World

U.S., UN hope to build momentum for peace talks to end Yemen war

The Trump administration is calling for an urgent halt to the Saudi-Iran proxy war in Yemen and the start of negotiations in November toward a political settlement to end the yearslong conflict that has killed over 10,000 people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

UN asks Sweden to host talks that would bring together Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels

U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, right, speaks next to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 24. Pompeo and Mattis, separately, stepped up their public calls for a ceasefire in Yemen to help negotiate and end to the war. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

The Trump administration is calling for an urgent halt to the Saudi-Iran proxy war in Yemen and the start of negotiations in November toward a political settlement to end the yearslong conflict that has killed over 10,000 people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

The renewed push for a political solution in Yemen comes amid growing criticism of U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia's Yemen air campaign in the aftermath of the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged a ceasefire, specifically citing missile and drone strikes into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. The Houthis are supported by Iran.

As well, the airstrikes by the Arab coalition, backed by the U.S., "must cease in all populated areas in Yemen," said Pompeo.

Pompeo's written statement Tuesday evening came shortly after Defence Secretary Jim Mattis made similar statements in an appearance at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

We've got to move toward a peace effort here. And we can't say we're going to do it sometime in the future.- U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis

Mattis was more specific than Pompeo in his call for urgent movement toward a political solution to the fighting. He said a ceasefire should take effect within 30 days.

"We've got to move toward a peace effort here. And we can't say we're going to do it sometime in the future. We need to be doing this in the next 30 days," Mattis said.

Mattis called for demilitarization of Yemen's border with Saudi Arabia "so that the Saudis and the Emirates do not have to worry about missiles coming into their homes and cities and airports." He also said measures should be taken to "ensure that all Iranian-supplied missiles to the Houthis" are put under "international watch."

Controversial recertification

Saudi Arabia is leading a Western-backed alliance of Sunni Muslim Arab states trying to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, ousted from the capital Sanaa by the Iran-aligned Houthis in 2015.

The United States and other Western powers provide arms, refuelling and intelligence to the alliance.

Pompeo said last month that he had certified to the U.S. Congress that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were working to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen, a move greeted with skepticism from human rights activists and critics after high-profile incident in which dozens of children on a school bus were killed in August.

Democratic representative Ro Khanna of California called the certification a "farce."

"The Saudis deliberately bombed a bus full of children," said Khanna. "There is only one moral answer, and that is to end our support for their intervention in Yemen."

A woman holds a malnourished boy in a treatment centre at the al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen on Oct. 6. Millions are at risk of starvation in the country, the UN and international aid organizations have warned. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Sweden's foreign minister Margot Wallstrom confirmed Wednesday the United Nations has asked the country if it "could be a place for the UN envoy to gather the parties in this conflict."

Wallstrom told Sweden's news agency TT Sweden would be "happy about it" but that nothing is definite.

"We have always supported [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths, both in the United Nations and in the EU," she said.

Mattis said Tuesday that the Saudis and Emiratis appeared ready to embrace efforts by Griffiths to find a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Griffiths on Wednesday welcomed the U.S. calls for immediate resumption of the political process and said the United Nations remains committed "to bring the Yemeni parties to the negotiations table within a month."

"I urge all concerned parties to seize this opportunity to engage constructively with our current efforts to swiftly resume political consultations to agree on a framework for political negotiations, and confidence-building measures, in particular enhancing the capacities of the Central Bank of Yemen, the exchange of prisoners and the reopening of Sanaa airport," Griffiths said in a statement.

Three-quarters of Yemen's population, or 22 million people, require aid and 8.4 million people are on the brink of starvation.

"This is currently the biggest humanitarian crisis we have in the world," Wallstrom told TT.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom stressed that nothing was definite, but that Sweden would be 'happy' to host Yemen peace talks. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

At the beginning of 2017, the UN and its partners provided aid to three million hungry Yemenis. Since then, assistance has been scaled up, reaching eight million people last month because of generous funding from donors, but far below the number who may need it.

Earlier this month, Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, warned of "an imminent and great big famine engulfing Yemen."

"The situation is now much graver" than earlier thought because "of the sheer number of people at risk," he told the Security Council, warning that Yemen's famine could be "much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives."

Mattis said he met Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir during a conference in Bahrain on Saturday and discussed the Khashoggi killing.

Asked whether the U.S. would limit its support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Mattis said on Sunday: "We'll continue to support the defence of the kingdom."

A group of five Republican senators led by Marco Rubio of Florida, meanwhile, cited the situation in Yemen as well as the Khashoggi killing as reasons for calling on the administration to halt ongoing negotiations with Saudi Arabia on a civilian nuclear energy agreement.

Among them, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has proposed legislation that would stop arms sales to the Saudis.

Canada has also faced questions regarding military sales to the Saudis.

Canada continues to fulfil its contract to supply the kingdom with light armoured vehicles built by General Dynamic Land Systems Canada, a military supplier in London, Ont.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that while the Liberal government is open to suspending military permits for human rights or other reasons, he has claimed the details of the LAV contract signed by the previous government make  leaving or suspending the agreement prohibitive.

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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