FBA secondee striving for improved situation in Yemen

Seven million people on the verge of famine. Cholera epidemics. A health care in ruins. And full scale war. During summer Yemen has reached the headlines after a long time far from the public eye. Diplomat Maria Velasco is based in Amman, the capital of Jordan, and works with UN’s mediation effort in Yemen.

– The situation is very serious. It is a complex crisis where the humanitarian situation has been aggravated by the military conflict. The whole region risks being affected if a solution is not reached, says Maria Velasco who is seconded by FBA.

As Senior Judicial Adviser at the Office of the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Yemen she works on the agreements that the parties negotiate about, among other things. The ambition is to reach a peace agreement. But to succeed the team first tries to solve various individual matters, as access to the port Hodeida and payment of wages for employees in the public administration. Maria Velasco also contributes to the reports that the Special Envoy regularly provides for the UN Security Council.

The aim is to end the conflict and have a new constitution approved. Respect for human rights and international humanitarian law is essential on the road towards this goal.

Negotiations have been slow during spring. When the Special Envoy visited Yemen in May his convoy came under fire. Now attempts are ongoing to set up new talks.

Several groups that fight for power in Yemen receive support from international actors, some demand increased independence. Moreover, terrorist groups like Al Qaida have gained ground due to the conflict. It is a challenge to make the parties realize that a continuation of the conflict only leads to more suffering and makes it more complicated to find a solution.

The incentives for peace have not been strong enough, Maria Velasco states.
– Many profit on the war economy and there are no strong institutions to fall back on.

Still, she is hopeful about the possibilities to achieve peace. It is about building trust among the parties and make them take responsibility for the future of the country.

When a peace agreement is in place a number of challenges remains. There are huge amounts of weapons circulating, the education level is low and water is scarce.

The lack of water is one of the reasons for the rapid spread of cholera, but also a source of conflict. It is not unusual that children miss out on schooling because they have to stay home and guard the well.  

Yemen is unknown to many Swedes. But Maria Velasco did not hesitate when FBA advertised the post as Senior Judicial Adviser to the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Yemen. She has worked with international humanitarian law at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs with a focus on the Middle East. She is also a strong supporter of the UN.

– It feels important to work with Yemen since it is such a difficult conflict and at the same time forgotten. It is an interesting mediation effort that hopefully can lead to a breakthrough and contribute to an improved situation, she says.

Around forty employees from different countries, all Arabic-speaking, work at the office in Amman. Jordan is one of the more safe and stable countries in the region which provides a good base for UN bodies and non-governmental organizations with operations in the area.

The Special Envoy meets with all parties involved in the conflict both in Yemen and abroad, as well as representatives for different governments and civil society. To get support for the work discussions have to include a broad-based range of actors. A strong and unified support from the UN Security Council is also crucial to achieve results.

Women have a difficult situation in Yemen. But they make up half of the population, so in order to achieve sustainable peace they have to be part of all discussions. This is not always easy, Maria Velasco acknowledges.

Most important right now, she explains, is to have a cease-fire in order to be able to negotiate a peace agreement. The Special Envoy can suggest possible solutions, but in the end it is the parties who decide how the process should move forward.

Maria Velasco has worked abroad before, but it is the first time she is accompanied by her family. It is a long time wish, to let their children experience living in another country.

– It is very exciting and rewarding – like an adventure! You get to experience so much together and become united as a family.

Both daughters are of school age. In the beginning it was pretty tough with a new school and teaching in another language. But they got used to it quickly and now enjoy life in Jordan.

– They have learnt English and made new friends from many different countries. School offers many activities in the afternoon and possibilities to practice sports. The country is beautiful and there are plenty of exciting places to visit.

The red desert in Wadi Rum is a popular excursion, says Maria Velasco. There you can sleep in bedouin tents and do sandboarding.

Photo: UN Photo/Ian Steele

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