HUMAN RIGHTS IN YEMEN: THE CONCEPTS: On Paper & The Reality! [Archives:1998/41/Focus]

October 12 1998

By Dr. Fouad Abduljaleel Al-Salahi
Sociology Department,
Sanaa University

International concerns regarding human rights have recently increased, given the new emphasis in the field. As a result, the world has witnessed the rise of many organizations that focus on these issues.
Yemen has been affected by this global movement. The country’s new policies – including its democratization drive – came in response to these international developments.
Consequently, the Yemeni state’s official adoption of pluralism as a major pillar of the political system, is in fact a U-turn on its recent history of totalitarianism that prevailed before unification. Now we have a new relationship between state and society.
Since unification in 1990, several political and cultural institutions emerged, calling for respect for human rights. Some of these are independent, others are affiliated with the state. Recently, the government has openly and officially established its own human rights organization.
The question that arises now is whether the concepts that define the views and activities of these organizations are the same or not. Watching against any infringements of human rights by state organs should be a clear objective. But it isn’t that easy.
As the essence of any democratic system is maintaining human rights, popular demands for legalizing and organizing those rights were meant to minimize their violation. The concept of human rights is not limited to its political dimension alone, but it includes social, economic and cultural dimensions as well. Such a concept is endorsed in the world because it constructively determines the relationship between the citizen and the state and, consequently, between political and the civilian societies.
The fact that democracy in Yemen was coupled with unity formed a qualitative shift in the nature of our political system. Such a shift opened the door for various social and political powers which, irrespective whether they are in authority or opposition, must shoulder the responsibility in reshaping their ideologies and practices by internalizing the concepts of human rights.
We, in Yemen, are still at the early phase of our democratization process. We are what you may call “democracy under formation”. This calls for support through legal and constitutional reforms to ensure freedom of expression, political affiliation etc. To further boost our democratic transformation, concepts such as dialogue, tolerance, liberty, equality, justice and plurality must be spread.
Investment in human resources must top priorities for modern development. The concept of development is now measured according to the degree of an individual’s freedom in practicing his/her political, social and economic rights. This has necessitated the state’s concern with the protection of human rights.
The constitution was the first political improvement in Yemen. This now stipulates many basic liberties and rights including the right of organized political activity in addition to freedom of expression. Democracy is not complete without the right to form or join political parties, trade unions and associations to consolidate and protect an individuals’ social, economic and political rights.
Consequently, it is important for a democratic country to be bound by laws and a constitution. In the absence of rule of law, tyranny prevails.
The official political jargon in Yemen has witnessed verbal commitment to openness, tolerance and human rights.
Human rights and freedoms are the core of any democratic system. Thus we could measure any country’s political system with the yardstick of human rights. Global concern with human rights reflects the epitome of our civilization.
In Yemen, a number of groups and civilian institutions are active in advocating, protecting and spreading human rights concepts within our society. Yet those groups and organizations are visibly weak and cannot withstand a showdown with the tools of oppression.
Let us see some examples of the weaknesses:
1. The activities of these organizations are still in their early beginnings. They have just started.
2. Yemeni culture is not rich in its understanding of modern values of human rights. The concept and appreciation are still weak and ineffective.
3. The general social inclination in the country is a traditional one where the levels of education and culture are low.
4. A military-based power structure does not appreciate these values, although it gives them lip service.
5. To further confuse foreigners, the government has established the Supreme National Human Rights Committee. Many UN and international organizations are not aware this is a government organ. Thus they deal with the perpetrator as the guardian.
The issue remains – our state and the politicians representing it … do they really believe in human rights? What kind of human rights? Do they see what the ordinary people see as human rights? How can the two sides join hands in standing up to the many violations?
It is already encouraging that the constitutional and legal basis have been created in our country. Many of our politicians have stressed and repeated their full commitment to human rights. It is also important that our country has signed and ratified various international human rights agreements and conventions, starting with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We have signed and ratified the conventions on social, political and economic rights. We have signed and ratified the convention of Children’s Rights. And we have signed and ratified the convention against torture.
On paper, we have come a long way. Now we have to make the distance on the ground.
The first problem is to grasp what it is we have signed and ratified. We have to even agree on the concepts and how we understand them. Human rights concepts in Yemen are still unclear and unknown to the law enforcement agencies, let alone the general public. This calls for a greater role on all of us to teach others on these values. It is crucial to publicize this concept and its basic tenets as widely as possible.
Human rights organizations in particular should promote these values among our people, using newspapers, pamphlets, seminars, conferences, etc. They can benefit in this from rising international support. The world community is willing and ready to assist. The reason is simple. Human rights are no longer the concern of individual countries, but of the whole world. They are based on the U.N. charter and on international agreements. All nations – Yemen included – are committed to human rights.
Legitimacy of systems in today’s world is measured by the degree of adherence to human rights. This calls for vigilance on the part of states hitherto oblivious to this requirement.
In Yemen, given the weakness of our civil society institutions, the role of public opinion and pressure groups is limited. Thus more of the burden falls on the state and its organs. But the rising number of activists and their supporters also have to embark on this task, however Herculean it may be. They have to pinpoint the latent democratic powers and their strength. They have to build up political awareness of human rights, step up demands for respect of those rights, and contribute to the rise of a modern state and society.
At the same time, monitoring and documentation of the overall political, economic and social conditions and any infringements and violation should continue. Then and only then can we say that human rights institutions have started their work in a systematic and scientific way.
Yemeni human rights organizations should form a coordination network to serve as a pressure tool in bolstering their influence and effectiveness. This network could also serve as a channel for exchanging information and documents, which would increase their credibility. Such a network could also enhance their ability to coordinate with international organizations.
Human rights organizations should determine the forces in society that can strengthen and support their efforts. These can be in the modern sector such as academia, the legal profession, the media, etc. They can also find sympathy and support among traditional social powers, including community elders, religious leaders and tribal sheikhs, if the approach is right.
Finally, the government is not necessarily an enemy. Reaching out to policy-makers and explaining the positive and negative effects of human rights policies and practices to ensure the well-being of the nation could be a worthwhile effort.