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An unambiguous EU strategy for Yemen: the time is now


Today EU foreign ministers, in the margins of the EU's Foreign Affairs Council, discuss the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Three weeks ago, a UN hosted donor conference gathered 1.1 billion dollars in pledges for the 19 million people in Yemen in need of urgent humanitarian support. While this seems an enormous amount, the UN still faces a 700 million dollar funding gap to save millions from imminent death and starvation.

Unlike the much promoted conference on the future of Syria hosted by High-Representative Federica Mogherini in Brussels, discussions about Yemen continuously fail to garner political attention. Not from the media, not from civil society and not from politicians. While headlines on terrorism threats and migrant movements, as well as the appalling use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime have propelled the Syrian crisis into many living rooms, the Yemen crisis has thus far almost exclusively affecting the civilians suffering within its borders and is therefore seemingly not of (international) interest.  

The international community and the EU however can and must not let the crisis in Yemen become a forgotten, protracted conflict. Not in the least because of the potentially destructive consequences of the rise of Al-Qaeda in Yemen (Al-Qaeda in the Arab-Peninsula), the growing influence of Iranian militia, and the strategic location of Yemen along a mayor shipping line in the Gulf of Aden. But also because in Yemen, the EU actually has the financial and political means to undertake effective action. 

President Trump has put finding political solutions into a low gear, as illustrated by an increase of attacks and bombardments in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. This leaves a key role for the EU to bring warring fractions around the negotiating table, in particular in rebooting the quartet negotiations which were initiated by Secretary of State Kerry and included the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

The EU cannot be a credible and neutral broker when some of its member states remain complicit in the indiscriminate bombardments of civilians in Yemen by Saudi Arabia. Since the start of the conflict in Yemen, the UK has sold up to almost 4 billion dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia and continues to do so, even as the legality of UK arms exports is currently under scrutiny in a high court case. At the same time, both the UK and France boycotted an attempt by the Netherlands to set up, within the UN Human Rights Council, an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The European Parliament last year stepped up and called for an EU wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. 

Despite these discrepancies, the EU is still perceived as relatively neutral by the different warring factions. This perceived neutrality provides the EU with a window of opportunity to play a key role in Yemen. With the window closing fast, the EU should now act and urgently develop one coherent EU approach towards Yemen, not undermined by national (economic) interests. The EU could push and even lead a credible new Yemen peace initiative (under UN auspices) if it works with the UN, local actors as well as regional players and commits the long-term resources it has at its disposal. Not only would this be a show of real EU leadership, it would come very close to constituting an EU strategy (for Yemen).  Above all, it would be a genuine attempt to end the suffering of the Yemeni people.