HUMAN RIGHTS: We Have Come a Long Way [Archives:1998/49/Viewpoint]

December 7 1998

The world, our Arab region, and Yemen have all come a long way since the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, exactly fifty years ago this week. Nobody any more argues that dictators can do whatever they like with people under their control. Human rights are everybody’s concern, even if that may mean intervention in the internal affairs of rogue states.
It is just fitting that the world should carry with it this year some gifts on this occasion. By far, the most important gift is the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which is ready to put on trial violators of human rights. Other gifts include the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean former dictator, under whose regime some 3,000 persons were killed. A final gift was the arrest of Serbian General Radislav Krstic, who ordered the mass murder of civilians in Srebrenica in Bosnia. He is now awaiting trial at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands.
Within the Arab region, human rights was a virtual taboo. I remember in the late 1970s, a group of Arab intellectuals started making noise about the need for respect of citizens by the state. The idea developed momentum until in December 1982, 18 of us – Arab intellectuals and human rights activists – met to establish the Arab Organization for Human Rights. We could not find a place to meet in the whole Arab world. So, we met in Cyprus and launched the effort from there.
I also remember as I came back to Yemen from the meeting, the dean at my college at Sanaa University called me in and grilled me about the crime I had just committed. I was immediately dismissed as chairman of the economics department, and was subjected to many other complications. Since then, I have been able to remain on the blacklist of our Political Security Organization.

Today, many Arab rulers profess to respect human rights. The Arab regimes have made much progress, if at least on paper. But the concept is developing roots, and it has become an integral part of the political structure.
Here in Yemen, we have also made enormous gains. Today, there are a dozen or so organizations that have as their main objective the defence of human rights. This is much progress. Even the government has its own organization to defend human rights. Of course, this is a PR jive on the part of the government, but it is there.
Violations of human rights in Yemen continue to occur. But they happen mainly because of lack of adequate understanding on the part of the law enforcement agencies. It is due to socio-cultural backwardness of the general public.
Of course, there are some politically driven violations, but the bulk of the transgression is non-political. In other words, if there is more training for law enforcement agencies, and more awareness among the public, there would be less violations. While we speak about human rights violations in general, special efforts must be exerted to protect vulnerable groups – black Yemenis, children, the handicapped, muwalladeen, women, and generally the poor.
The authorities say they are willing to respect human rights. The laws are good. Now we have to put those in practice.