A small country of 28 million, and a brutal proxy war between regional and global powers being fought on its soil – Yemen and its people have seen the worst possible human-rights violations in the past few years and continue to face unimaginable hardship.
Even before Ansar Allah and military units loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (the Houthis) took control of the capital Sana’a by force in September 2014, Yemen had been a hot spot of political intrigue in the Middle East. From March 2015, things only went further downhill due to military intervention by coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and UAE, armed by US, UK and European powers.
Raised in Sana’a, and deeply affected by the direction her country was taking, Radhya Almutawakel began working in human rights in 2004 after completing a Bachelor’s degree in mass communication and two diplomas in gender studies and political science from Sana’a University. Soon after, she met fellow activist Abdulrasheed Alfaqih and, in 2007, they founded Mwatana for Human Rights, an independent organisation working to defend and protect human rights in Yemen. The two got married in 2011.
Since then, Radhya has taken the voice of ordinary Yemenis to the UN Security Council, US Congressional committees and many international forums, briefing them on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Last year, Time magazine named Radhya one of the 100 most influential people in the world. US senator Bernie Sanders wrote that she “deserves recognition as one of the truly courageous among us.”
For the 43-year-old, however, the conflict has become personal. In November 2014, her father Mohammed Abdulmalek Almutawakel, a professor and a well-known face of the political opposition, was assassinated in Sana’a while walking down the street. “We still don’t know who assassinated him,” says Radhya, whose mother Amal too passed away in December last year.
The youngest of six siblings, all of them highly educated, Radhya and her husband decided against having kids of their own. “We are not brave enough to have children in such a situation while we are both working in a very difficult field,” she says.
Radhya with part of Mwatana's team 2020 Sana'a-Yemen
Based in Sana’a, Radhya spoke to eShe about the current situation in Yemen, how the global community has responded, and how Yemeni women are bearing the brunt of the country’s civil war.
What’s Mwatana’s position on the current crisis in Yemen that has pitted powerful Western and Sunni powers against the local Houthis, apparently supported by Iran and Qatar?
It is important to highlight that it is not a Sunni versus Shia conflict. It is a proxy war among local powers and two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. We stand against the war as principle and against its horrible human-rights violations that are committed by all parties to the conflict. We are documenting these violations through our field investigative research methodology all over Yemen. We publish all our reports and other publications in Arabic and English on our website Mwatana.org because we believe that information is power and it is our responsibility to build a human-rights memory that can be used for advocacy and accountability.
We also have a team of lawyers who follow the cases of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance. They provide legal support and have assisted in the release of many victims.
Mwatana is also doing a lot of advocacy work internationally and working with its international human-rights partners to protect civilians, end impunity and enhance accountability. For example, in 2018, Mwatana along with European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, and Rete Italiana per Il Disarmo, filed a criminal complaint against the managers of RWM Italia S.p.A. and senior officials of Italy’s National Authority for the Export of Armament (UAMA) to the public prosecutor in Rome.
The complaint focuses on the air strike of Deir Al-Hajari on October 8, 2016, which killed six civilians. It alleges the criminal liability of RWM Italia S.p.A. managers and of UAMA officials for the export of at least a part of the deadly weapon used in the strike to Saudi Arabia or another member state of the Saudi-led military coalition.
According to some reports, almost 82 percent of the Yemeni population is now dependent on humanitarian aid. Is aid from global humanitarian bodies reaching the right people?
The role of humanitarian agencies is crucial at the moment particularly with the absence of a state that can provide people with basic services. All parties to the conflict have contributed to the worst man-made humanitarian crisis and engaged in the obstruction of humanitarian supplies, including food and nutritional supplements, which has a particularly acute impact given the millions of Yemenis already living under the threat of famine.
Mwatana has documented dozens of incidents of obstructing humanitarian access and humanitarian supplies by all of them.
With its major port being destroyed by the Saudis, ordinary Yemenis have limited access to food, medicines and their daily needs. Please share the situation from the ground, and how is the local populace coping?
Yemenis are not starving; they are being starved. All parties to the conflict – the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis), the internationally recognised government and other armed groups – have violated the right to food and used starvation as a weapon of war. They have impeded and blocked humanitarian supplies including food and nutritional supplements, blocked and closed ports and airports, conducted airstrikes and shelling on food warehouses.
Besides this, many Yemenis have not been receiving their salaries for years. This is one of the things that broke the back of Yemenis. Yemenis don’t want to keep depending on humanitarian aid; they want to be able to work and feed themselves but parties to the conflict have made this normal choice very difficult.
Because of this man-made crisis, humanitarian conditions in Yemen continue to deteriorate, increasing the risk that Yemen will sink into the world’s worst famine in 100 years if the war continues.
Yemeni government soldiers were brought to India for treatment with support from the UAE government. Do the local Houthis also get similar support for medical treatment from Iran/Qatar?
As stated earlier, this is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one hand and Iran on the other. The reports of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen established by the Security Council have indicated Iranian support to Houthis. However, I don’t have information about the details of this support.
How has coronavirus affected the Yemeni population? How is your organisation helping to create awareness about it?
Yemen couldn’t face a very preventable disease like cholera and we were vulnerable in the face of COVID. It has reached Yemen in a situation where the state and healthcare system have collapsed, most of medical workers are not receiving salaries for years, people can’t stay home, and very easy steps for protection are not easy for them. Many Yemenis don’t even have access to clean water and soap.
Radhya in front of ICC, The Hague
Although the first case of COVID was confirmed in Yemen in March 2020, months after the pandemic has spread all over the world, no one was ready, not even different authorities across Yemen. Doctors were left alone without any kind of protection. They didn’t have simple things like masks and suits. We lost many medical workers and professionals in the pandemic.
The COVID mortality rate in Yemen is 28 percent [editor’s note: as of September 5, 2020, over 1980 COVID-19 cases and over 572 deaths have been reported in Yemen] – more than five times the global average and among the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the world. However, we don’t know the real numbers.
Hostilities didn’t stop even during the pandemic. Mwatana with other NGOs issued a statement demanding warring parties to release arbitrarily held and vulnerable detainees and improving detention conditions; a complete and credible ceasefire; an end to all attacks against civilians; and adopting a human rights-based response to COVID-19.
Mwatana also launched a campaign to release detainees and those who are forcibly abducted or detained under the pretext of COVID.
What are your organization’s findings on disappeared persons in Yemen, and attacks on healthcare and journalists by Houthi-run bodies?
All parties to the conflict in Yemen have used arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and torture against perceived opponents, and those they believe to be followers or supporters of their opponents. The warring parties have also used such violations against civilians in order to impose their authority in the areas under their control.
On June 30 this year, Mwatana published a report ‘In the Darkness’ about the abusive detention, disappearance and torture in Yemen’s unofficial prisons. Since 2016, Mwatana has documented 1605 incidents of arbitrary detention, 770 incidents of enforced disappearance and 344 incidents of torture, including 66 deaths in detention centres across Yemen. The Houthis, the internationally recognised Yemeni government, and UAE forces and UAE-aligned armed groups including the Southern Transitional Council all bear responsibility for these numbers.
In addition to the appalling and degrading conditions of detention, with detainees being cramped by the dozen in narrow cells, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition airstrikes have struck detention centres at least four times.
Moreover, on April 11, 2020, the Specialised Criminal Court in Sana’a sentenced to death four journalists who had been awaiting trial since 2015. They were part of a wider group of 10 journalists who were formally charged in December 2018 with a series of offences, including spying, which carries the death penalty. They were arrested by Houthi on 2015. They were arbitrarily detained, held in solitary confinement at length, tortured and mistreated while in captivity, and were not formally charged until more than three years later.
On healthcare side, Mwatana documented 120 attacks on health facilities and medical personnel by all parties to the conflict in Yemen between 2015 and 2018. They resulted in the death of 96 civilians and health workers and wounded hundreds of others.
In a report released in March 2020 by Mwatana for Human Rights and Physicians for Human Rights, we published a report called ‘I Ripped the IV out of My Arm and Started Running’. It illustrates how these attacks were carried out and how they have contributed to the disastrous humanitarian situation in Yemen.
The Saudi and Emirati-led coalition, the Houthi armed group, and the internationally recognized government of Yemen have all contributed to the collapse of the healthcare system.
There are conflicting reports on the number of civilians killed in Yemen since 2015. But all conclude that the number includes thousands of women and children, with even schools and hospitals being bombed by Saudi forces and shelled by local groups like Houthis. Have your efforts to raise awareness about this yielded any response from the UN or other international bodies?
After a lot of efforts, civil society and some supportive states like the Netherlands finally succeeded in 2017 at the Human Rights Council to push for an international investigation into violations committed by all parties to the conflict. It was not an easy battle as the Saudi/UAE-led coalition and their allies like the US, the UK and France were not supportive of such steps. It is still not an easy battle every September, including this year, at the Human Rights Council to renew and strengthen the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen.
Efforts by civil society also succeeded in shedding light on the suffering of civilians in many levels and to influence the narrative of war. This eventually encouraged some EU states to stop selling weapons to Saudis and Emiratis. Such efforts and pressure were one of the reasons behind what is called the Stockholm Agreement where the voice of civil society and its advocacy work participated in shaping important issues that the parties could address together in order to build confidence and create momentum towards a comprehensive solution.
However, Yemenis are still suffering, war didn’t stop, violations didn’t stop, states like US, the UK, and France didn’t stop selling weapons to their allies, and there is a huge lack of accountability. Moreover, the UN has removed the Saudi-led coalition this year from an annual blacklist of parties violating children’s rights, despite the fact that the coalition killed and injured hundreds of children last year.
Radhya and Abdulrasheed
Women are the worst to suffer in situations of civil war. Please share the ground reality about the condition of Yemeni women at this time.
The story of Yemeni women is like the story of Yemen itself. The situation in Yemen was never good but we used to at least have a shape of life, a shape of state, a kind of diversity in civil society, media and political parties. Similarly, the situation of women was never good but there was some progress regarding human rights over the years at different levels. But the war that started in 2014 has destroyed everything.
Women today are victims of airstrikes, ground shelling, sexual violence, child recruitment, detention, starvation and many other violations. Besides that, their daily life became more complicated with the absence of state and control of different armed groups. However, they are still struggling in different ways to keep life going, and many of them are trying to help victims and calling for peace and accountability.
You said that Trump’s veto earlier this year amounted to “an announcement of continued suffering for millions of civilians in Yemen.” The US has vested economic interests in continued war in Yemen. Please comment.
Yemeni civilians are suffering due to two ugly facts. The first is that financial interests are more important than the blood of innocent people. The second is that the international system enhances impunity more than accountability.
In spite of all the great efforts from many representatives at the US Congress to stop the negative involvement of the US in Yemen’s war and to stop its weapons deals with Saudis and Emiratis, the US still continues its arms deals and puts zero effort to enhance accountability or push parties to the conflict toward a peace agreement.
Peace in Yemen is very possible but it needs political will from the international community. Moreover, in any peace agreement in future, it is necessary to consider accountability as one of the key factors to establish permanent peace.
You and Abdulrasheed were at Columbia Law School’s ‘Practitioner-in-Residence’ program. What are your thoughts on the American education system and the role its media has played in informing Americans about the Yemeni crisis?
Abdulrasheed and I spent only one month at the Practitioner-in-Residence program at Columbia Law School (CLS) Human Rights Clinic, but it was just a start of a long partnership between Mwatana and CLS that lasts until now. We are doing many reports and advocacy work together.
This experience was unique for us because the Human Rights Clinic at CLS follows an educational system that gives students the chance to practise human-rights work and not only study it theoretically. During that month, we have conducted many useful workshops and advocacy activities about Yemen. We share our experience and work with new students every year.
Our partnership with CLS is one of the partnerships that I and Mwatana are really proud of. I have also been invited by different universities in the US to talk about Yemen but that doesn’t help me to evaluate the education system at the United States and can’t determine to what extent they know about Yemen.
I can say, though, that since 2017 and increasingly after the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, the Yemen crisis has started to be more highlighted in the US media but it is still limited and inadequate compared to the scale of the crisis. In spite of all efforts, Yemen is still an ignored war.First published in eShe magazine