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The Meaning of Reconciliation

This initiative was inspired by a desire to explore what local reconciliation would look like in Yemen. It was informed by a hypothesis that it would mean different things in different places given the history and dynamics of the war. However, the results indicate that the perceptions about reconciliation are broadly similar in all governorates.

Respondents were offered eight ways of thinking about reconciliation, which were selected as indicators of what might be called ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ reconciliation. At the thin end of the spectrum, simply ending the violence could be seen as reconciliation, an opinion shared by 22–30 per cent of participants (see Figure 3); in all but one governorate this answer scored the highest. At the other end of the spectrum, the most demanding (‘thickest’) manifestations would include establishing genuine respect for political differences and trusting state institutions. Acknowledgement, restitution and remorse came in between, as did the idea that reconciliation might involve coming to terms with one’s own pain and loss – ideas that often appear in various forms in transitional justice efforts.  In Hajjah the primary understanding of reconciliation was restitution (27 per cent). What is intriguing and even encouraging is the spread of answers on the other ideas.

Figure 2. Meaning of Reconciliation, Top Four Answers per Governorate

After ending the violence, the two most popular notions of reconciliation were building trust in state institutions – perhaps one of the most sophisticated and demanding ideas – and restitution. In Al-Maharah, building trust in institutions was only 1 per cent behind ending violence (26 vs. 25 per cent); it ranked second in Ma’rib, Al-Dhale’e, Taiz, Aden and Al-Hodeidah. 

Restitution often figures prominently in concepts of reconciliation, as victims may interpret this as a tangible form of recompense. In Hajjah, restitution ranked first, and in Sana’a and Shabwah it was identified as the second-most popular idea of reconciliation. Respecting political differences ranked third in Al-Maharah, Al-Dhale’e, Hajjah, Al-Hodeidah and Aden. Most individuals will want or seek multiple approaches to reconciliation,,.

In considering established ideas of transitional justice and its aims, there was remarkably little appetite for reconciliation based on acknowledgment by those who had done wrong (average between 4–8.6 per cent. Even the notion that reconciliation might involve dealing with one’s own pain and experience attracted more support in all five governorates. While relatively few people overall identified this as the preferred understanding of reconciliation (maximum of 11.6 per cent), it registered fifth out of eight options in eight of the nine governorates, above acknowledgement and remorse in each area. Al-Dhale’e is the exception, where acknowledgment scored higher. While much more analysis is needed, these figures coincide with a growing perception of the need to take post-war mental health and trauma more seriously. Interviewees in Al-Maharah suggested creating programmes and a project to deal with the psychological effects of the war that could also encourage reconciliation among all segments of society. When given the opportunity to discuss in a more open format, like the community dialogues and focus groups, participants in most governorates distinguished between intra-Yemeni reconciliation and external reconciliation with and between regional actors.

In all nine governorates, a strong majority (79–92 per cent) favoured national-scale reconciliation rather than local only (Figure 4). For instance, many interviewees from Sana’a leaned towards national reconciliation (as opposed to local) and believed this would lead to or at least support regional and local reconciliation. In some ways contrasting this finding, interviewees from Shabwah affiliated with the STC considered southern independence a prerequisite to reconciliation. Similarly, some interviewees from Al-Dhale’e reiterated that there is no returning to a united Yemen, and maintained that part of the recourse should be a political agreement that gives the ‘South’ its independence. Interviewees in Shabwah, Aden and Al-Maharah, although recognising the need for context-specific solutions, indicated an interest in other countries’ experiences of reconciliation. 

Figure 3. National vs. Local Reconciliation

Note: Percentages are based on answers to survey Q26: ‘Are you more interested in achieving reconciliation on a national scale in all of Yemen or achieving it on a local scale only?’

Feelings of political and economic marginalisation led focus groups in Shabwah and community dialogues in Al-Maharah to emphasise the importance of fair representation and involving all political forces in the path to reconciliation. Similarly, interviewees from Hajjah, who consider their governorate to be one of the most marginalised, proposed addressing this issue by ensuring participation, representation, and sharing local and national resources. Sana’a interviewees expressed a great willingness to participate in a comprehensive national reconciliation process in the hope of ending the discrimination and regionalism fuelled by the war. According to the focus groups there, racial discrimination has spread throughout the governorate, leading to the marginalisation and exclusion of those who are not Hashemites, and the replacement of public officials with unqualified Houthi elements.

Despite the tribal nature of some parts of Yemeni society, most respondents in roughly half of the governorates (five of nine) did not believe traditional/local methods of reconciliation were sufficient to deal with human rights violations and move beyond the conflict; in none of the nine governorates did the majority consider them more than partly sufficient. Interviewees in Aden and Al-Hodeidah did not support the adoption of traditional methods of reconciliation. In Shabwah and Al-Maharah, interviewees cited tribal revenge and other expressions of tribalism as hindering reconciliation. In Al-Maharah and Ma’rib, interviewees indicated that tribes, through the sheikhs and social dignitaries, could still play a role in reconciliation and even in addressing human rights violations. 

Interviewees from Hajjah expected several factors to impede peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts including tribal revenge, partisan fanaticism, continuation of human rights violations, and the Houthis’ rejection of all political solutions. In the Sana’a focus groups, ‘war merchants’ were listed as possible spoilers of reconciliation efforts due to the risk that they seek to preserve their own interests and keep the war economy going. They also highlighted that the long war further complicates matters as grievances persist within communities. The focus groups in Sana’a and Al-Dhale’e both criticised the focus of the United Nations and the international community on the leaders of the parties to the conflict and their lack of attention to the demands of the general public who are most affected by the war. According to most of the participants from Al-Dhale’e, the best way to achieve reconciliation and consolidate the peace process would be to identify the needs of those affected by the war and include their demands and views in the peace process.