Situation of Human Rights in Yemen
Dharmesh Khandelwal & Maitrii Dani*
Yemen is one of the 27 human rights priority countries included in the latest annual FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) Human Rights Report. It is party to eight of the nine core international human rights treaties. It was ranked 154 out of 187 countries in the 2013 UN Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index. The fragile transition government that succeeded President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 following mass protests failed to address multiple human rights challenges in 2013 and 2014. Violations in context of legally sanctioned discrimination against women, child offenders facing death penalty, child marriage, non-accountability for the previous governments’ human rights violations, restrictions on the media, use of the death penalty, etc. all persisted. The OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights) undertook a mission from 22nd-30th June, 2012 which was conducted in close coordination with the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Yemen. In March, 2013, five hundred and sixty five representatives of political parties, women, youth and civil societies launched a national dialogue process which was slated to produce recommendations within six months to guide the subsequent constitutional drafting process regarding the nature of the state. The political, security and humanitarian conditions, however, deteriorated in 2014, particularly in the second part of the year. In the annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2015, he covers the period from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015, particularly in the context of deterioration in the security situation in Yemen since September 2014.
What are Human Rights?
Human Rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Saleh was forced to step aside in 2012 following a year of deadly nationwide protests against his three-decade rule.
Types of human rights violations in Yemen
Women and girls
In spite of the Yemeni constitution of 1994, which stipulates equal rights for both men and women of Yemen, women are still struggling with various constraints and secondary status. With a female literacy rate of 35 percent, female to male income ratio of 30:100 and the country being ranked 134 globally in education attainment for women, Yemen has been deemed the worst place to live as a woman. 
Women in Yemen face severe discrimination in law and in practice. They have minimal rights to education, marriage, and healthcare and are denied many basic human rights. The illiteracy rate among men is 30% and 60% in women which makes Yemen the country with the largest educational gap between men and women. Yemeni women are not allowed to move out for getting education or job and therefore they are left with no or very little opportunity to gain their own freedom or economic status. Many women there do not even have identification cards or voter status.
Yemeni women cannot marry without the permission of their male guardian and within their marriage they do not have equal rights to custody, inheritance or divorce and also require permission of husband or father to travel or to get a passport. Yemen has one of the worst records of child marriage in the world. 48 percent of women in Yemen are married by the time they are 18, and many of these marriages have brides as young as eight years old.
Women in Yemen also suffer from poor healthcare conditions. They are denied many healthcare rights which result in serious pregnancy complications and many other health problems. According to a survey, one in every 39 women in Yemen dies in childbirth and she has only a one-in-five chance of being attended by a midwife. In most cases the husband decides women’s fertility and it is also very hard for women to obtain contraception or to take operation without husband’s permission. Lack of women’s decision-making in their pregnancy and access to healthcare services is one of the main reasons of Yemen’s high child mortality rate and its growing population.
In politics also there is vast gender gap in Yemen; there are only one woman MP out of 301 members and 35 women representatives in the local council out of 6000. Not only this, women are regularly the victims of arbitrary arrest like getting picked up for “immoral acts” like smoking or eating in a restaurant with a ‘boyfriend’ and it is not only the police who can make such arrests; power is invested in all kinds of men from the minister of the interior to local neighborhood chiefs, even coastguards.
Women deserve to have equal human rights globally, and the lack of rights in Yemen is a matter that needs to be recognized and solved.
The condition of children in Yemen has significantly deteriorated since the intensification of the conflict, particularly since March 2015. According to reports at least 505 children have died and 702 have been injured during the six months since Saudi-led air strikes targeting Iran-backed Houthi rebels began in March to defend exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Children have been affected numerous times because of the war and their conditions are deteriorating day by day.
Education of children is also affected at a very large scale in Yemen. More than a quarter of children are uneducated in Yemen. The presence of armed forces in the country makes travel to school difficult and dangerous. The children are terrified at the idea of crossing the roads in Yemen to go to school. The parents, who are often just as frightened as their children, often let them stay at home. Furthermore, schools are also vulnerable to the armed groups who don’t hesitate in pointing their guns at the schools for intimidating the opposite parties. According to OHCHR there had been a significant increase in child abductions, with at least 81 documented cases of children abducted by different groups between January and March 2015. Thus, for the security of the children schools are left with no other option than to close the schools.
Children in Yemen are also engaged in the worst form of child labor including the armed conflict. Based on data from 2013, the national average child labor rate was 23 percent, although there are significant variations across governorates and this rate has likely increased since then because of the continued political instability and economic rises. Children are also vulnerable to recruitment in ongoing armed conflicts. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) documented several cases of children being used by armed groups. In 2014, 157 cases of children allegedly being used for military purposes by Houthis and non-state armed groups were reported. In March, 2015 children who were seen carrying weapons at the checkpoint and elsewhere were documented.
Children’s rights in Yemen need to be protected and promoted with adequate programs in education, protection and survival.
Attacks on journalists
The right to freedom of expression in Yemen has been under siege. The reports of the government describe Yemen’s media strategy as one of “guaranteeing press freedom” and “safeguarding the dignity of journalists and writers” but in reality the condition of media is very serious. Yemen is found at the bottom end of international press freedom rankings, and journalists working for independent outlets have been subjected to a lot of restrictions, detention, threats, and attacks.
The Yemeni law places very vague prohibitions on the types of news that can be published. The authorities have used the law’s article 103 to censor the independent press. It prohibits criticism of the head of state as well as the publication of any articles that “might spread a spirit of dissent and division among the people,” or that “leads to the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni revolution, [or is] prejudicial to national unity or the image of the Yemeni, Arab, or Islamic heritage.” The minister of information also has the power to shut down any news paper who he may feel has been “issued or circulated in violation” of the Press and Publications Law.
OHCHR has documented dozens of cases of violations of the right to freedom of expression in Yemen, including incidents where journalists had been subjected to threats and physical attacks. On 18th September 2014, members of the popular committee stormed the state television station in Sana’a and seized the control of state-run television and of the national news agency. On 22 January 2015, the Popular Committees took control of the Aden State television station and suspended broadcasts. The Popular Committees have exercised complete control over the State television broadcasts since. OHCHR has also received credible allegations that, from 21 January to 19 February 2015, at least 17 journalists were illegally detained and were physically abused by members of the Popular Committees, eight of whom had been detained repeatedly in previous months.
Violations of media freedom in Yemen involve not only the seizure of newspapers, arrests of journalists, and other such forms of persecution, but also efforts to ensure that the media practice self-censorship and do not cross “red lines”—topics that are off-limits and which will lead to the confiscation of the issue, or even arrest and prosecution of the journalist or editor.
According to the reports of human rights watch the government for several times has attempted to prevent the news about the details of the conflict from becoming public by preventing journalists and humanitarian aid workers from going to the conflict zone, by threatening journalists not to report on the conflict, by disconnecting number of mobile telephone numbers, and by arresting persons who transmitted information about the impact of the fighting, or who could have such information because they had recently left the area.
Human Rights Watch has also documented the beatings, harassment and arbitrary detention of scores of bloggers as well as television and print journalists since 2008 for their coverage of events in Yemen. Gha’id Nasr Ali, a correspondent in southern Rafdan for Al-Shari’ and Al-Thawri newspapers, told Human Rights Watch about many occasions on which security agents had threatened, beaten or detained him.
Attacks on the freedom of expression had continued since a long time now, whether it be the act of Press and Publication Court to sentenced Sami Ghalib to prison, attacks on journalists during the 2011 protests against President Saleh or in protest in Sana’a in February 2011, right freedom of expression has always been taken away from the people of Yemen it is high time now to do something about it.
Enforced detentions, arbitrary arrest and detentions
The constitution of Yemen (Article 48d) states that at the time of arrest, the accused has the right to inform one person immediately of his arrest and of any court order extending his detention. And if the arrested person is unable to designate a specific person, his relatives or whoever it may concern, should be notified. But instead of these laws arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearances in political security, detention for months or even years before arraignment are common in flagrant violations of the international human rights standards and the constitution of Yemen.
No Right to Fast Trial
The cases of persons detained for prolonged period of time without any trial and charges are numerous in Yemen. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has issued several opinions on arbitrary detentions. The national security authority and the department of anti-terrorism in 2002 partnered with the political security authority to carry out the waves of arrests, detaining hundreds of suspects and their relatives for long periods of time. Cases of enforced disappearances may last a few months, or several years and some suspects were also extra judicially executed.
Inhuman Treatment during Detention
Many cases were recorded in May, 2008 during the events known as the “Bani Hashish”, when a group of Houthis seized Rajam Mountain in Bani Hashish district (40 kms North East of the capital Sana’a). Violent clashes with the armed forces led to casualties on both sides. In order to control the situation the government not only arrested the people who participated but also arrested whoever happened to be in the area at that time, as well as family members of the suspects.
Yehia Ali Abdullah Luqman and his nephew Ibrahim Mohamed Ali Luqman were arrested while they were in the Bani Hashish area in May 2008 and were not heard from for 3 months after the Bani Hashish events. Their family discovered that they had suffered some wounds during the conflict.
In another case, Abd Al Rahman Yehia Al Ahgy, also got arrested during his stay in Bani Hashish and was found by his family after three months of searching. When they found him, his body was in a very bad condition, he was barely able to speak, and shrapnel fragments still remained in his head. His injuries received no medical attention.
Numerous cases like these are happening daily in Yemen and when the families of these detainees search for their loved ones, they are sent away by Security officers who completely deny their presence in the facilities. Meanwhile, the disappeared person is relentlessly subjected to psychological and physical torture and ill-treatment. Illegal methods are also used by the security officers to catch the suspects. The condition is so bad that many of the detainees in central jail are there for more than two years, with no case brought against them.
Provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure regulate the general proceedings for conducting arrests and Art.70 to 83 prohibits the infliction of physical or psychological harm to procure a confession or for any other reason. Despite of this people are tortured in detention and no investigations are brought against them.
In 2011, 22 men were arrested by the security forces. These men were tortured and forced to confess, sometimes to crimes that happened before they were even born. They were electrocuted, beaten, starved, deprived of sleep, deprived of basic health care, their finger nails would be removed and they would be hung by their arms for more than eight hours at a time. They would be allowed a bathroom break for only three minutes every 24 hours. While in the cell, they would have to urinate in the same bottle in which they were served their water. Not only this, they were also tortured psychologically. They were told that the security personnel would rape their wives and mothers or daughters if they don’t confess. And this not a special story, every detainee is treated this way in Yemen.
Yemeni courts also do not take the allegations of torture seriously, investigate them or have forensic physicians validate them. Examining the reasoning for court decisions in cases where torture claims were made indicate that such allegations are not taken seriously by judges. Hundreds of “suspects” who were detained for months or years were never informed of the charges against them. The disregard demonstrated by judges towards the possible occurrence of torture raises serious questions about their integrity and independence from political and security organs. This doubt is fortified by the fact that many positions of leadership in judicial institutions are taken up by individuals from security or military backgrounds.
Definitely Yemen failed to “take immediate steps to ensure that arrests and detentions are carried out under independent and impartial judicial supervision” as recommended by the CAT Committee in 2004.
Annual FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) Human Rights Report
Human rights priority countries according to this report also include countries like Afghanistan and Burma apart from Yemen. Of countries in Middle East and North Africa the FCO report identified Iran, Iraq and Yemen among others as “countries of concern” (countries where standards of human rights are of particular concern to the FCO). However, there exists an element of subjectivity in making the final decision on the countries of concern. The level of UK influence in a country, and the impact on its interests there, are factors in determining the final designation.
For human rights conditions to improve in Yemen, the Government needs to work in partnership with Civil Society Organizations. The CP (Conflict Pool) funds work in Yemen to increase the capacity of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to work with Government representatives to promote more gender-sensitive security provisions. In March, 2014, Yemen had more than 8,300 registered CSOs, both genuinely independent and quasi-governmental. The Government has been working since June, 2014 toward setting up a system to help coordinate the activities of non-governmental and Civil Society Organizations since the ‘Partnership for Development Knowledge Conference’ in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, which brought together members of the Government and CSOs. The World Bank Group (WBG) is also committed to working with the Government and the full range of Yemeni civil society to help foster this partnership. The Charitable Society for Social Welfare (CSSW) is perhaps the best resourced CSO in the country. However, there still exists widespread official distrust of CSOs that are seen as meddling in politics.
Throughout 2012, Yemen failed to meet its international human rights commitments in most areas, notably on juvenile execution and detention of political prisoners. UK communities that are most at risk of FGM (Female Genital Mutation) include Somali and Kenyan women and girls apart from Yemeni women and girls. The Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, 2014 measured the perceived level of public sector corruption in the country and valued it at being highly corrupt. Also, the Human Development Index (HDI) which is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education and income indices published by the United Nations Development Program also gave a low value to the country.  Yemen has the highest value (0.733) on the Gender Inequality Index (GII) indicating poor performance.
A new UN Regime was also established in February, 2014 which included measures targeting individuals responsible for Human Rights abuses in Yemen. Yemen was also one of the 42 countries apart from Afghanistan and Vietnam which were examined by the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
The UK ambassador to Yemen published a series of blogs to raise awareness of human rights issues, including women’s rights, corruption, conflict and the protection of civilians and refugees and raised these in her meetings with political parties. The UK took a leading role in restarting the Friends of Yemen process, which the foreign secretary co-chairs with his Saudi and Yemeni counterparts.
Following a thorough review of the changing political and security environment in Yemen that has significantly affected implementation of World Bank Projects, all missions to Yemen by the World Bank have been suspended. Before this suspension, however, the World Bank had already created 74 months of job opportunities in the country.
International Human Rights Treaties
The peaceful popular revolution that broke out in early 2011 constituted a turning point in the history of Yemen and lead to fundamental changes and events that directly affected the various components of the State and Society in a number of ways. The on-going armed conflict is taking a terrible toll on civilians, with the casualties count going till 7,655 civilians from March 26, 2015 to October 16, 2015. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is linked to food and fuel-price hikes and rising incidences of poverty. Extreme poverty continues to affect a large number a Yemenis, including a disproportionate number of women. A lot of changes have been underway in Yemen since 1999 like greater freedom for expression of women, greater awareness of human rights and the like. The Nationality Act of Yemen allows Yemeni women who are married to foreigners to pass on their nationality to their children.
Events of 2011 brought to the forefront human rights issues. A national and inclusive National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that began on 18th March, 2013 marks a critical process leading to a new Constitution and the holding of the general elections in February, 2014. It has to be noted that there have been no national, competitive elections in Yemen for nearly a decade, the last one being the 2006 Presidential election. The issues put for discussion at this conference include good governance, State-building, development of the army and security services, the independence of institutions, rights and freedoms, increasing gender equality, ending child marriage and other issues of national concern. A draft National Human Rights Strategy was prepared in compliance with the outcomes of this Conference and Yemen’s international human rights commitments. In September, 2014 a Peace and National Partnership Agreement was signed calling for commitment to implementing the outcomes of the National Dialogue, to be led by a new prime minister and a new technocratic government with the Houthi militia holding positions at major check points.
In accordance with the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified on May 1, 1991 by the country, on the involvement of children in armed conflict, the Government of the Republic of Yemen declared its commitment to retaining 18 years as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment into the Yemeni armed forces. Accordingly, a Presidential Decree was issued in November, 2012 prohibiting the recruitment of children in the Yemeni armed forces. The Higher Council for Motherhood and Childhood has been tasked with the overall coordination of the implementation of the Protocol. The council, however, lacks the technical, human and financial resources required to fulfill its responsibilities. Also, the awareness about the protocol is low.
The Country also ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography in 2004 and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol thereto in March, 2009 and also the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in February, 2010. Yemen also created a national committee against child smuggling. There are still, however, various draft laws that are pending adoption before the House of Representatives hampering the implementation of obligations under the Optional Protocol.
In 2013, Yemen ratified the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Yemen is also party to all four Geneva Conventions and the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects. The UNCT (UN Country Team) finalized the Peacebuilding Priority Plan which mainstreams human rights. The country however, is yet to adopt definition of racial discrimination which is in line with the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination that the country has ratified. 
Yemeni women have also been strikingly vocal in their demands for more participation in the changes underway in their society. The government is committed to narrowing the gap between men and women and has therefore a Women’s National Committee for the promotion of women rights which has recommended changes in various discriminatory laws within the country like the Crime and Penalty Law, the Labor Code etc.
The World Bank has also initiated various projects in the country. These include the Corridor Highway Project, Emergency Support to Social Protection Project, Yemen Accountability Enhancement Project, Maternal and Newborn Voucher Project, Yemen Civil Society Organization Support Project, Government and Civil Society Organization Partnership, Financial Infrastructure Project etc. The FCO has also funded various projects in Yemen on gender and security, child marriage and youth engagement.
Yemen has introduced a number of measures with a view to implementing its international commitments and to abiding by its voluntary pledge to establish an independent human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles. The Rights of the Child Act is a consolidation of 54 laws, bills and regulations. A national observatory for the rights of the child was also to be launched but meetings for its establishment were disrupted by the domestic turmoil experienced by Yemen in 2011-2012. It was Government’s plan to establish an independent national institution during the period 2012-2013. The country also established a National Committee for combating human trafficking.
Due to serious resource constraints, the State party tries to ensure the satisfaction of at least the minimum essential levels of each right as it is the duty of the State to ensure widest possible enjoyment of the relevant rights with whatever resources are available. Continuous efforts are being made by the State to ensure better protection of human rights, including the right not to be tortured.
The security situation, however, has still deteriorated since September 2014 following the Houthi takeover of the capital and other cities, key government institutions and territories; continued assassinations and bomb attacks against civilians etc. The State Party has been facing challenging times marked by political, economic, security and social instability since the outbreak of conflict between the Government and Anti-Government groups. This has seriously impeded the Government’s and civil society’s capacity to protect human rights. Key events included the Houthi takeover
It has however been recognized that the promotion and protection of human rights are key factors in ensuring a fair and equitable justice system and a stable country. And therefore, there is commitment in the country to find a political solution of the on-going conflict.
Yemen is bordered by Saudi Arabia in the North, Oman in the East, Somalia in the South and Eretria and Djibouti in the West. It is also bordered in three sides by water. It depends on commercial fuel and food imports to meet the basic needs of the population. More than 90% of the food is imported. The country with a GDP of $35.95 billion falls in the lower middle income category. Its economy is too small and weak to create sufficient jobs for its rapidly expanding work force. The country has a population of 23 million, of which 70% are under the age of 25. Currently growing at a rate of 3.2%, Yemen’s population is set to double by 2030. According to a Government survey carried out in cooperation with the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Labor Organization, there are 160,000 working children in the country of which 95% work in family business; mainly fishing and agriculture and were part time workers.
Following the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that ended on 25th January, 2014, Parliamentary elections were slated for April 2015 and a one year extension for President Abdrabu Mansour Hadi was agreed by the NDC participants upon its conclusion.
On March 8, 2014, interim Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi announced the formation of the 17-member Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) which included four women to draft the Constitution within a year. Several political groups, including the Socialist Party, independent youth organizations and members of the Islah party protested their lack of representation. The United Nations Department of Political Affairs appointed Professor Nico Steytler, the South African Research Chair in Multilevel Government, Law and Policy at the Community Law Centre as a short term expert to support the Yemeni Constitution Drafting Committee.
The Government also launched a project named “Know your Constitution” to raise awareness about the Constitution’s importance.
It was a debate whether Yemen’s future state form will be called “federalism” or “united regions”. Another controversial topic included a law issued in 1990 which granted legal immunity to those who held high ranking positions.
OHCHR continuously provided expertise to Yemen on how to integrate human rights in the new Constitution through direct technical assistance and facilitate the participation of civil society in the drafting process.
The draft Constitution of Yemen which defines it as a federal country was finalized on January 15, 2015 by the Constitutional rafting Committee. The draft includes 10 chapters that contain 446 articles.
However, ongoing political, security and humanitarian crisis following the seizure of Yemen’s capital by the Houthi rebels, stalled all progress on the draft and the raised the likelihood that it will be significantly amended before being submitted for public referendum.
* Students, Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad
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