Navigating Human Rights in a War-Torn Yemen

BY: OSAMAH ALFAKIH, GUEST BLOGGER*

“Despite immensely difficult circumstances in a war-torn and diminishing space for activism, Mwatana for Human Rights has remained steadfast in its mission to defend human rights.”

Lea la versión en español de este blog aquí.

The state of civil society during the onset of the conflict

In early 2011, following the wave of protests that swept through the Middle East and North Africa, including in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemeni youth started a revolution in February 2011 against the regime of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This took place at a public square in the capital city of Sanaa that later became known as Change Square due to the protests. Saleh had ruled the Yemen Arab Republic since 1978 and continued as president after the 1990 unification of the Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Numerous people from various backgrounds, including students, academics, writers, artists, farmers, workers, and members of tribes peacefully protested for social justice. The 2011 revolution tested the effectiveness of civil society to lead the transformation that the people demanded. From my point of view, as a human rights practitioner who has worked in various local and international organizations since 2008, Yemeni civil society failed to help realize the demands and aspirations of the society due to significant political, social, and geopolitical factors that existed long before the revolution.

“Partisan NGOs are largely to blame for the failure of civil society to harness the energy of the young revolutionaries.”

According to World Bank statistics, the number of officially registered non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Yemen before 2011 was around 7,000; by 2014, it had increased to more than 8,300. In spite of civil society’s ostensible predominance, however, these groups failed to engender change in a manner that met the expectations of the people. Instead, the opposition political parties, known collectively as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), took advantage of this failure of civil society by transforming the revolution from a popular uprising into a political dispute between their parties and Saleh’s regime. On November 23, 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative was signed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which paved the way for then Vice-President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (the current president) to negotiate a power transfer with the opposition in return for Saleh’s immunity from prosecution.   

  People took to the streets in Yemen in 2011 to protest of the government of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Photo Source:    Al Jazeera English    (   CC BY 2.0   ), Flickr

People took to the streets in Yemen in 2011 to protest of the government of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Photo Source: Al Jazeera English (CC BY 2.0), Flickr

Partisan NGOs are largely to blame for the failure of civil society to harness the energy of the young revolutionaries. Before 2011, political parties established NGOs that eclipsed the ability of independent civil society organizations to promote principled social justice and human rights policies in the transition. In particular, opposition parties established NGOs under Saleh’s regime to act as vocal proponents against the regime. However, as the former opposition coalition JMP came to power, those partisan NGOs that had been empowered in the civil society space began to work on behalf of the new President Hadi.

“Civil society and the public at large were consistently sidelined in the NDC process.”

Other age-old issues, including the lack of strategic planning and of capacity to manage donor funds and interests, also hindered civil society’s ability to unite and bolster societal interests and aspirations during the 2011 revolution. For instance, due to the increase of foreign aid to support the political transition following the GCC initiative, many NGOs embarked upon activities related to the political transition despite their lack of preparation or experience in this area. These experiences raised a tangential question of whether foreign aid was doing more harm than good in Yemen.

From March 18, 2013 to January 24, 2014, a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was held to cement a peaceful transition of power. However, civil society and the public at large were consistently sidelined in this process. The “20 Points”, which listed a wide range of issues including grievances from previous armed conflicts, detainees, hate speech—written by a committee of civil society members and other experts—were supposed to be implemented as part of the NDC. However, the various political actors, including President Hadi, and the international community ignored calls to incorporate the 20 Points into the transition process and instead moved the NDC forward without it.

  Photo Source:    Al Jazeera English    (   CC BY-SA 2.0   ), Flickr

Photo Source: Al Jazeera English (CC BY-SA 2.0), Flickr

While the NDC was occurring at the Mövenpick Hotel in Sanaa, the Ansar Allah armed group, otherwise known as the Houthis, began to expand their military reach in the capital’s direction. The Houthis—a Shia Muslim group that began as a theological movement in the 1980s to revive Zaydism, a branch of Shia Islam—have been historically at odds with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, primarily due to their perception of the President’s support of U.S. foreign policy. This instigated six on-and-off conflicts between the Houthis and the Yemeni military between 2004 and 2010 that ultimately led into their current uprising. Evidently, the NDC process was quite removed from on-the-ground realities. Clashes continued and, ultimately, the Yemeni political transition collapsed. The country entered a new cycle of armed conflict when the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Saleh seized control of Sanaa by force on September 21, 2014.

The Houthis forced President Hadi into house arrest in January 2015. Hadi fled a month later to Aden, a city in southern Yemen, and then to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in March 2015. By that time, the Houthi-Saleh forces had already advanced toward Taizz, the third largest city in the country located in the southwest, on their march to the southern port city of Aden. In the morning of Thursday, March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign that involved a coalition of nine Arab states against the Houthi-Saleh forces. Saudi Arabia intervened to protect its “backyard,” as the Houthis are backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis in the region and whose rivalry with Saudi Arabia has been the center of much of the conflict in the Middle East for decades. Rather than their publicly declared purported purpose to “restore legitimacy in Yemen,” the Saudis were solely interested in engaging in a proxy war against Iran.



Wartime Impacts on Civil Society

As a consequence of the war that officially began in September 2014 and continues today, the public space for NGOs, media entities, and political activism has progressively shrunk. The Houthis have conducted a massive campaign against opponents and entities that do not share their discourse. For instance, they closed a number of local organizations, particularly those affiliated with opposition political parties. Furthermore, journalists and press have been subjected to smear campaigns and attacks by all parties to the conflict. Moreover, all parties to the conflict, the Saudi-led coalition and the Hadi government forces, on the one hand, and the Houthi-Saleh forces, on the other, have committed arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances against civil and political leaders and activists.

At the moment, the number of active organizations is very small compared to the number of registered organizations. Most of the active local organizations have had to shift focus to emergency and humanitarian assistance.

  Photo Source:    Al Jazeera English    (   CC BY 2.0   ), Flickr

Photo Source: Al Jazeera English (CC BY 2.0), Flickr

Mwatana for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni human rights organization, was officially registered in April 2013. Even though the group was established in 2007 (as “Hewar Forum”), it was not given a permit by Saleh’s regime due to Hewar’s critiques of the government, particularly during the Saada Wars (six wars between 2004 and 2010) and against the Southern Movement in 2007.

Given Mwatana’s core pursuit to document human rights violations of all parties to the conflict, the organization has been targeted with threats, detentions, and smear campaigns. Mwatana’s staff work under difficult circumstances on a daily basis, both in the main office in Sanaa and in the field. Indeed, distinct parties of the conflict have detained some field staff members in various regions of the country. Many were released only after Mwatana leaders, alongside heavy hitter partner organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, exerted pressure on the leaders of the armed group. Furthermore, many staff members have received personalized in-person, text, and phone call threats.

“Though facing continued threats and attacks from all parties of the conflict, its commitment has empowered Mwatana to continue fighting for civilians.”

On March 4, 2016, the Houthis confiscated the passport of Abdulrasheed Alfaqih, Mwatana’s Executive Director, at Sanaa International Airport upon his arrival from Amman, Jordan. He had come from an international solidarity conference with Yemeni journalists, organized by the International Federation of Journalists, the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, and other international organizations.

On June 14, 2018, Alfaqih was detained for around 10 hours at Bab al-Falaj security checkpoint, in the Marib governorate, which is controlled by President Hadi’s forces. Just four days later, on June 18, 2018, the Saudi-led coalition and authorities of Seiyun Airport in the Hadhramout governorate confiscated the passports of Radhia al-Mutawakel, Mwatana’s Chairperson, and Alfaqih, and later detained them while they were traveling for a business trip that involved preparations for a training workshop in partnership with the European Union. Alfaqih was also traveling to seek medical treatment. After intense local and international pressure, they were released after 12 hours of detention.

Mwatana’s Fight for Human Rights in a Diminishing and War-Torn Civic Space

Despite these immensely difficult circumstances in a war-torn and diminishing space for activism, Mwatana for Human Rights has remained steadfast in its mission to defend human rights. Aware of historical failures of civil society, Mwatana’s leadership and staff have taken renewed efforts to fulfill the highest professional standards. Though facing continued threats and attacks from all parties of the conflict, its commitment has empowered Mwatana to continue fighting for civilians.

“There is no magic in Mwatana’s particular strength. Instead, Mwatana’s efforts have been the result of concerted, strategic decisions.”

In March 2015, when the armed conflict in Yemen began to escalate, Mwatana had a mere seven members; now, in 2018, it has expanded to around 70 full-time staff spread across 20 of Yemen’s 22 governorates. The organization has three core units: Research, Legal Support, and Media and Communications. In recent years, the Research Unit has focused on documentation of patterns of international humanitarian and human rights law violations committed by all sides in the war, while the Legal Support Unit focuses on direct service measures to victims of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture. Staff members in all areas have boldly ventured far beyond Sanaa to visit detention centers, hospitals, victims and their families, and eyewitnesses, in order to bring global attention to and seek justice for a catastrophic and immensely deadly war.   

  Radhya Al-Mutawakel, center, represents Mwatana at a U.N. Security Council briefing on the human rights situation in Yemen. Photo Source:    United Nations Photo    (   CC BY-NC-ND 2.0   ), Flickr.

Radhya Al-Mutawakel, center, represents Mwatana at a U.N. Security Council briefing on the human rights situation in Yemen. Photo Source: United Nations Photo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Flickr.

Mwatana has undertaken particular changes in its strategic and day-to-day operations in order to circumvent the typical problems local Yemeni NGOs face. For example, Mwatana created other supporting units and management teams to focus on administrative and financial matters. These staff members do not necessarily have human rights experience, but their professional experience in management and resource administration has greatly bolstered the work of the researchers. A newly created Project Unit focuses on fundraising and maintaining relationships with local and international donors and partners to secure funding and financial support for Mwatana’s activities. Each unit’s delineated mandate has enabled a cohesive organizational structure that promotes the sustainability of the work.  

Moreover, as a result of its work, Mwatana has been internationally recognized. For example, on May 30, 2017, Mwatana briefed the UN Security Council, the first local Yemeni organization to address this body. In the briefing, Al-Mutawakel described the situation on the ground and set important demands related to the humanitarian and human rights situation, focusing on some of the war’s widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

There is no magic in Mwatana’s particular strength. Instead, Mwatana’s efforts have been the result of concerted, strategic decisions about how to operate effectively in a co-opted, nearly non-existent, civil society space. The organization’s independence, commitment to accuracy, and adherence to the principles enshrined in its code of conduct have enabled Mwatana to continue impactful work, not only strengthening a weak civil society, but also holding warring parties accountable for their human rights violations.  


*Osamah Alfakih is a Senior Researcher and Director of the Research Unit of the Yemeni NGO, Mwatana for Human Rights. Mwatana was recently awarded the Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award by Human Rights First.

Featured photo: Gerry & Bonni (CC BY 2.0), Flickr