A US Foreign Policy Pathway to Peace for Yemen

Muna Luqman (she/her) is a Yemeni peacebuilder, humanitarian/development expert, and advocate for inclusive diplomacy. She is the founder and chairperson of Food4Humanity and the co-founder of the Women’s Solidarity Network. Diana Duarte (she/her) is the interim Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at MADRE, a global gender justice organization and feminist fund.

For nearly 10 years, Yemen has been divided by a civil war fought between three parties: the internationally recognized government, supported by the US-backed and Saudi-UAE led coalition,  the Houthis, and separatists in the south. A temporary truce was announced in April 2022, but ultimately collapsed after six months. Neither side had fully met the conditions of the truce, and Houthi hardline demands created an impasse. The failed peace process left the future uncertain for Yemeni communities facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and significant aid cutbacks, until a new peace process began to show signs of progress. Under the auspices of the UN Special Envoy’s office, an inclusive peace process began to take root, bringing together Yemeni civil society leaders with Houthis, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Southern separatists. In late December 2023, parties to the conflict had committed to a nationwide ceasefire, measures to improve living conditions, and restarting an intra-Yemeni political process

However, this promising roadmap towards peace was derailed by the retaliatory violence of the US against Houthis blockade attacks in the Red Sea and the expanding effects of Israel’s brutal war on Gaza. This deepening violence and the stubborn determination of policymakers to seek collective punitive military and economic responses is further imperiling lives across the region – all while many of these same policymakers justify launching bombs in the name of so-called security.

The experience of Yemeni peacebuilders has shown: there are ways to escape from this spiral of violence. Making that shift requires the international community to prioritize human rights first and to seek security, accountability and an end to conflict through inclusive, community-led processes. This has long been the vision of Yemeni women who have organized and strategized together for peace, while offering concrete proposals to the international policymakers to guide them towards an approach that centers diplomacy, rights and an ethic of care.

Instead, the unconditional pursuit of military primacy, whether by the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia, or others, has worsened the volatility and violence of armed conflict, and ultimately benefits and proliferates armed actors by creating cycles of violence and radicalization. A policy pathway with any chance of success – real, just and sustainable peace for Yemen – must instead put a different set of priorities first. It must reflect the urgent, expressed demands of local peacebuilders, uplifting the primacy of community security and inclusion in fostering a wider, interconnected national, regional, and global security.

In short, the path to peace is built first on ceasefire and inclusive processes, made possible by the leadership of grassroots women peacebuilders with a bottom-up approach.

Peace from the grassroots

Facing reality, we know the status quo is still lightyears away from this needed shift. The policymaking paradigms of the world’s most powerful governments have embraced a militarized logic that routinely threatens or carries out violence against vulnerable people. By taking steps toward transformation, the US and international community can better support peace processes led by community leaders and human rights defenders at the heart of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

First, the work of women peacebuilders at the grassroots reflects documented best practices that a peace deal won’t last unless everyone is at the table. That means broadening any peace process beyond combatants. Too often, formal peace negotiations are carried out only with the people with guns — and the process in Yemen has been no exception, focusing on the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Houthis, with limited involvement from civil society.

Not only has this excluded a host of political actors — tribal leaders, the Southern Transitional Council and other local armed groups — but crucially, it divides and sidelines civil society and feminist leaders, who have tended to be shunted into “parallel” advisory tracks and less likely to be in the room as key negotiators. For many years, those who have been invited were tokenized: excluding a diverse community of civil society leaders whose needs and analysis vary according to their work and geographic region.

Notably, more recent efforts have sought to broaden civil society participation in these talks via a series of consultations with local stakeholders in Yemen and in the regional diaspora. These led to significant steps towards a ceasefire in December 2023, and the renewal of a remarkable truce that largely held despite its expiration over a year ago. In the year leading up to the truce, there had been 40 Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen per week, and the truce’s break in hostilities offered a vital moment of peace and relief for Yemeni families. But the situation remains fragile. All parties will need to continue to work with Yemeni civil society, especially women leaders, to secure a new truce, a monitored ceasefire, and an inclusive, sustainable peace agreement.

Despite existing commitments to localization and inclusion in peace and security, the US and its military actions are endangering peace efforts led by local actors. The US responded to the Houthi blockade of ships in the Red Sea with military force, hitting more than 200 targets in Yemen over the last several weeks. Even as Biden remarkably acknowledged that these attacks were unlikely to affect Houthi behavior, the US has continued to launch airstrikes, promising a trajectory of violence that continues to escalate in Yemen and spread across the region.

Food not bombs

There’s a more sustainable answer to promoting peace and security in Yemen, one rooted in human rights, transitional justice  and effective peacebuilding practice: the US must end its support for Israel’s war on Gaza and demand a ceasefire there, while investing in inclusive peace processes for Yemen led by local peacebuilders, including under the auspices of the United Nations. The US should particularly rely on women and youth peacebuilders, who create real, tangible peace even against unimaginable odds, often under threat of attack by armed groups.

The evidence is clear: when women and civil society meaningfully participate in conflict prevention and resolution, peace agreements are 35% more likely to last at least fifteen years. Peace requires responding to the needs of a wide range of constituencies, and women can often serve as the vital link. The Women Solidarity Network, for example, is the largest women’s network in Yemen, bringing connections to hundreds of community-based organizations across the country. Through their humanitarian work — like delivering food, water, and medicine — women’s groups come to intimately understand people’s needs and build trust among communities that undergirds any successful peace. They create spaces for local communities to identify their urgent needs and to tease out the root causes of conflicts, and they demand channels of inclusion that can funnel this vital information into wider political negotiations,  from post-conflict accountability to the reintegration of fighters to the rights of marginalized groups, like people with disabilities, youth, and minorities.  The Mothers of Abductees Association has negotiated the release of prisoners and detainees, and other leaders have brokered ceasefires locally, and as seen in Yemen, have successfully nurtured the conditions for a nation-wide truce.

For example, the local women-led organization Food4Humanity mediated between two communities in Yemen who had been fighting over scarce water resources. They identified and fixed the source of the problem – a broken water station that led to conflict over scarce water sources. After repairing that station, they then brought together community representatives to sign a peace agreement and commit to maintaining the water pump. As a result, the fighting stopped. Moreover, because water is available, women do not need to walk hours to fetch water, and girls can attend school, decreasing child marriage and empowering young girls.

Local organizations like Food4Humanity also invest in local relationships that serve as entry points to negotiate with factions of armed groups to reach vulnerable populations that international organizations may lack the connections to support. When these communities are reached by local trusted actors, they help identify root causes of the conflict and barriers to address those root causes that would otherwise prevent or spoil the implementation of peace agreements. Inclusion is not pursued just for the sake of representation: it is a tested and required step for effective diplomacy and sustainable security.

Too often, powerful voices around negotiating tables dismiss these kinds of local examples as too small to be relevant to official peace processes. But it is exactly this granular attention to detail, combined with a wider, principled political vision and community networking power, that makes women peacebuilders so effective. This is just one example of the kinds of peacebuilding solutions we need: women leaders have the local connections to play a critical role in monitoring local ceasefires and ensuring that peace holds. In this way, women’s grassroots work repairs broken bonds among communities, enhancing community safety and fostering systems of care, setting the stage for post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction. The Feminist Peace Roadmap, developed by Peace Track Initiative and members of the Women’s Solidarity Network including Food4Humanity, recognizes that peace cannot be secured from the top down. Sustainable peace flows from the grassroots up and is rooted in meeting the urgent security and livelihood needs of communities at high risk of radicalization.

Instead of prioritizing the involvement of grassroots women-led peacebuilders and civil society actors including tribal leaders and local mediators, the old-school approach of negotiations by the internationally-led peace process prioritizes warring parties responsible for mass human rights violations. Additionally, in Yemen, the US focus on military responses, at the expense of sustainable community-driven security, has created an elite-driven peace process that has allowed warring parties to repeatedly create stalemates while consolidating, or recalibrating, their positions, all while receiving luxurious treatment from international and regional partners, who have also been parties to the conflict. At the same time, the focus on meeting the needs of elites has sidelined the well-documented political priorities of grassroots community leaders in Yemen, including Yemeni women peacebuilders.

Despite their expertise and trusted relationships with local actors, grassroots women peacebuilders and political experts have little access to shape US policymaking that impacts their own communities. They experience firsthand the effects of foreign policy decisions made in distant conference rooms, with little recourse to influence those decisions. Yet, when communities most directly impacted can play a pivotal role in shaping policy, they bring expertise, urgency, and community to even the most dire and complex policy debates. The conflicts that seem intractable can only be met with a set of tools that US policymakers must admit they lack: trust and accountability, which is held exclusively by local peacebuilders, who have already proven that they can bring together what war has torn apart. Rather than military interventions, Yemenis need locally-rooted peace policies that resource priorities and programs designed by grassroots leaders to de-escalate tensions and prevent further violence.

Deeper diplomacy

A current strategy initiated by the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, in partnership with UN Women, aims at expanding inclusivity in Yemen and involves conducting targeted consultations with Yemenis. These consultations aim to identify the root causes of conflict, foster leadership skills for inclusive peacebuilding, and develop a bottom-up approach for an all-inclusive peace process. This recognizes that lasting peace can only be achieved through the active participation of all stakeholders. By leveraging the collective knowledge and experience of Yemenis, the approach seeks to develop a sustainable peace process that reflects the diverse needs and interests of the Yemeni people. However, this requires true commitment, political will and genuine support by the international community and an enabling environment.

To create space for the voices and leadership of Yemeni women, youth, and civil society, international civil society allies can also serve a key role, building bridges between local communities, global peace movements and policymaking spaces. For instance, groups like international women’s rights organization MADRE — who work in long-term partnership with women on the frontlines of conflict in Yemen and war-affected regions globally — are positioned to demand that feminist analysis and women peacebuilders’ solutions guide US policymaking and to demand accountability for the actions of US leadership. They can bring policymakers — from Congress to the Biden administration — into direct conversation with Yemeni women and youth experts who are poised to identify ways forward for peace, justice, and human rights that outside actors simply cannot see.

The international community must prioritize peace in Yemen, and a ceasefire in Gaza, in order to meet urgent humanitarian needs of communities across the region and end a rapid spiral into deeper instability and bloodshed.

Yemeni women-led civil society is also taking the long view, and ultimately, they know that a peace agreement will be signed. When that happens, if people’s voices are not sufficiently included, the resulting peace will be fragile, and the likelihood of violent escalation and civil war will loom large. Yet, there are proven ways to avert this outcome, by centering justice and accountability, prioritizing inclusion, and meeting communities’ needs for humanitarian aid and development.

To pivot towards peace, we must seize the opportunity to democratize the process, drawing on the expertise of Yemeni women and local experts to generate momentum for policy shifts — including pushing parties to halt attacks and negotiate for peace, increasing humanitarian aid to grassroots, women-led groups, and advancing international accountability for war crimes. We do not need to go back to the drawing board: Yemeni women peacebuilders and civil society organizations have already organized political demands for sustainable peace into guiding frameworks, including the Feminist Roadmap for Peace and the Yemen Declaration for Justice and Reconciliation.

Yemen is currently facing a number of serious issues, including food insecurity and escalating conflicts in the Red Sea. It is crucial to restore the country’s security and judicial institutions, in order to promote stability and human rights, and to combat extremism. This requires an inclusive peace process involving private sector leaders, civil society leaders, and Southerners. Community-based peacebuilding initiatives have proven to be an effective tool in addressing security and governance issues, and preventing violence. Such initiatives have enabled local communities to repair divisions, address grievances, build trust, identify issues, initiate dialogues, and take action to resolve conflicts and build sustainable mechanisms for peace.

The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen must receive support and strengthen efforts to enhance an inclusive peace process that prevents further escalation and is not a symbolic box-ticking exercise.

It’s time for the Biden administration to adhere to its national and international commitments and ensure that Yemeni women-led civil society are at the table in meaningful and power-wielding roles, and that their priorities are centered and resourced, to shape a more inclusive and successful peace process.