Progress in Human Rights: HOW TO GO ABOUT IT? [Archives:1998/47/Viewpoint]

November 23 1998

The way things work in the Republic of Yemen is often misunderstood. The confusion is there because the rulers project no real vision or direction or even stand, except when the issues concern their direct grip over power. The leaders of Yemen may say they are in favor of this or that, but at the end of the day, what decides the flow of events is the ability and influence of the protagonists and/or antagonists of the ideas and decisions.

Let me take human rights as an example.
The leaders of Yemen constantly say they are in favor of respect for human rights. But you can hardly identify any actual step or decision that they have taken in this regard. Nor can you identify any step or decision they have taken seriously against respect for human rights. In other words, what happens depends on the players at the middle and lower levels of the administrative hierarchy of officialdom.

To drive the point home, let me use specific cases. When the immigration officers decided to violate the rights of Yemenis who were born abroad (e.g., in Africa – so-called muwalladeen), they did not get a green light from the president or prime minister. It is just the judgement and decision of mid-level officials (in this case, officers).
So the immigration department created a two-class citizenship for this country, which is against the law. In fact, the department even put up signs to distinguish between the two classes of citizenship. Ostensibly, this is done to screen out the non-Yemeni Africans from collecting Yemeni passports. But since the immigration department has no ability to do the screening, the burden of proof falls on the muwalladeen at enormous cost and humiliation to them.
Again, this is basically the decision of the director-general of immigration and his men. It is not government policy to create a two-class citizenship. In other words, if there were another director-general, the approach and policies may change.

Take another case. If there is someone who insists on respecting the law in a certain prison, and has enough influence, then, most of the people will simply work by the law. I have seen this happen in a couple of prisons. Nobody will stand up to the person who wants the law obeyed, and tell him not to show respect for human rights.

What I am trying to show is how this country can be helped to be on the right path – full adherence to local and international law. If there are say a hundred Yemenis who have the personal drive and commitment to make this country evolution be based on internalizing the new values, it will happen. Think of these 100 men and women as catalysts.
In my opinion, working with them and through them is more effective for Yemen’s democratization. That is because in our system today, nobody will stop anybody from pushing through his/her vision of a morally superior system. But he/she should not wait for the president or prime minister to do something to help, beyond lip service.

That is why the best approach to make Yemen a better world citizen is through finding young Yemenis who have ambition and a sense of destiny, and promote in them the commitment for democratic values. I believe this is a medium-term plan that will work.