Human Rights Activity in Yemen: A Futuristic View [Archives:1998/42/Focus]

October 19 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
Ahmed Ali Al-Ahsab
Executive Director, Yemen Human Rights Organization;
Assitant Lecturer, Department of Political Science,
Sana’a University.
There are a number of facts around which the topic of human rights activity can revolve. It is a problematic topic reflecting a rather weird or primitive image. Many misconceptions impede the progress of human rights activity.
The facts governing such an issue are the following:
First Fact
Human rights activity is certainly not restricted to certain individuals or organizations. It is the right of every citizen to be involved in human rights activity. It is the concern of human rights organizations, political parties and individuals.
There are currently three main organizations concerned with human rights in Yemen: Yemeni Human Rights Organization, Yemeni Organization for Defending Democratic Rights and Liberties and the Human Rights Information Center. In addition to these, there are many activists in this field including lawyers, academics, journalists, and intellectuals.
Second Fact
Civil groups and organizations are plagued by internal crises usually associated with the circumstances and nature of their establishment. It is often observed that several internal powers (official, semi-official, civil, sectarian, etc.) struggle amongst themselves, trying to gain control of such organizations. This sometimes diverts such civil society organizations from their main aims or leads to their decline.
The outcome could be one or a combination of the following:
* A new leading crew is brought to the forefront which has previously gained the approval of the forces that created the crisis. Such a crew is usually composed of prominent figures in society, who are engaged in may other activities. Thus their efforts are divided and wasted, weakening the organizations they lead.
* Civil organizations in Yemen are often lacking in an executive and administrative staff solely devoted to running their affairs. It is often observed that administrative procedures are left to the leaders of such organizations, who are supposed to have a wholly supervisory role.
* There is sometimes a marked deficiency in implementing the internal charter of such civil organizations. For example, in two of the above-mentioned human rights organization, no second round of election has been conducted since their establishment in 1992. Stagnation usually sets in in such conditions. * Weakness in administration, lack of devoted executives and the preponderance of certain individuals usually leads to an inability to find much needed funding sources.
There is also a marked lack of communication among these various organizations, diminishing the opportunity for accumulation of knowledge and exchange of information.
* Training courses for human rights activists are few and far between.
* It is important that human rights organizations should specialize in one aspect of this field. Considering the problems mentioned above, organization that are already weakened by internal strife cannot possibly cover all aspects of human rights endeavor.
Third Fact
Certain issues related to the general social climate in Yemen are reflected in human rights activity:
– Due to the relative modernity of the concept, awareness of human rights issues in the collective consciousness is still hampered by cultural impediments. High illiteracy rates and ignorance of the law are to usually to blame in this regard.
– The collective consciousness in Yemen views human rights issues as generally being part of the moral fabric of society. The rights of individuals are associated with the rights of the social groups to which they belong. This has made the process of making people aware of the existence of universal human rights, irrespective of social grouping, quite difficult.
It is true that some social systems guarantee certain rights for their individual members by virtue of an inherited moral system. However, such systems hinder the full acquisition of an individual’s rights. This has made such social systems, in their effort to fight modernization, view human rights as threatening to their existence.
– Being relatively new, awareness of the importance of civil activity in Yemeni society is rather weak. Those who volunteer to do public work represent a small proportion of society. The lack of availability of people qualified to get productively involved in civil activity hampers the progress of human rights.
– The current economic situation deters many people from taking part in human rights activity, since they are mainly busy earning their daily bread. This has further diminished the number of volunteer workers in this field.
– Unfortunately, many people – especially officials – view human rights activity as being anti-state. Accordingly, anyone involved in such activity is treated with suspicion; thus, undermining the success of human rights activity. Logically, the opposite must be adopted. A society where individuals have their full rights is a stable society where authority is more respected and strengthened.
Repression and human rights abuse are bound to elicit negative reactions that are detrimental to the regime.
The objective conditions that have allowed human rights activity to start in Yemen must remain and be further consolidated. The local situation following unification, interacting with an increasing international concern for human rights, has enhanced this concept.
The future of human rights activity in Yemen depends on the continuation and enhancement of favorable conditions and democratic values becoming deeply rooted. Legislations must be developed to provide more guarantees for civil activity.
Internal & Organizational Structures of Human Rights Institutions
* The way of forming human rights organizations must be reviewed in such a way as to prevent any powers from gaining control and having influence. The draft NGO law and the internal charters for civil organizations must allow ample opportunity for elections to take place within these institutions.
For example, there can be two founding councils in a single organization to choose its leaders.
* Specific and strict conditions must be stipulated by the organization’s internal charter in selecting its leadership. The leaders of civil societies in this country are often involved in several activities, both official and civil. A maximum of such activities could be stipulated, for example.
Membership conditions must also be reviewed. Over-subscribing is harming the reputation of civil organizations and burdening to the point of not being able to develop well-trained cadres. Members’ rights and responsibilities must be accurately specified and training programs be outlined and implemented. Membership can be closely associated with the actual needs of an individual organization. And members can be divided into different sectors according to the tasks implemented by their organization.
* It could be useful to form new, more specialized human rights organizations, according to the various civil liberties. For instance, there could be organizations promoting freedom of the press, child’s rights, women’s rights, prisoners’ rights, etc. Thus, the burden and responsibility is redistributed, and the concept of human rights is made more widespread. The idea of having all-encompassing good-for-all organizations is no longer feasible.
* Administrative matters must not be left to the organization’s leaders. A permanent staff entirely devoted to administering the day-to-day affairs of the organization must be employed. This is crucial to the success of any civil activity, especially in the field of human rights.
* A human rights organization is supposed to have a particular program to be implemented according to a specific time scale. Such a program must contain independent sections according to the organization’s tasks and needs. A sub-program must also be outlined to deal with exigencies.
* The role of monitoring procedures must be fully activated in order to facilitate corrective measures. It is vital that regulations are applied and programs are implemented.
Experience shows that, soon after the first internal elections, an organization is forgotten by the supervising ministry and the other concerned governing body. From then on things become quite lax where irresponsibility leads to disappointments and frustration.
– A major factor influencing the success a civil institution, which relies on public donations and voluntary efforts, is to satisfy new aspirations. Most of the people engaged in civil activity aspire to achieve a lot and hate stagnation. With the suspension of internal electoral procedures, they become frustrated or unable to fully exploit their energies. Thus, an organization becomes fossilized and deprived of new blood.
* Close contacts with similar local and international organizations leads to the accumulation of know-how and exchange of information. Thus, new funding sources can be discovered and more training programs implemented.
Moreover, close associations with other organizations with similar concerns widens and strengthens the front of the struggle for human rights. It is quite useful for local human rights organizations to form a human rights network in Yemen, which can then closely cooperate with the Arab network. This will solve the problems of funding and training.
Social Climate
Raising public awareness of human rights issues:
– There should be more coordination with other civil society organizations in conducting joint activities.
– More attention should be given to media and information aspects: posters, regular bulletins, seminars, etc.
– Incorporating human rights in school and university curricula is crucial. Human rights as a subject has been adopted by the Political Science Department at Sanaa University, starting from the academic year 1997/98. The same ideas is also adopted by Aden University.
The issue was discussed at the meeting of Arab ministers of education earlier this year in Beirut.
Attracting Volunteers
– Opportunities should be created for people to take part in funded civil activity which can create financial stability and is not costly for the volunteers.
– Being aware of human nature is crucial for success. It is very important that incentives are provided for member and volunteers. Such incentives can be financial, moral, or may be related to training and acquiring new skills and expertise.
– Membership should be stable, not open to all and sundry. Programs must be implemented to achieve stability and close association between the organization and its members.
Human rights activity in Yemen must achieve optimal cooperation with officialdom. There is really no logical factor prohibiting mutual cooperation and dialogue with the authorities.