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Jul 3, 2014 | Commentary

Security sector reform (SSR) is urgently needed in Yemen in order to prevent the resumption or escalation of armed conflict. Despite rarely being recognised, the country’s army and police are at the centre of several conflicts affecting the country.

Yemen’s southern separationist movement Hiraak was re-energized, and won international sympathy if not support, when the country’s Central Security Forces (CSF) fired on generally peaceful protests in 2013. Earlier this year, the Yemeni military’s crackdown on Al-Dhale governorate in southern Yemen had a similar effect and (however briefly) awoke international concern after army commanders denied humanitarian groups access to around 50,000 Yemenis. There is an urgent need for international actors to work with Yemen’s CSF on managing civil unrest in a manner which dampens rather than fuels tensions.

In the country’s north, the failure of donor-provided technical assistance to Yemen’s security services – and to the country’s Houthi rebels – has undermined security. Here the problem is less about security sector restraint and human rights and more to do with ceasefire-oriented training for state and non-state actors alike. Going back to 2004, the Houthis and Yemeni military have repeatedly signed short-lived ceasefires and peace agreements which have been quickly undermined, as both sides lack the ability to communicate with their forces, implement and monitor ceasefires, and clarify any anticipated or perceived ceasefire violations. Without this sort of basic training, more than half a dozen ceasefires have quickly collapsed. Earlier this year, for instance, one such ceasefire lasted only a few hours.

As the country’s transition continues – and as the government and international community grapple with 1,800 recommendations stemming from the country’s National Dialogue Conference – urgent work is needed on the security sector. Unfortunately this sort of gap-filling support cannot wait for further progress on the transition. It must be tackled as a matter of priority, with the agreement of the Yemeni government, as the country continues to move towards the fraught later stages of its transition, which include not only national elections but also a poorly-conceived referendum on a constitution currently being written.

If Yemen’s security services are not better trained to peacefully manage civil unrest, there is a real potential that elections and the referendum could turn violent and create a political-security crisis capable of throwing the country into the sort of nation-wide conflict it has not seen in recent years (even during the Arab Spring).

Future SSR must build upon initial progress in removing commanders whose primary allegiance are to particular factions rather than the state. Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi deserves a great deal of credit for these initial, courageous steps. But now it is time to begin a broader process that includes de-politicisation as well as technical engagement. This process should be informed by the relatively limited amount of past research on SSR in Yemen, and it should go beyond US-led efforts to turn Yemen’s military into a counter-terrorism force. Key points to consider include:

  • Complement counter-terrorism focused security sector activities, which will continue with US backing, with a greater focus on community policing and the peaceful management of civil unrest. This will focus less on coercive force and more on soft skills such as communication, community engagement, and human rights.
  • Focus a greater level of resources on Yemen’s police, which was widely perceived to be ineffectual during recent conflicts, including in Abyan in 2011-12. During that conflict, the Yemeni police reportedly fled as al-Qaeda-linked fighters from Ansar al-Sharia stormed the province. While deeply problematic and weak, the police force has been subjected to less political influence than the Armed Forces and, hence, could be easier to tackle. Any reforms must include further reforms of police pay grades in order to dis-incentivise petty corruption and attract new recruits.
  • Study and seek to mitigate the commercial interests of senior Yemeni military officials, particularly in and through the Yemen Economic Corporation (YEC), a government-owned institution that has often decimated private enterprise and served to enrich senior civilian and military figures. In addition to being a symbol of corruption, YEC reportedly also helps key figures finance their own security forces and buy loyalty among particular military units.
  • Avoid deploying the traditional playbook with regards to SSR and post-conflict transitions. Broader anti-corruption efforts may need to wait, and those calling for the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration of Yemeni rebels do so without an appreciation for the impossibility of the task. Likewise, pushing ahead with transitional justice in Yemen risks creating divisions and fomenting protests at a time when the country’s security services are ill-equipped to manage them peacefully. There is a lot to do, both in the security and justice sectors, but prioritisation will be key.

The UN Security Council, which has thus far demonstrated an impressive degree of unity in its approach to Yemen, should back this process and continue to threaten sanctions against those who complicate the transition – or who undermine reforms in the security sector. This step is particularly important given that particular units within the Yemeni military continue to be under the influence (if not outright control) of particular elites, including former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the powerful Al-Ahmar family.


Steven Zyck is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Security Governance, co-editor of Stability: International Journal of Security & Development and a Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute in London.