Special Envoy's press stakeout

15 Jun 2021

Special Envoy's press stakeout

Good afternoon, it is a pleasure to be here with all of you.
I just briefed the Council on the situation in Yemen. This was the last briefing in my capacity as Special Envoy. I’m grateful for the privilege of having served this beautiful and rich country for the past three years. I’m grateful for having the opportunity to continue serving Yemen in my new capacity in OCHA, which I aim to start sometime in July.
You heard me brief on the overall situation in Yemen and the latest on the negotiations. As you know, we have been trying for some months to get agreement on four points: the opening of Sana’a airport for international travel; reducing and eliminating impediments to the arrival of ships, oil ships in particular, into Hudaydah ports; a nationwide ceasefire; and the start of the political process. And as I informed the Council just now, the gap between the parties, the gap between the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah,  remains too wide for me to announce what I would have loved to announce, which was that we had a deal. We have tried to bridge this gap. But, so far, we have not been able to do so. And I gave in that session, open session of the Council, an indication of the different positions of the two parties. I would like to say that in the last few months, we have had terrific diplomatic firepower in support of this negotiation, notably of course from the United States, the new Special Envoy Tim Lenderking, but also very very much in the region, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait — I was there just earlier in this week. And Oman, as you know, has just returned from a week-long visit to Sana’a to follow up on the discussions I had.

I would like to end, Steph, if I may by simply saying that, in fact, while the picture is often bleak in Yemen, for humanitarian reasons, for political reasons, for military reasons, there is always the experience of Yemeni activism, of Yemeni civil society to give us a different picture and one of hope. Because, as I said in the council, the way in which, despite what may or may not be happening in the diplomatic level, activist groups, community groups, civil society, women’s networks engage to mitigate the consequences of this appalling conflict. It is testament to the spirit of the people of Yemen and it keeps us focused, guided, and I hope honest.
Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

Associated Press: Thank you, Mr. Griffiths, on behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association welcome, thank you for doing this briefing and we hope in your new job we will see and hear from you very often. My question is a follow-up to your expression of hope that perhaps the Sultanate of Oman might be able to make progress where you were unable to. What gives you hope that Oman might succeed?

Mr. Griffiths: Thanks Edith, and I am looking forward to being with you physically in the new job, which you know I am daunted but privileged to be going to do that. I think you have hit the central question there about Oman, Oman's visit to Sana’a is the first time, certainly in my time, they have made such a visit. I think it is the first time in the whole length of the war that that is the case. Oman, as you know, has always in Yemen and in various other issues in the region played a role, a mutual role, abridging role, sometimes a mediation role, so when the King of Saudi Arabia asked the Sultan of Oman to help with advancing these negotiations, it was incredibly important to all of us that the Sultan said yes, and indeed he did and he sent his team. Now, we do not know what is the outcome of this visit, there's been fevered speculation about it as you know, but we will hear I hope that in the next day or two, I am going to be in Riyadh tomorrow, where I believe we will hear more from the Omanis themselves. And the reason to answer your specific question on why do we think, or what do I think this has more hope than mine, I think it is very important to understand that the AnsarAllah leader would I think want to reach his hand out to Oman, in a way that is different to the UN. Oman has, as I say, played this bridging role these last many years and has now itself taken the risk, frankly, of deploying to try to get agreement and I hope, therefore, without as yet any firm information I hope that we are going to see the advance. The crucial area that we are focusing on here is a commitment to the ceasefire from Ansar Allah, in addition of course to the opening up of the ports and airport and then the political process. If we can zero in on how we can be sure that that is going to happen, then I think we may finally be turning the corner on Yemen just as I depart or see it from another perspective. Thank you.

NHK: Thank you very much Mr. Griffiths for this briefing, we appreciate it. My question is, there are so many commentators who just say that there is not much that Ansar Allah has to gain from engagement and we have heard similar remarks from Mr. Lenderking, the US envoy, so my question is, strategically speaking, what does Ansar Allah want and why has the UN not been able to provide that question?

Mr. Griffiths:  Thank you very much. Well, can I just take issue with the UN providing that. It is not me to provide what Ansar Allah may or may not want, it is the other side, it is a negotiation between the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah. I am just the guy in the middle. But it is a very good question Toby, and it is one that has really been central to the many many times I met the Ansar Allah leader up until March 2020 as you know, and since then I have not met him until just the other day. And it is always trying to get that sense and that is exactly what a mediator’s job is, what are the incentives to do the right thing. I think in any civil war, anyone that you look at, and I am sure you look at them all, this is the 64,000 dollar question, particularly when it comes to insurgent groups as opposed to the government they face off on, I think this, and I do not have any proof, this is my speculation on the basis of all those conversations and discussions, and by the way my Office has an office in Sana’a some very very good brave national officers there. Here’s what I think, what Ansar Allah would get out of ending the war and going into a political settlement, is they would have an important role in a political and new transitional administration, a power-sharing government, they do not have that at the moment, they are a pariah internationally, they are not, whatever they may think, a legitimate administration, they are de facto authorities, they would translate that into being part of dejure authorities. Secondly, everybody has their speculation about the motives of Ansar Allah, my experience dealing with groups of this sort, in many, many, many different places is that it is wrong to underestimate, whatever you may think of them, their need to do the right thing by the people that they have as their constituency or in the case of Ansar Allah that they rule administratively in the North. It is wrong to underestimate the human desire to do the right thing and to appear to do the right thing, so that is the second, if the first is to be part of a transitional power-sharing administration, second is to be part of bringing this war to an end, and thirdly, perhaps it is less important, but I think it is important for Ansar Allah, Yemen may just get lucky with reconstruction, in terms of the ability to fund different parts of the country and its need for reconstruction. There are some very important neighbours who may help, and I think there is going to be ways in which everybody who is involved in that transition will benefit. At the end of the day, Toby, I am an agnostic, as a mediator. I do not know whether Ansar Allah will do this or not, my job is simply to give them the chance to do it and keep on doing exactly that, thank you.

Reuters: Thanks Stephan and thanks Mr. Griffiths, look forward to working with you in your new role. I have just to follow up here on Edith’s question just to clarify so you do not know whether Oman was able to secure any kind of agreement from the Houthis -- and you explained to the Council exactly what you were trying to get from both sides. Oman is presumably singing from the same hymn book, wishing the same deal?

Mr. Griffiths: Yes, actually, I find it very impressive, it’s slightly frustrating personally, but it is very impressive that Oman has maintained a lot of discipline about keeping to themselves what they have discussed in Sana’a. Lots of people have asked what went on, and lots of people have asked their Ansar Allah interlocutors what went on, we have of course, and we are, as I say we are still in the dark, and I think that is actually quite impressive level of discipline. You are absolutely right Michelle, they were going in with the same essential rubric as we did a week ahead of them, and came out with the conclusion that you know. So I think that I hope that what we will see is that the good name of Oman and it is a good name in this region, it is a very important name with Ansar Allah, may be brought to bear to make us all the other side, the coalition as well, convinced that Ansar Allah is acting in good faith when they say they will enter into negotiations for a ceasefire. Now I do not know as I said whether that is what we are going to be hearing in the next couple of days, but for me if Oman was giving assurances in this respect, this I think it is very important and very valuable. We will see. We will find out I think in the next couple of days what actually transpired thank you

 Al Arabi TV: Thank you, thank you, Mr Griffiths for this briefing, and best of luck with your new job.

About Safer tank, what do you think is the main problem with the Houhti authorities here, and you tried many different approaches, and obviously they have not succeeded yet. My second question is: I covered you in Stockholm, it was a great breakthrough but since then you have insisted on giving maybe a message of hope in every briefing you have given to the Council, and your press briefings. You have always insisted on delivering a message of hope at a time maybe when the country was collapsing, the process itself was not moving forward or going anywhere. So do you think that you have given the accurate assessment or because I heard some critics that sometimes it was misleading maybe to the Council or to the diplomatic arena in general. Thank you

Mr. Griffiths: Thank you Nabil. On Safer it is incredibly frustrating for everybody, but you can imagine, most of all it is frustrating for the people whose livelihoods stand at risk from any spill from the tanker, so the UN People, it is OCHA, and the OPS in the lead here, who have been doing these negotiations, they are of course frustrated, but the substance is the worry,  and the most recent concern that has been disrupting those negotiations has been that Ansar Allah in their technical committee, if I understand it rightly, has  been arguing for the technical assessment mission to actually repair the tanker and not just assess and do the small repairs that may be needed to stabilize it, and the UN position has always been since a year ago that until the assessment is done, they will not know how, repairs should work, you look at the tanker first, to see what is needed, then you decide how you are going to repair it, so it is a technical misunderstanding at the least, but it is also a miscommunication going both ways. The UN is trying hard to stick to the agreements that have been made with Ansar Allah these many, many months and we continue to be frustrated, of course in my next job I am going to have to do, you know to take a more accountable role on this rather than an observer and I think we should also look at what are the options that are facing us, because this is an endless round of frustration for all concerned and you are from the region you will understand that much better than me. So let’s look at what is possible options in addition to trying to make this UNOPS technical commission work.

On the issue of me misleading the Council, if I could paraphrase your kind words there. Actually, I think it is a fair point. If you check the last six months or so it has not been very hopeful at all. I sort of dived down with sort of a combination of anger and frustration and a kind of sadness. And just today the bleak picture was what I delivered. And I deliberately did not say but do not worry the seventh cavalry is on the way because we are waiting to hear from Oman, so I wanted to keep it down at that level.

I would say this, and as you know I have said it to the council before, if you are not encouraging people in my job as a mediator, you are not doing them the service that they need. If you are simply saying well none of this is working, it is a terrible thing, the war's going on, what a disaster, over to you guys, thank you members of this council, you are not doing your job as a mediator. A mediator's job as I tried to say in this session today is to offer countless opportunities for each party to say yes, and that is also a matter of encouraging but also a matter of creative plucking opportunities where they do not exist. And what we have been doing, we have narrowed narrowed and narrowed it now at last.  This year we were focusing right down on these four issues, and we know that we can manage a ceasefire, we know how to do the ports and airport, we know what a launch of a political process looks, it is now for the parties to say yes. Inshallah, let’s hope, let’s hope.

German Press Agency: Thank you so much, Mr Griffiths for this briefing. Just a quick follow-up on the Safer tanker, did I understand it right that you said we have to look at what possible other measures can be done there or options, what do you mean by that?

Mr. Griffiths: I would rather not go into any detail about that. There are lots of offers, I was in Tehran the other day, they told me about an offer from Iran to help perhaps by providing replacement tanker and so forth. There are commercial private sector efforts to look at a different way of doing this, but I do not want to go into those details because we are focused on trying to make this thing happen at the moment. But you would be stupid if you did not also look over the horizon and say ‘is there are a better way to do this’ than this sort of Sisyphean task of trying to get these things together. And I have a huge credit if I may, to UNOPS people who have spent every waking minute of the last year trying to complete the circle of these incessant negotiations, if there's a quicker way to do it, we should all be happy, Thank you.

The National: Thank you Stephan, thank you Mr Griffiths. I have got a question, I am going to ask if you can go into a bit more detail about the situation in Marib. Could you give us an idea what you think are the prospects for a Houthi military victory there? From your recent talks in Sana’a, is it fair to say that the Houthis are not going to bargain on the broader ceasefire until Marib is decided. And finally, would a Houthi win there be the final nail in the coffin of the Hadi government?

Mr. Griffiths: Well you seem, James is it? to know more than I do about what is going to happen in Marib. I do not know that Marib is going to fall to Ansar Allah actually, and as you rightly asked me about it. You know, it is something we study, as carefully as we can, we have our own military advisers, we talk to others of course about what is going on. I do not think Marib is going to fall any time like soon or tomorrow. It has been quiet, as you know for the last month or six weeks with constant rumours coming out of Sana’a about the renewed offensive, the Ansar Allah forces are out in the open surrounding, about 15 kilometers or so away from the city, the city is a massive target rather like Hudaydah city was back in 2018. There's a huge number of displaced as you know huge numbers of people it will be, you know, battles in cities are not, I am not at general, I am not a soldier, but they are not easy battles. So there has not been a lot of advances of late of the last few months made by the Ansar Allah militia.  But it does not mean to say that it won’t either. So again I am  agnostic and it may do and it is clear to me as you know that the prospects of either side winning but particularly this case, Ansar Allah winning in Marib, have been a drag on the negotiations to bring in, as you say James, that nationwide ceasefire, which is why, by the way, I was quite interested to see that Abdel Malek Houthi said to me, if you can get the ports and airport open, thank you very much, we would be willing to immediately send people to negotiate the ceasefire. So, I am not sure where it is going to end up in terms of the battlefield, there's a lot of contrary advice that we are getting from different military advisers, but it is certainly the centre of gravity of the war in Yemen and it is of huge importance. Whether a fall of Marib to AnsarAllah, what impact that has on the government of Yemen again, I do not think it leads to the complete erosion of the government of Yemen and I think it will be another battle lost, but there are still a lot of resources and forces,  and sadly enough who can yet fight battle, so I do not know where to go it is important for me and for us that it does not fall.  

Al-Araby Al-Jadeed: Thank you Stephan, thank you Mr. Griffiths for the briefing. I just want to follow-up first on Oman's role, so it seems to me that you are, if I may put it like that, you are giving up on the UN role, so you are giving Oman a more prominent place in the negotiation, which role do you see then for the UN? And my second question is on your segment today at the Security Council, just in brief, you summarized the main differences between the two parties for the time being, that the Houthis want to have agreement first on Sana’a [Airport] and Hudaydah [port] and the Government [of Yemen] wants to have an agreement on all issues. So my question to you is what is your roadmap, what do you believe that, you have been working on that for the last three years or longer, but what do you think that could be practically done now to bring you one step further to break between these two positions? Thank you very much.

Mr. Griffiths: First of all, on the role I am not giving away anything of the UN role, the UN has like any mediator in any conflict help from different diplomatic forces from time to time, and what Oman is doing, I hope, is helping, I hope, to get us a breakthrough to getting an agreement on those four issues. But it does not mean to say that the UN will not continue to be the mediator, it is not challenged in Yemen as you know, unlike other conflicts. Secondly, the UN will of course need to manage the ceasefire, the UN, of course, will need to be instrumental in the new arrangements in the ports and airport, and the UN of course will be launching the political process. This does not do anything to reduce our role, it is simply, I hope, a force multiplier because of Oman's particular [position], you know we have had a lot of help from the US, from the Saudis and others, always I think in support of the objectives that we talk about publicly and negotiate privately. At this point pending the outcome of the Omani Mission, I do not want to speculate as to a new approach. I think it is really important that we focus, focus the parties, focus the people of Yemen on getting these four things done, they are not chosen in a random way, they are chosen because they provide a humanitarian lift obviously to end the shooting war, to open the roads and so forth, bring in the oil ships so they have an immediate impact which is vital in terms of stemming that spread of famine and allowing the humanitarian operations to take place, but also they start the political process which is, as I said in the Council, you know very long overdue. So I would not want to start thinking of a new approach when we have full agreement in the diplomatic efforts in the region and in the Council on getting these four things done, let's see if we can have that happen, thank you.

Agence France Presse: Thank you Stephan, thank you Mr Griffiths for this briefing. Do you think Iran is a key actor to get an agreement in this conflict?

Mr. Griffiths: That’s a very crisp question Philippe. They are important, you know, they can contribute to resolving the conflict, you will have seen the recent remarks, I think in the context of a visit or a meeting with the EU, of Ahmad bin Mubarak, the Foreign Minister of Yemen to say please call Iran get them to help, he said Iran is the key. Now I would not go that far, and what I would say is this, to the extent that Iran has influence in that region and with Ansar Allah they need to use that influence for the benefit of what we are trying to do. This was the message that I was giving when I was in Tehran about a week ago. And you will know that Foreign Minister Zarif speaks frequently of the need for what, the ceasefire, what he calls lifting the blockade, and a power sharing agreement. I would not descend from any of that, so if that is the Iranian position, that’s very welcome. So I would like Iran to help. I also think that Yemen is a potential beneficiary, not immediately but over time as you would know better than me from any de-escalation in the region, because I think Yemen is ripe for being a place where outside interferences are not needed or helpful. I would make one last point on this, as you would know well as anybody who has spoken to officials in Ansar Allah, they are keenly insistent on the fact that they make their decisions about their future, nobody else does, and they make very sure that I understand that in terms of anybody else I talk to, and I think they are probably right, I think they are probably right, I think it is wrong to underestimate the pride and self-respect if you like of the leadership of the move of the Ansar Allah movement, and in that respect they are the ones that will need to decide and that goes back to earlier questions of will they do the right thing or will they continue the battle as in Marib. Thank you very much, we will have to see. Thanks a lot, thank you all.