Germany is seeking to help crisis states with peace mediation. But what does mediation mean in practice? Yemen as an example
Lunch at the InterContinental Hotel in Berlin. Ali Saif rushes over to Oliver Wils, plate in hand. “Look over there, over there to the right”, he whispers. “They’re talking!” The two men glance discreetly at one of the tables opposite. Just the evening before, the delegates from Saudi Arabia and the Huthi militia from Yemen didn’t even want to sit next to each other at the conference table. These direct talks are the breakthrough that the organisers had hoped for.
Wils and Saif work as mediators for the Berghof Foundation, which specialises in conflict resolution and which receives funding from the Federal Foreign Office’s Directorate-General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilisation, Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Assistance. The German and the Yemenite are a perfect team; if a delegate holds the floor for too long or the talks go round in circles, then they take turns to intervene – sometimes with clear statements or a minor provocation, or by announcing a break providing an opportunity for informal talks around the coffee table in the corridor.
This occasion is no exception. Wils is standing at the middle of the tables, which are arranged in a horseshoe shape. Behind him are two partition walls with flash cards. During the lunch break, he and his team sorted all of the points that the delegates from the various parties to the conflict mentioned in the morning into thematic groups. “Security” is there, “lack of trust” and “future of the state”. Wils holds the microphone and chairs the discussions. In the background, you can hear the muffled voices of the simultaneous interpreters in a booth.
Like a therapist, Wils must have a good feel for when he lets someone speak and when he interrupts them. He addresses everyone by their name, gives encouraging nods, summarises or admonishes them: “now is not the time to play ping-pong.”
His colleague Saif is sitting among the delegates. He knows everyone in the room well, built up trust on the ground in Yemen, had initially to persuade many people to come, took care of visas and flights, listened to their reservations and made sure that they feel safe. If delegates need space from each other, then he sits between them. Saif tries to get those no longer taking part in discussions on board again. And if someone gets really upset, then he’s been known to bring them coffee and cake. And if that doesn’t help and a delegate storms out of the room, then he runs after them.
Above all, mediators need patience and stamina for their mediation work. But it’s difficult for the Berghof team not to feel under pressure in the face of the situation in Yemen, which is desperate. According to the United Nations, Yemenites are suffering a worsening famine and one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. As if things weren’t bad enough already, cholera has also broken out. While Germany has already increased humanitarian support for Yemen by a factor of twenty-five since 2015 and was the third largest bilateral donor last year, access on the part of international aid organisations to those in need is patchy and the problems are enormous.
This humanitarian assistance only helps to alleviate the symptoms of the crisis at the end of the day. With mediation and stabilisation, the Federal Foreign Office also intends to ensure that causes and solutions are addressed so that peace stands a chance of returning. While there is already a United Nations roadmap for negotiations in Yemen, it’s not working. Not all parties to the conflict are prepared to seriously commit to it.
Keeping channels of communication open and laying the groundwork for negotiations
“We are trying to lay the groundwork for the UN negotiations”, says Ali Saif. “We cannot stop the war right now with these unofficial peace talks, but they can limit acts of aggression and ensure that there are any lines of communication at all”, he added. The Berghof Foundation is creating the scope for this that no longer exists in Yemen in this form and at this high level. Delegates sometimes meet in Jordan, and sometimes in Lebanon and Berlin. The Berghof Foundation is one of the world’s few organisations to entertain high-level channels of communication with all parties to the conflict in Yemen.
Part of the art of mediation is simply inviting the right people at the right time. Are they willing to talk? Are they actually able to represent their group’s political leadership and to keep to agreements? These decisions aren’t easy as the civil war in Yemen is highly complicated. It is a combination of trouble spots that have been simmering away for a long time, conflicts stirred up by the Arab Spring, in a state that had always been weak, and neighbouring countries intervening as they believe that their own security interests are under threat.
Oliver Wils is acquainted with this multi-front conflict down to the very last detail. At the centre of the conflict are the Huthi, a rebel group from the north, on the border with Saudi Arabia. They belong to a Shiite sub-group, the Zaidis, and are loosely allied with Iran, which considers itself to be the guardian of all Shiites. But, first and foremost, they have teamed up with Yemen’s former President Ali Abdallah Saleh – a Sunni who was ousted from office during the Arab Spring. This alliance managed to expel the Government of President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi, which was recognised as legitimate by the international community, from the capital Sana’a, in 2014.
In Saudi Arabia’s view, this meant that the arch enemy Iran was, indirectly, calling the shots in Yemen – an unacceptable state of affairs for Riyadh, which considers itself to be the guardian of the Sunnis. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states decided to back President Hadi. Since then, the military alliance led by Saudi Arabia has bombarded the neighbouring country, and Sana’a in particular.
After the Houthis, for their part, fired missiles at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia shut off Yemen’s air and sea ports for several weeks in late 2017. The Houthis regarded ex-President Saleh’s desire to enter into talks with Saudi Arabia to end the blockade as high treason; the alliance collapsed as a result. Heavy fighting between Saleh troops and Houthis in Sana’a followed, in the course of which Saleh was killed on 4 December 2017. The Houthis took exclusive control of the capital.
This is not just a question of power, however, but also emotions as all those involved have lost family members or friends, seen a great deal of suffering and been through a lot. For Oliver Wils and Ali Saif, the mere fact that everyone that they invited actually came to Berlin, sat around a table and talked to each other is therefore a major success. They are hopeful that the next meeting will produce tangible agreements on security and confidence-building measures. It will be a long time until peace is established, but until then no step forward is too small. “I’m an optimist at the end of the day”, says Wils. “You have to believe yourself that it’s going to work”.