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Dutch Ambassador to Yemen: “The basic ingredient of peace is inclusivity”

Yemen -

One of the speakers of Cordaid’s Yemen conference is Dutch Ambassador to Yemen, Peter-Derrek Hof. As a prequel to his keynote address, he discusses the Yemen conflict, international aid, and the lack of gender equality. “Women need access, more than so-called capacity building.”

In Yemen, Cordaid closely collaborates with both the Embassy and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The past few years we have been working together on a range of topics, notably mental health care, sexual and reproductive health services, and humanitarian aid.

‘The Dutch’ have a longstanding aid track record in Yemen, as Ambassador Hof proudly indicates. “Our 44-year old development cooperation programme in Yemen is the longest-running development programme of the Netherlands in the world. We’re known and respected for it in Yemen. It has given us a reputation of independence, of always siding with the Yemeni population. It also gives us good access to all parties in Yemen which we can use in our diplomatic efforts working towards a just and inclusive peace in Yemen.”

“Meaningful participation, especially of those who are kept out of power, like youth, women, ethnic minorities, is essential. This is complicated. But not impossible.”

Hof himself has only recently been appointed ambassador to Yemen, in September last year. After decades of diplomatic service, notably in Central America, Brussels, New York, and Paris, he is now deployed in one of the toughest places on the planet. Seven years of war in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula have caused the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Hof is not physically based in Yemen. Due to the closure of the Dutch Embassy in Sana’a in 2015, for security reasons, he and his team operate from Amman, Jordan. Security and COVID-19 permitting, he and his team members try to travel to Yemen.

The conflict in Yemen is very complex. How would you describe it?

The war in Yemen consists of many different conflicts, with many conflicting parties. The Houthis, who control large parts of the country, notably the city of Sana’a, the government in  Marib and Taiz, the separatist Southern Transitional Council in Aden, and other militias on the west coast. Each with their armed forces, each backed internationally, by the Saudis, by Iran, or by the Emirates. It’s a Yemeni war, with a far-reaching military and political regional involvement.

At the moment, no solution seems in sight. In fact, the fragmentation of Yemen is increasing. The battle for oil-rich Marib is ongoing. When the Houthi’s win this, they might conquer the rest. But a military victory will not solve anything. On the contrary, it will only further increase human suffering.

What is the solution?

The fighting has to stop and all parties need to get together around the table. Not just the armed groups and the political leaders, but every part and parcel of Yemen’s political and societal fabric. Meaningful participation, especially of those who are kept out of power, like youth, women, ethnic minorities, is essential. This is not easy. In fact, it’s extremely complicated. But not impossible. It’s what we as the Netherlands aim for with our development programme and our diplomatic efforts. Because a ceasefire alone between the warring parties will not bring peace. The basic ingredient of durable peace is inclusivity.

Dr. Bilqis Jubari, co-speaker on Cordaid’s Yemen conference, psychotherapist, and mental health pioneer, points out the devastating effects of Yemen’s deeply ingrained male dominance and the lack of gender equality. How are you contributing to the inclusivity of Yemeni women?

Dr. Jubari is absolutely right, Yemen is one of the worst countries for women to live in. It has the second biggest gender gap, after Afghanistan. Gender-based violence is rampant, at home and by state actors. Politically active women and female journalists are arrested, disappeared. More girls are forced into early marriage due to the conflict. Sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. Over four million people are displaced, and most of them are women and children. The political representation of women is deplorable. The current government has no women, which is unacceptable.

“Female police officers persevered. They broke taboos and harmful gender norms. They are now an example to other women. And men.”

So indeed, improving gender equality is as important as it is difficult. But is it possible to improve the situation, bit by bit. For the Netherlands, the meaningful participation of women in the peace process is a priority. This is why, for example, we support Yemeni women’s organisations that have developed a feminist roadmap to peace.

man caressing a dog in a demining centre
Ambassador Hof at the Yemen Executive Mine Action Center (YEMAC). Image: Peter-Derrek Hof

I have talked to a lot of Yemeni women, experts, leaders, heads of NGOs, online and during my travels. It is very clear that the priority is not so-called ‘capacity building’. Women need access. To finance, to circles of power and influence, to high-level negotiations. On local levels, women have already played a leading role in mediation initiatives, in exchanges of prisoners. Their leadership, expertise, and peacebuilding skills are unquestionable. But they are barred from talks and initiatives on a national level. The national peace process has stopped in 2016. We support the UN Envoy in getting it on track again. And I truly hope this process will be resumed, in an inclusive way, with women in key positions.

You have also supported female police officers in Yemen. Can you say something about that?

In Aden, we support the Female Police Academy. I was very impressed by the academy on my last visit to Aden. In the past, before the Yemeni unification of 1990, in socialist times, it was common to have female police officers. Since the conflict, there are hardly women left within the police. This academy trains women to do police work, in police stations, at the airport, at customs. Some of them are supported by their families, others meet with a lot of opposition. They persevered, broke taboos and harmful gender norms, and are now an example to other women. And men.

Having more female police officers is vital. Where can GBV survivors otherwise go to when they want to denounce an abuser, seek justice, seek support? They won’t even try going to a station with only male police officers, who, generally, aren’t trained in handling GBV cases and are not aware of harmful gender patterns.

This project might not directly contribute to peace on a national level, but it certainly does contribute to peace and security on a more local level.

The Yemeni women in this video are doing everything in their power to improve the situation in their country and tell us more about what we need to know and do to achieve peace:

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We have to talk about the humanitarian crisis. What is the scope of the suffering, and how is the Netherlands addressing it?

Before the war, Yemen already was the poorest Arab country. It is the conflict that has caused it to become the setting of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Two-thirds of the 30 million population needs some sort of life-saving humanitarian assistance. Four million people are forcibly displaced, most of them women and children. Two million kids cannot go to school. The same number of children suffer acute malnutrition. Half of the health facilities are in shambles. The crisis is everywhere, throughout the country, and on all levels of life.

Then there’s the food crisis, which is not only about food shortages. It’s about prices. Yemen imports 90% of its food and the war has severely disrupted transport and logistics. The insurance needed to ship food to Yemen is 16 times more expensive than to other destinations. That’s just one example. So, food is coming in but at great expense. On top of that, exchange rates are plummeting, inflation keeps rising, and salaries, if paid at all, evaporate. As a result, prices have skyrocketed and people cannot even afford food for their children.

So, where do you start? What are your priorities?

We focus on aspects of the crisis we, as the Netherlands, have expertise in and that are underfunded. We spent approximately 18 million euros on humanitarian assistance last year and about 20 million on structural development. This combination of immediate relief, longer-term development, and diplomatic peace-building efforts is a cornerstone of our policy. Yes, we need to save lives. At the same time, it is vital to work on longer-term progress and tackle the economic crisis while the war rages on.

“Yemen is the most water-scarce country in the world. Sustainable water management is of extreme importance.”

This is why, for example, we finance the Yemen Joint Response of the Dutch Relief Alliance. At the same time, in our structural development programme, we invest in better health care services, notably the underfunded sectors of mental health care and sexual and reproductive health services. For example, with Yamaan, a Yemeni foundation that provides health services, we support a voucher programme. It allows pregnant women in rural areas to go to a clinic and have a safe delivery.

We finance short-term humanitarian water and sanitation responses, but we have also been promoting longer-term integrated and sustainable water management for many years. Yemen is the most water-scarce country in the world, so this is of extreme importance. With Dutch support, the Sana’a basin project, for instance, seeks to manage the decreasing aquifers more sustainably. And, obviously, we invest in peacebuilding, justice, and rule of law initiatives. Like the Female Police Academy I mentioned earlier.

Is it really possible to achieve longer-term changes and results while the war rages on?

Yes. It is extremely difficult. You have to be very conflict-sensitive in your project design and in everything you do. It is not only possible, but it is also vital. The UN is increasingly aware that pumping billions of dollars every year into humanitarian aid will not solve the crisis. The economic collapse due to the war constitutes a loss of over 100 billion dollars. You can’t fill that gap with humanitarian aid. You need to rebuild, reconstruct, and invest in long-term development.

Is the crisis in the Houthi-controlled areas different from the crisis in the government-controlled areas?

That is hard to say because access to the Houthi areas is a problem. We can’t always get the right data, talk to the right persons and monitor the situation. Two-thirds of the people live in the Houthi-controlled areas. In that sense, this is the worst affected part of the country. But in no way should we downplay the suffering in the other parts of Yemen.

“The international community spent over 17 billion USD on short-term humanitarian aid in Yemen. It saved a lot of lives, but it does not help to solve the conflict.”

Humanitarian access is a problem in the entire country but plays out differently. In non-Houthi-controlled areas, it’s often not clear who is in control. There’s a lack of governance. Operating in this vacuum is very dangerous. In the Houthi-controlled areas, lack of access is related to the tight control and the repression by the authorities. Humanitarian actors cannot move around freely.

The Dutch Embassy works closely together with both Yemeni civil society and international NGOs like Cordaid. How important is that collaboration?

It is very important. Local NGOs and INGOs have a presence on the ground. We, as an Embassy, cannot be on the ground because of the conflict. Despite the many rules and regulations, the insecurity, the control, and the bureaucracy, these humanitarian and development actors continue to do their valuable work. For us, this presence on the ground of civil society is an important added value.

INGOs like Cordaid play an important role in the localisation of aid and development. They strengthen Yemeni civil society actors and aid workers, giving them the responsibilities, the resources, and expertise to do the job locally. Take our collaboration with Yamaan, It started as a small project, but we scaled it up. Today, Yamaan plays a prominent role in Yemen’s health care system. Their collaboration with Cordaid further strengthens them. Just like Cordaid’s support of Dr. Bilqis Jubari’s Family Counseling and Development Foundation has a similar effect, in the field of mental health care.

man in classroom stands in front of seated women in uniform
Dutch ambassador Hof visits the female police academy in Aden, Yemen. Image: Peter-Derrek Hof.

Localisation, putting Yemeni’s in the lead of the country’s relief and reconstruction operations, is so important. After all, only the Yemeni people themselves are there during and, hopefully soon, after this war. Only they can truly rebuild the country and mend what the conflict has destroyed.

We still have a way to go. Especially in humanitarian aid, there is still too much direct implementation by international NGOs.

Dutch development cooperation in Yemen has been ongoing for 44 years. What lessons can you draw?

There are many, but let’s focus on some of the main ones. Even in the face of a massive humanitarian crisis you need to continue longer-term development efforts. The international community has spent over 17 billion USD on short-term humanitarian aid in Yemen. It saved a lot of lives, but it does not help to solve the conflict.

Even more importantly, humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts need to be more integrated. Humanitarians, diplomats, and civil society actors all working on separate tracks, will not bring the country any further. We all need to work together in this so-called ‘triple nexus’. Take the example of humanitarian cash support. While humanitarians are distributing cash, and amounts per person are distributed based on minimum expenditure baskets, inflation rates, and currency depreciation further flare up due to the conflict. The value evaporates, and with it the humanitarian effort. Things are interlinked. We have to incorporate these interlinkages in the designs of our efforts.

Or take the issue of securely salvaging the Safer tanker, which for me as an Ambassador is a priority. This tanker is a ticking time bomb. It contains four times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez.  It lies in Houthi-controlled waters and hasn’t been maintained for years. At any moment, it could sink or explode, causing an ecological and humanitarian nightmare. We are working together with the UN and other international partners to prevent one of the biggest oil spills in history.

In a way, this integration of efforts reminds me of Dr. Jubari when she says that you cannot separate the physical and mental suffering of GBV survivors from their economic challenges, their social exclusion, and the toxic gender patterns in society. In every individual case, you need to provide medical, legal, and economic assistance in tailor-made support. While at the same work on taboos, gender norms, on governance.

She is absolutely right. We, as an Embassy, obviously play a different role, but we do integrate our development cooperation efforts as much as we can. For example, we just renewed our support of a project that supports survivors of GBV. It focuses on protection, creating safe spaces for women. Parallel to that, it empowers survivors economically. Being physically protected between four walls is one thing. But in the longer run, GBV survivors need to be economically more independent and have their own sources of income.

You represent the Netherlands in Yemen. Don’t you find it striking that Yemen, the country, the crisis, the war, hardly catch the news or people’s attention in the Netherlands? Compared to, for example, Syria or Afghanistan.

Yes, that is striking. It might have to do with the complexity of the conflict. With fatigue, after seven years of war. The newsworthiness is waning. And access to Yemen is so limited, also for journalists, that people don’t hear about the country. The Safer tanker did get some media attention and NOS journalist Daisy Mohr has visited Yemen and did some excellent reporting. But overall, Yemen is very low on the radar.

“The longer Yemen remains a fragmented patchwork of uncontrolled areas, the more it becomes fertile land for extremist and terrorist groups.”

The fact that the number of Yemeni refugees going to Europe is a lot smaller than people coming from Syria or Afghanistan also has something to do with it. Some flee the country, and we also see an increase of asylum seekers in the Netherlands, but overall Yemeni people stay in Yemen. It is very hard to leave the country.

Cordaid’s Yemen conference is a good way to raise more awareness. That awareness is badly needed. First of all, because Yemenis are suffering. And also because the conflict affects the whole region, indeed also the Netherlands. Shipping routes will be blocked when the Safer tanker explodes. If the crisis is not solved, refugee numbers could increase, also in Europe. The longer Yemen remains a fragmented patchwork of uncontrolled areas, the more it becomes fertile land for extremist and terrorist groups. Al Qaeda has been very active in the past. This has global implications.

Read more about Cordaid’s Yemen Conference on December 2nd.

Text and interview by Frank van Lierde