources to bring about peace. [KH]

Continued Reading

Strand, H., Rustad, S. A., Urdal, H., & Nygård, H. M. (2019). Trends in armed conflict, 1946–2018. (Conflict Trends 3). Peace Research Institute of Oslo. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from https://www.prio.org/Publications/Publication/?x=11349

Peace Science Digest. (2020, March). Special issue on peacebuilders. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/special-issue-peacebuilders/

International Crisis Group. (2020, March 17). Preventing a deadly showdown in northern Yemen. Retrieved on June 12, 2020, from https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/b74-preventing-deadly-showdown-northern-yemen

International Crisis Group. (2013, September 25). Yemen’s southern question: Avoiding a breakdown. Retrieved on June 12, 2020, from https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/yemen-s-southern-question-avoiding-breakdown

Organizations

Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO): https://www.prio.org/

 Keywords: national dialogue, civil war, peacebuilding, Yemen

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