YEMEN: ‘We are caught in limbo, neither at war nor at peace, with state institutions nearly collapsed’

Blog by Radhya Almutawakel
Radhya Almutawakel. Photo: CIVICUS

What’s the current situation in Yemen, and what are the prospects of the conflict being resolved in the near future?

First, it’s crucial to note that the conflict in Yemen goes beyond a mere civil war, as it spans three distinct dimensions: local, regional and international. It started in 2014 when the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group seized control of Sana’a, the capital, and escalated with the intervention of a Saudi-led coalition in 2015. The ongoing conflict has been marked by relentless intensity and violations of international humanitarian law such as aggressive actions targeting civilians and critical infrastructure, resulting in what is now recognised as the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis.

Since the ceasefire agreement in April 2022, direct military operations have ceased, providing temporary relief for civilians. While movement between specific Yemeni governorates and cities has improved, the country is caught in a state of limbo, neither at war nor at peace, grappling with the near-total collapse of state institutions. A significant proportion of public sector workers hasn’t been paid their salaries since 2016. Various armed groups control extensive territories, exacerbating the severe economic crisis and food insecurity. These are the primary challenges in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Despite the ceasefire, numerous human rights violations continue to be perpetrated by various parties to the conflict. Since late 2022, Oman has mediated the ongoing negotiations between the Houthi group and Saudi Arabia. Throughout 2023, reciprocal visits between both parties have taken place in Sana’a and the Saudi capital Riyadh with recent reports suggesting progress in negotiations that may lead to the resolution of this decade-long conflict.

How has the war impacted on civilians?

Throughout the years-long war, civilians in Yemen have faced two types of profound impacts. First, as direct victims. Thousands of civilians have been killed and many more have been injured. Civilian infrastructure has been destroyed, including schools, hospitals, bridges, historical and archaeological sites, farms, water and food sources and civil service structures.

People have also been indirect victims: as the economy collapsed, hundreds of thousands lost their sources of income. Parties to the war enforced widespread starvation, landmines were planted, thousands of children were recruited to fight and public freedoms gained over decades of pre-war struggle, including women’s rights, have regressed. Minorities have faced persecution, and the conflict has had extensive economic, social and political ramifications.

What role has Yemeni civil society, including Mwatana, played since the beginning of the conflict?

Yemeni CSOs have been crucial partners of international institutions in implementing humanitarian response plans across different regions during years of conflict. Their programmes and interventions have addressed the needs of many vulnerable groups, bridging gaps deepened by the war.

Both local and international civil society have successfully reshaped the global narrative of the war, shifting the focus from the perspectives of conflict parties to amplifying the voices of victims and shedding light on the humanitarian and human rights tragedy. They’ve actively advocated for the establishment of an international mechanism to investigate violations committed by all parties to the war. Human rights organisations have monitored and documented violations and advocated for criminal accountability.

Mwatana for Human Rights monitors and documents human rights violations in Yemen through extensive field investigative research aimed at gathering precise information, evidence and testimonies to establish the facts and the identities of victims and perpetrators. We also provide legal support to victims of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and torture.

We are currently documenting the plight of refugees and internally displaced people and the violations they’ve endured from various conflict parties. The challenges faced by hundreds of thousands of refugees in temporary shelters underline the critical need for peace efforts to prioritise the safe return of forcibly displaced people to their homes and communities.

Mwatana’s mission extends to raising awareness and fostering a culture supportive of human rights through positive engagement with the public on social media platforms. We are actively involved in constructive dialogue with influential stakeholders to address the human rights challenges in Yemen through local and international advocacy mechanisms.

How is Mwatana working to hold perpetrators accountable?

We have a specialised unit dedicated to seeking justice, reparations and accountability for victims of rights violations. The judicial system has structural, technical and integrity challenges, including corruption and inability to ensure fair trials. As a result, civilian victims have endured widespread impunity.

Even though Yemen isn’t a party to the Rome Statute and therefore falls outside the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Mwatana has been gathering evidence to ensure justice for all victims and accountability for all violators.

First, we conduct comprehensive research and organise workshops and meetings with legal experts, academic institutions and experienced entities to explore available avenues for holding perpetrators accountable, including through international and United Nations (UN) mechanisms and the limited investigative procedures initiated by the conflict parties.

Second, we collaborate with the international community to enhance accountability within international legal frameworks. Along with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and other partners, Mwatana submitted a file to the ICC. Further, in collaboration with the ECCHR and the Italian Network for Peace and Disarmament, we filed a complaint with the Italian Prosecutor and the European Court of Human Rights. Additionally, in coordination with Amnesty International, the ECCHR and Sherpa, we submitted a file to the French prosecutor. We also filed a legal intervention in the administrative case brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade before the British judiciary. There are ongoing efforts to build cases in other countries.

Third, we’ve actively engaged with UN mechanisms through the submission of shadow reports on Yemen and Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process and UN treaty bodies, namely the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee Against Torture. We also provide written and oral briefings to various UN Special Rapporteurs and special procedures mandate holders.

Finally, we undertake a range of actions to directly pressure violating parties and relevant bodies. We conduct workshops and discussions on accountability, reparations and truth-telling, drawing upon experiences from other countries. We have released a report on reparation mechanisms, and we plan to issue another in 2024 on viable criminal accountability options. These aim to establish informed foundations for future transitional justice in Yemen.

What should the international community do to address the crisis and support Yemeni civil society?

The international community’s response to the Yemen crisis has been weak and restricted due to conflicting interests with the involved parties, ranging from economic concerns and political alliances to arms trade deals. As a result, the conflict and numerous rights violations persist without any robust international action being taken. To address this, the international community must intensify efforts for a human-rights-secure settlement, enhancing the role of civil society and upholding the rule of law, justice and mechanisms for a transition to democracy.

This requires the allocation of larger resources for civil society programmes and expansion of CSOs’ activities to extend their sphere of influence. Increased financial support is also needed to build capacity and ensure the continuity of CSO operations. It’s crucial that substantial resources are invested to support the work of local civil society in the upcoming period so that we are able to contribute to peace efforts effectively.

Beyond financial aid, it’s important to endorse the work of Yemeni CSOs on the ground. The international community should exert pressure on all conflict parties to remove any impediments that hinder the efforts of CSOs, such as annual work permit barriers. Standing by civil society while it’s facing retaliation, defamation and smear campaigns for its work and stances is an essential part of expressing international solidarity.

Topics: Yemen