UN probe into human-rights abuses in Yemen offers glimmer of hope

Disease has spread, born of the dire conditions in which 80% of the country’s population languishes.

PRO-GOVERNMENT FIGHTERS gather next to a tank they use in the fighting against Houthi fighters in the southwestern city of Taiz in Yemen. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRO-GOVERNMENT FIGHTERS gather next to a tank they use in the fighting against Houthi fighters in the southwestern city of Taiz in Yemen.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The long-running humanitarian crisis in Yemen has reached a critical point. According to United Nations estimates, more than 17 million people now face malnutrition and seven million are on the brink of starvation with rising food insecurity caused by the violent conflict and resulting instability.
Disease has spread, born of the dire conditions in which 80% of the country’s population languish. More than half a million people battle cholera and the dilapidated health facilities cannot meet the demand. Desperately needed aid remains out of reach, as a blockade continues to keep imported goods out of the hands of the most vulnerable and most in need.
As documented by civil society, the human-rights and humanitarian situation in Yemen has reached a critical juncture where one of the only remaining solutions for the international community is to initiate an independent investigation into the situation.
On September 29 – more than two years into the crisis – the UN finally responded to pleas for an international inquiry into the widespread violations of human-rights and humanitarian law. The UN Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution to establish a Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts (Group of Experts).
The mandate of the Group of Experts is to monitor and report on human rights in Yemen; undertake a “comprehensive examination” of human-rights violations; “establish the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations” of human-rights and other international law; and “where possible, to identify those responsible.”
Because of the state’s failure to protect and the numerous violations of civic freedoms, Yemen has now been downgraded from “repressed” to “closed” by the CIVICUS Monitor, which rates countries based on how well they enable people to form and operate organizations, protest in the streets and express their opinions. Countries in the “closed” category are places where an atmosphere of fear and violence prevails, where state and powerful non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, seriously injure and kill people with impunity for attempting to exercise their fundamental civic freedoms. Any criticism of the ruling authorities is severely punished and there is virtually no media freedom.
Since 2016, CIVICUS and its research partner, Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), have been reporting on violations of civic space in Yemen, providing regular updates which have contributed to determining the country’s downgraded civic space rating.
The country had initially been rated “repressed,” falling in the category of countries where civic space is heavily constrained.
However, the data and reports collected over the past year have shown deteriorating conditions for human-rights defenders amid a general decline in the state’s respect for and protection of freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly.
With limited resources, civil society organizations remain few in number, and with fighting, air-strikes and the other dangers of war, peaceful assemblies are sporadic.
Freedom of expression has been the most severely restricted in Yemen. Journalists have been caught in the crossfire while risking their lives to report on the level of violence.
Human-rights defenders and independent reporters are prime targets for the government and rebel groups because they are the only ones on the front lines providing crucial information to international human-rights organizations and media.
GCHR’s 2016 report “Let Them Speak” documented more than 100 freedom of expression violations in the country, including murders, abductions, disappearances, detentions and assaults of media workers and human-rights defenders speaking out about atrocities committed during the civil war. A report in 2017 by GCHR and Mwatana Organization for Human Rights found that, as a result of this assault on the media and critical voices, independent media outlets have become almost extinct in Yemen.
As Khalid Ibrahim, GCHR’s executive director, said: “human-rights defenders struggle to carry out their work safely and effectively but they bravely carry on so that the world can learn of the terrible situation in Yemen. It’s a relief that the UN has listened to what they have been saying and launched an inquiry into rampant human rights violations. Without support from the international community, the violations will continue.”
Through the campaign for a #YemenInquiryNow, GCHR and over 100 other NGOs and UN special procedures, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on the UN Human Rights Council to implement an inquiry with the hope that it will serve as a mechanism to hold perpetrators of violence, repression and human rights abuses accountable for their crimes.
Ensuring accountability and ending impunity will rebuild respect for the rule of law in the country, which is greatly needed to re-open space for civil society and activists to provide vital humanitarian assistance, advocate for citizens’ rights and push forward a crucial peace process.
Inquiries and investigations, such as those carried out over atrocities in Syria, rightly have their critics. However, these actions by the international human-rights community increase attention, concern and focus on a country – something Yemen badly needs. The international human rights community stood up to Saudi Arabia and other nations opposing the inquiry.
The great hope is that this approach will ultimately contribute to curbing the conflict and easing the suffering of millions of innocent Yemeni citizens.
Gulf Centre for Human Rights is an independent NGO that provides protection and support for human-rights defenders in the Gulf region and neighboring countries.
CIVICUS, the world alliance for citizen participation, is a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world.
The author works at the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.