Emerging Democracies Forum, Sana’a 28-30 June 1999 [Archives:1999/31/Law & Diplomacy]

August 2 1999

My wife, Sarah Searight, and I attended the Emerging Democracies Forum (EDF) in Sana’a. We were invited by Dr. Abdulla AbdulWali Nasher, Minister of Public health, on behalf of the Yemen Government to attend as observers representating the British-Yemeni Society, in the absence of any official British delegation – an invitation we gladly accepted. We received the treatment and hospitality normally given to VIP officials, being the only carriers of the “British flag”, and had to explain and answer for the absence of other British delegates.

The EDF was a major event in the spread and consolidation of democracy amongst smaller countries. Organized primarily by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in USA, it was attended by senior delegation from 16 countries which had begun their transition to a democratic system within the past decade or so. Drawn from 4 continents, these included 5 Commonwealth countries and from the Arab world, Yemen and Morocco although Jordan too was added. Delegates ranged from the President of Mali and the Prime Minister of Namibia through parliamentary leaders (in power and opposition), senior government officials, representatives of civic and judicial bodies, unions, social workers, academics, media and NGOs, to name a few.
The conference succeeded in providing a forum in which this diverse assembly of professional people could openly air and discuss common problems, clearly formidable, in the transition process and be aware that they were sharing a common experience. A Namibian woman delegate called it “interesting, relevant and timely”. A lengthy declaration was drafted (text attached), read by Dr. Iryani, Yemen Prime Minister, and adopted in the final plenary session presided over by the Presidents of Yemen and Mali and co-chaired by Kim Campbell, former PM of Canada, and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia. Hillary Clinton, who cancelled her ME tour including Israel and Yemen because of her visit to Kosovo, delivered a video-taped message on women’s issues.

Yemen as the venue
The holding of the EDF in Sana’a was a major achievement on the part of the organizers NDI and more particularly of Yemen. The organization for 2-300 participants was massive (a new plenary session hall to held 500 was purpose-built in the grounds of the Presidential palace in just 6 weeks) and everything – conference session, accommodation, transport and logistics – went like clockwork.

Democracy in Yemen
For Yemen, hosting the EDF was of course of major significance in placing itself in the forefront of the democratic movement and in demonstrating that its commitment to the democratic process is genuine, on at least equal footing with the other nascent democracies, and irreversible. In the sessions, Yemenis of all parties voiced their opinions, including criticism of the party in power (for instance, on corruption) without restraint. Free expression in the press is normal. The President stressed that democracy and development go hand in hand, even if prompted by the IMF/WB. The democratic process in Yemen, even if incomplete, is now a fact which deserves fuller recognition and welcome by the international community.

The hosting the EDF by Yemen is due in large measure to Dr. Iryani, the Prime Minister, in dialogue with the NDI. It was an act of both vision and courage, for Yemen’s neighbors are profoundly suspicious of the developments taking place over their frontiers. They gave the conference no media coverage (Al-Jazira from Qatar mentioned only the arrival of the President of Mali, in a midnight bulleting). Yet Yemen is not afraid to stand out as the sole example in Arabia.

Perception of Britain
While Britain’s financial contribution to the EDF was recognized, the absence of an official delegation from Britain was widely remarked with dismay, and our presence was welcomed in its stead. The opposition Socialist party used it as a sign of rupture of relations, and I was questioned in media interviews (the government newspaper Al-Thawra, opposition press and a lengthy TV interview) as to the reasons for the absence, which I did my best to explain although my role was merely in representing a friendship society.

Prime Minister’s message
The Prime Minister deliberately found time before the final plenary session to call us in and express his “disappointment” with the British Government for not sending a delegation, neither officials nor parliamentarians, despite the offer of “smuggling them in and keeping them in the hotel”. He agreed with me, however, that the present clouding of relations was a temporary blip in longstanding cordiality. Dr. Iryani is a firm anglophile. I interpret this not only to his time spent in the UK but to seeing a strong relationship with Britain as a necessary counter-balance to the pervading influence of the USA. He gave me a clear message of his disappointment in our Government’s response. It seems that a chance to respond with support for his vision and courage has been missed. (How long will such opportunities last?) I undertook to convey his polite but clear message of disappointment but also of the hope for an early restoration of normality.
Britain’s attitude
I believe that Britain has allowed short term considerations, serious as they may be concerning the tragic deaths of British tourists and the ongoing trial of Britons on charges of insurgency, to cloud our view of the significance of the EDF and the importance of showing support for a young democracy. It is an immense pity.

Security and Travel Advice
The Yemenis say there is no security risk to Britons arising within Yemen but do see any such risk as brought upon ourselves at the instigation of individuals we harbor within the UK itself. This situation is incomprehensible to them and, while I did my best to defend our judicial principles, it is hard not to see their point. Our failure to resolve this situation is causing perplexity but it seems imperative to lift the adverse travel advice so that Britons can return to Yemen to carry on their normal business and British tourism can recommence. (Was negative travel advice issued in the cases of Luxor and Ethiopia two years ago? If not, why is Yemen singled out?)

The British Council
The closure of the British Council teaching facility is seen as another inexplicable decision. English is an essential requirement today and large numbers of Yemenis are demanding it; the teaching even paid for itself. It seems encumbent on us to teach English to the poorer nations as a priority for our overseas development funds, and, as Dr. Iryani also said, teaching English makes us friends for life. How can we be so short-sighted as to cut this off?

Program of events
On a more positive front, my wife and I found the Yemenis full of expectations of the exhibition which has been proposed by P&O Events for June 2000 in Olympia as part of the Antiques and Fine Arts Fair. It is intended to demonstrate the attractions and fascination of Yemen in former times and today. Planning will start in September. We also learned of the possibility of the larger exhibition that started with a solely archaeological content in Paris and is about to open in an expanded form in Munich, moving under the auspices of the Fondazione Memmo to Rome and then possibly to London in late 2000. This is in an of Yemen photographs (by June Taylor) and text (to be written by my wife, Sarah Searight) as a comprehensive “perspective” on Yemen. Sponsorship is being sought in Yemen and if forthcoming, publication is planned to coincide with the Olympia exhibition.

Yemen’s importance
One question particular requires an answer: why is Yemen important to Britain? The answer seems simple. Yemen is has embarked on a path to democracy to which it is fully and irreversibly committed. It sees the democratic process as essential to development. In this it is unique in Arabia. While its neighbors are suspicious, Yemen is striving to keep peaceful relations. In its transition to full democracy it deserves all encouragement and support from Britain whom it regards as its friend. We should have the magnanimity to respond in kind.

Julian Lush,
The British-Yemeni Society