Hans Grundberg: Mediation in Yemen

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Jon Alterman: Hans Grundberg is currently the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen, a position he's served in since 2021. Hans, welcome to Babel.

Hans Grundberg: Thank you very much, it’s my real pleasure to be with you.

Jon Alterman: You are basically a mediator sent by the United Nations (UN) to mediate this long running conflict in Yemen. What does a mediator do?

Hans Grundberg: Usually when you think about mediation, in the most simplified version, you have two parties that are often at war with one another, and mediation is a process whereby a third party assists with their consent to prevent, manage, or resolve the conflict by helping them to develop a mutually acceptable agreement. This is a very simplified version of what mediation is. You will realize that it's a complicated task, and reality is much more complex than that. It's getting especially more and more complex in the world that we're living in.

Often, you're not seeing two parties. You have multiple sets of parties, and parties are often fragmented. Even more so, you will see the involvement of the region, and some international parties as well. Basically, it’s not only mediating between two parties. It's about engaging in serious and as concrete discussions as possible with not only the parties, but a number of different interlocutors in order to move the needle or move the process in one coherent and long-term fashion. Then there's another concept that you mediate between parties with their consent. Consent is a complicated term as well, but it is essentially about trust. Trust is also something that you want to develop between the mediator and the parties.

You also want to develop it between the mediator and the stakeholders, between the mediator and the international community, the members of the security council, some of the members in the region, and other interlocutors that you're engaging with. That trust is long-term, and it's a complicated thing because it requires a long-term investment. It's a very exhaustive thing to develop, and you can lose it very quickly.

Jon Alterman: Why is the Yemen problem a problem the United Nations should be mediating? What are the characteristics that make the United Nations the proper mediator as opposed to people just fighting out a war?

Hans Grundberg: Well, there's nothing that says that the United Nations has a monopoly on mediation, but there is an advantage of having the United Nations as the mediator. The reason is that you get some long-term approach from the United Nations. You get an organization that will engage on a certain conflict with a long-term vision in mind. That won't change depending on the situation in the world. But also, the additional value that you have using the United Nations as a mediating entity is the fact that it's the only universal intergovernmental organization there is. With that comes a certain relative impartiality. I say “relative” because impartiality will always be contested, but you will not find a party that is more impartial than the United Nations. When I mediate, I represent the global community.

In fact, when I mediate in Yemen, my interest is the people of Yemen, is the wellbeing of the people of Yemen. I'm not mediating for any other interest.

Jon Alterman: What tools do you have as a UN mediator? When we think about states—states have armies they can deploy, they can give economic incentives, they have sanctions. States are used to trying to influence other states, other groups. You're from the United Nations, which, as you said, means you have trust. There are good offices, but what tools do you have to both reward and punish people who might be a little reluctant to get to the agreement they need to get to?

Hans Grundberg: You enter into something important here, the United Nations is not a power broker. I do not have the tools of forcing parties to agree by using means of force. That is something that I, as a UN mediator, cannot do. That means that the tools that I have at my disposal are again, the concept of impartiality that allows me to get access to parties that several other representatives of the international community might not, or cannot, or will not want to engage with.

Then again, if I do my work correctly enough, if I do find agreement with the members of the Security Council on the way forward, I can use that unity within the Security Council and within the bodies that the United Nations has at its disposal to help accompany and put pressure on the implementation of the possible peace agreement. That is exactly what we're trying to do.

Obviously, at this particular given moment, when the number of conflicts is multiplying and the divisions on the global level are getting deeper, the ability to reach unity within the UN Security Council is becoming more complex. That is also a large part of the work that the mediator does, making sure that the tools that you have at your disposal are as efficient as possible.

Jon Alterman: Without violating confidences of your current negotiations, could you talk a little bit about the interrelationship between the parties on the ground in Yemen, regional actors, and global actors? How do those talks relate to each other, and how are they distinct?

Hans Grundberg: Here, it comes back a bit to your first question about what the mediator does and doesn't do. This is very true in the concept of the mediation efforts that we're doing in Yemen, and it's also interrelated with a number of other questions and other conflicts that are being mediated. The simplified version I mentioned earlier about mediation being between parties is not there. The more accurate description of what we're having is a multitude of different interrelated discussions that are taking place on different levels, but also between different bodies. Not only necessarily between me as the mediator, but on different levels. I met a couple of months back a professor at Edinburgh University, her name is Christine Bell. She introduced a concept called multi-mediation. It’s an interesting concept because it’s what we're actually engaging on.

It’s making sure that in a situation where you have this multitude of different discussions and negotiations, you ensure that they are geared towards one common goal. That means that mediation is not only mediating between the parties, but it's also very much about coordinating efforts on the way forward so that we make sure that there is one [goal], and all of this relies on the necessity to have one main mediator. If you don't have one main mediator, multi-mediation withers down into a situation where the parties might go into forum shopping.

In the case of Yemen, there are clear, active, ongoing concrete discussions with the parties, that are also added and helped through discussions that the region is having with the parties. That can only be effective if these discussions are being fed to myself and to my office, so that we can put them into the broader context. That brings me back again to the concept of trust. If those regional interlocutors don't trust me as the mediator, they will not feed the type of information I need in order to be effective. So, it all comes together in all these notions that are interrelated and interdependent.

Jon Alterman: It feels like this has changed from the way I remember mediators in the past. Is this evolving? How quickly is it evolving? Where do you think it's evolving toward?

Hans Grundberg: There is a need for broader mediation to update itself and get in tune with the current complex geopolitical environment that we're facing. There's a lot of thinking going on in numerous academic institutions in terms of how to make sure today's mediations are updated given the complexity that we're facing. One thing that I think is clear is that we're moving into a multipolar world where conflicts today are not the type of conflict that we saw yesterday.

That means that solutions today will not be the type of solutions that we saw yesterday. One key aspect that I think has been true even before, but that we understand much better today, is the concept that it's not the agreement that is the solution. Often you talk about how we want a comprehensive agreement in order to solve the conflict in Yemen, for example, but you won't have a comprehensive agreement that will solve the conflict once and for all.

A comprehensive agreement or an agreement itself is a steppingstone towards a long-term settlement, but it's the implementation of that agreement and possibly new agreements following the implementation of that agreement that is the solution—so the solution is a long, drawn period of time. It's not one signature on a paper. This is critical if you want to also value success when it comes to mediation.

Jon Alterman: Could you talk about how you see conflict changing and continuing to change?

Hans Grundberg: What we're seeing today is a situation where conflicts are being more internationalized and where the regions are drawn into conflicts that previously might have been very local or national. You often talk about proxy wars, but that is, from my point of view, an oversimplification of what we're seeing. It's not about proxy wars. It's about national conflicts that are gradually expanded into the region and then draw the attention of the global international community. They then play into a broader set of conflict lines that you have on the global stage.

That's why it's so important that we settle, that we engage, and that we try to settle the conflicts as early as possible, so that they are not being dragged into this very complex situation that we have on a global level or even on a regional level. In the case of Yemen, my mediation is to make sure that the conflict finds a just resolution and that the Yemeni population can once and for all believe that the war is not coming back, and that they have a possibility to normalize their lives.

But obviously that is also hopefully in the interest of the region and the interest of the global community. That's the upside. But that can also be met by a negative spiral where you use the situation in Yemen to your benefit, and then it's drawn into something broader, more complex, and much more difficult to resolve.

Jon Alterman: You've described a complex problem that in many ways is becoming more complex. What kind of team do you have to move forward? I understand you have about a hundred people, a bunch of them do security and logistics, but what's your intellectual team like, how do you structure it, and what are they doing?

Hans Grundberg: I might be the face of mediation in Yemen, but it's a team effort. I have around 20 to 25 people working on substance, and they are divided into different sections. One is a section that deals with following and engaging with Yemenis on the political level. One is engaging on the economic dimension of the conflict. One team is engaging on the military and the security aspect of the conflict.

I also have a senior gender advisor to follow and make sure that we address the notion of inclusivity in the resolution of the conflict. As you see, this team is there and in place to ensure that we have the capacity to assist the Yemenis in the difficult negotiations that will follow a possible agreement. That is what I have on a daily basis.

Then, obviously, you have additional support in the United Nations headquarters in New York, which has its mediation support unit. You also have the UN Department for Political Affairs in New York that we are in close touch with which also contributes to the work that we do. All of this is there in order to generate clear ideas on how this mediation process needs to continue.

Just one example is how I began my mediation efforts a couple of years back. One of the first things that I did was to gather the substantive team that I enumerated. We had a two-day session and we talked about how to establish a long-term vision, and what to achieve that may be acceptable to all sides and the international community. The difficulty of getting to that formulation was about finding something that is equally realistic, but also something that the parties are not shied away by.

Because you can formulate something that is utterly unrealistic and that everyone can agree upon. You can also formulate something that is slightly more realistic, but then the more realistic it becomes, the more difficult it might be to find buy-in. That gives you the long-term direction of the work that you want to do. Then comes the day-to-day basis when you start engaging on the hard work in trying to steer all your efforts, and also the other stakeholders' efforts, towards that goal.

Jon Alterman: It's notable to me that you didn't talk about the humanitarian aspect, which is a large part of the discussion in Washington and around the world about the conflict in Yemen. As I don't need to tell you, many Yemenis are food insecure, there are challenges of disease, and there are concerns that some of the combatants are trying to manipulate humanitarian assistance to advance their war aims. What's the connection between the political work you're doing, the military work you're doing, and the humanitarian concerns that have seized a lot of people in the UN system and around the world?

Hans Grundberg: Obviously, I think one needs to be careful—in order to allow humanitarian actors to be able to deliver humanitarian support as much as possible—of mixing politics with humanitarian action; I think this is necessary. That's been clear in Yemen as well where, despite challenges, as you highlighted, the United Nations and other humanitarian actors have been reasonably good in delivering humanitarian support to the Yemeni population. But obviously the needs are enormous, and they are unfortunately still vast. That is something that I would've wanted to see a change in a long time ago.

I would have wanted to see Yemen transition from a constant need of humanitarian support towards a more development-oriented need, where you can allow donors to engage on more long-term development and reconstruction support to Yemen. But for that to happen, and this is where the intersection comes in, if you want a country to transition, there is an absolute need for a settlement of the conflict. And that settlement needs to be structured, and it needs to also get the broader support of the international community if you want the international community to be helpful in that transition.

Otherwise, you might reach what we have right now, which is an informal truce, but you might not get that much further in the efforts that you're doing. That's why it's so important that we do move forward on getting an agreement in place, because that would also hopefully facilitate not only the delivery of humanitarian support, but also the transition from humanitarian to a more development-oriented support that Yemen would be in need of.

Jon Alterman: You've been in this position for about three years. What are some of the new approaches you're taking because of what you've learned on the job?

Hans Grundberg: I think that that when you look at what characteristics a mediator should have, you often talk of quite straightforward answers, such as the concept of impartiality, of communication skills, and problem-solving abilities. That goes without saying and is pretty straightforward.

But following these three years, there are, I would say other, in my view, even more important qualities that I am not at all saying that I represent, but that I every day try to aspire towards. One is empathy; the concept of empathy is critical. If you can't show a certain amount of empathy or show the parties that you actually do feel with the country or with the issue that you are dealing with, you will not get the amount of trust needed to be able to deliver solutions to the parties to resolve their conflict. That's why you cannot allow yourself to allow that empathy to wind off.

You constantly need to remind yourself and to feel about the issues that you're working on. The other quality is integrity and that is critical as well. You need to show that you are someone you can rely on and that you're not representing any other interest than the interest of the population at stake.

That level of integrity is complicated in a world where the world views are on collision, and this is a simplification obviously, but where the liberal world order is met with a competing world order. And there I think that the concept of integrity becomes even more important.

Finally, there is the concept of courage. You need to be able to present ideas and solutions to the parties that you are aware will not always be met with their liking. You need to be courageous enough to tell large countries, sometimes world powers, things that they don't want to hear. If you're not courageous enough to do that, you won't get the results that you want. Again, I'm not saying that I am representing all these traits, but I'm saying that I try to aspire towards them.

Jon Alterman: Your preparation was you studied economics and you were in business before you became a diplomat. You weren't a Middle East studies nerd. You didn't read 300 books. How did business prepare you, and what other background do you wish you had to do this work effectively?

Hans Grundberg: If you look at my career until now, it's been a combination of the private sector and the work in diplomacy focused on the Middle East. So obviously there’s a basic understanding, and I won't say full, but there's a basic understanding of the situation in the Middle East that follows from years of having worked and lived inside the Middle East.

When it comes to the notion of mediation and negotiation, I think the stint in the private sector in the beginning of my career was a very good school because it is a hard school where you enter into negotiations that are often tough, but also direct, and where you learn how to approach things.

But then coming with the experience that I have from the European Union has also been fantastic. In terms of that within the European Union, you have constant negotiation and constant mediation among member states to reach compromises on the way forward. I’ve been part of the diplomatic core where your role is to make sure that 27 member states are in agreement on the way forward, and you seek agreements and concrete solutions to complex situations.

But coming back to the difference between mediation and negotiation, you can't be effective in mediation unless you understand negotiation. And that, I think, is critical.

Jon Alterman: Hans Grundberg, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Hans Grundberg: Thank you.