US Human Rights Report on a Public Discussion [Archives:2000/16/Law & Diplomacy]

April 17 2000

Human rights violations are a stigma in countries claimed to be democratic. It is this violation that has been blocking the establishment of the civil society.
Unfortunately, human rights are no more than files kept in drawers of the International organizations while many repressive activities are practiced by repressive governments.
The file of Human rights in the Arab world in general, and in Yemen in particular presents the worst images of suppression and freedoms constraint. This can be easily shown through how the state’s establishments perceive democracy, as well as through the mechanism of decision-making.

In the public discussion held recently by the American Embassy on the Yemen Report on Human Rights, Mr. Steven Walker made clear some of the important points mentioned in the report and answered the questions raised by the attendants.
Mr. Walker highlighted the steps the report has gone through before its last version with taking into consideration the Yemeni officials’ views. However, political sources are of the view that the American report on Human rights in Yemen contains less than what should really appear.

Steven Walker statement:
The human rights report was begun in the Carter administration, in the mid 1970s. At that time human rights became an important focus of the US foreign policy. During the mid 1970s, Congress mandated required that the Department of State write a report on the human rights situation of all countries in the world every year. The purpose for the report is to provide Congress with more information about different countries in the world. Congress is based to make the allocations for humanitarian assistance and overseas the foreign affairs. Here in Yemen, the United States and Yemen are engaged in a very lively dialogue on democratization and human rights. Our report forms the basis for this dialogue every year. The US views itself as a partner with Yemen on democratization and human rights. On a personal level, I have to tell you that my job is fascinating because my job is to try to understand and watch the dialogue as Yemen emerges into a democratic country. The Yemeni politics and society are a complex, not easy to be understood, but very interesting. Compiling the process of writing the human rights report every year is one piece of my effort and the embassy’s effort of trying to understand Yemen.

Regarding the preparation of human rights report I talked to a wide variety of people. I talked to government officials, members of the opposition, and all groups in the opposition. I also spoke to human rights activities and journalists. My desire is to speak with people who are anti-government, pro-government, and people who are relatively neutral. The idea behind that is so at the end of the process I have a reasonable idea. My goal in writing this year report and the next year report is to be as balanced, objective, and neutral as possible. We will identify problems and call attention to violations of human rights and try to be as accurate as possible. We will also report in this report on the progress that the Yemeni government has made. That is, we will make sure that the government gets credit for the progress it has made. The report is designed to be an assessment, not something just to criticize. The important point is that there are no politics behind the report. We get the instructions from the Congress which are the same instructions either here, in China, Canada, or Rwanda, etc. The final report that you get is the product of the input from the embassy, and the Human Rights Bureau of the State Department. Just as I have my sources so the officials in the Human Rights Bureau have their sources. So, in July, we receive and all embassies receive a set of detailed lengthy instructions.

One of the reasons that they are detailed is that both the Department of State and the Congress want to avoid the accusations that the report is political. So what happens is that I write my draft and then send it to the State Department and the Human Rights Bureau will look at it and review it. Then, they send it back to us, after editing it. Next, we will look at it and check these changes to see which ones are appropriate and which ones are not. After that, we send it back to the State Department which will check the report again. They may agree on some points and on some others may not. However, we insist on some points that they are the right ones. Therefore, it is just like being bargaining. Then, the final report is issued and it represents the agreement of the Embassy and the Bureau of Human Rights in the Department of State. One thing I did not mention in the process is that this year, for some but not all of the new things in the report, I discussed and drafted them to Khalid Al-Akwa at the Supreme National Committee for Human Rights. I did not give everything, but a good many. My intention on doing this was to say here is what we have “How does the government feel about this?” Perhaps there are mistakes, or exaggerations, or perhaps I have some information but not all of it. What Mr. Akwa did is that he met with different members of the government concerned and discussed these violations. For example, some of these violations belonged to the press, so he went to the Ministry of Information and so forth. Mr. Akwa convoked a group of representatives from different ministries and they discussed them. Then, we met with Mr. Khalid Al-Akwa, and discussed the committees’ and government’s reactions. Some of the changes he suggested, I accepted while some others I did not accept. One of the reasons on describing this process here is that there is nothing secret or mysterious about the process of human rights report. I told the same thing to people in the opposition, to people in the government and to human rights activists so that they give me their views or examples of problems or violations of human rights. I told each side that I will discuss their stories confidentially with the other parties.
The last note I would say on the preparation of the report is that we need your input. I mentioned before that I have met with some of you, and others I hope to meet with, but everyone here and people anywhere in Yemen concerned with human rights should please feel free to come and talk with me.

There are numerous examples of specific human rights violations, and some examples of improvements, but the two main human rights problems in Yemen are first problems of judiciary, and the second is that security forces often are not held accountable. I point out here that although I am talking about problems in Yemen, Yemen is not alone in having these problems. Human rights is an issue in every country including the United States. The first problem in judiciary is of corruption. Often times, unfortunately, judges can be bribed to decide in favor of one side. There are also instances of governmental interference in judiciary system. Although, we know it is not government policy to do this, but some members of the government are doing that. Many of the judges are also poorly trained. As for the issue of accountability in the security forces, unfortunately, in many cases when human rights violations are made public, the security officials responsible for them are not prosecuted. And again torture is not a government policy, but it still takes place. The same problem with arbitrary arrest. The main point that I would like to make is that the goal is not to have a perfect human rights record. That is impossible. What is possible is to have a mechanism, so that when human rights abuses take place, the violators are punished, the justice is served and the citizens have legal recourse, when they have a problem that they can get it solved. It is essential that citizens have faith in their security forces and police. I would like to offer a personal comment and observation from my discussions with Yemenis. This comment is that there seems to be a difference in political culture. Usually, in the United States when a human rights violation occurs, raising the issue in public, prosecuting the guilty people, and having those who are responsible accountable for that is seen as a sign of strength of the system. In the Arab political culture, there seems to be some shame associated, and so the desire is not to make that accountability public. In my view identifying and fixing this process is a sign of strength. As you know, for example, two years ago in New York city 4 or 5 police men detained a person from Haiti, and they mistreated him. They beat him, and with apologies to the ladies present here, he was raped with a stick. That was an extremely terrible case of human rights violation in New York city. The police officers responsible for this violation were brought to trial, found guilty and sentenced to jail. That strengthened the fact that the police department could isolate and prosecute the bad people and that showed that most of the police officers respect human rights and are good police officers.

The fact that the victim was black and the guilty were white created a public debate in the United States and especially, in New York about whether police officers treat the black people differently than white people. That is a very controversial topic in the United States. But the fact that the public is talking about this and that the police is criticized is a sign of strength and healthiness, not a sign of weakness.

My final comments are as follows:
The first, there are many Yemenis who are very interested and committed to democracy and human rights. Several people have talked to me at length already about the report. A criticism that has emerged of the report is that the political and social system of Yemen is very complex, very difficult and to understand it, it requires a greater analysis, a deeper treatment. You cannot really accurately describe Yemen in a report just this long. That criticism is true, I think you could write a book every year about human rights and democratization in Yemen dealing, for example, with the influence of tribe in Yemen, of religion, and that of Yemeni tradition. Unfortunately, the report that we need to submit every year has to be limited in length. I should mention for those of you who are interested in the State Departments’ human rights reports in other countries besides Yemen that if you want to compare between what is happening here and outside Yemen, these reports are on the internet. The State of Department has a web page called US department of state and all the reports are there.

Secondly, one of the things I have sometimes heard in various discussions or meetings of human rights is that the focus on human rights and democracy is a Western input, something strange and foreign for the Arab society or that human rights is Zionist propaganda. I am not an expert on Islam, but I have read some parts of Qura’an and Hadith. I have also talked to religious experts and Moslems and lived in several Islamic countries. I have found personally that the idea that human rights are either foreign to Islam or that Moslems are not concerned with human rights is just false and offensive. There are certain differences between some aspects of Islamic law and some aspects of international human rights law, but, in general, I have found in Moslem religious practice an emphasis on brotherhood, justice and on respect for the things that we would consider human rights. For those in the Arab society that would say that the Arabs should not be concerned with human rights, I would say that they are wrong. The final comment I have is that, as I have said earlier, the US views itself as a partner with Yemen. Yemeni democracy will be and should be different from American democracy, just as British democracy is different from US democracy. Your input is important to us, whether that input is through participation in group meetings like this or individually.

Yemen Times question:
Q: Many observers see that the report focused on violations that took place in Sana’a. Will this be the case in future reports?
A: This is a good comment. It is unintentional that there are many violations in Sana’a. I will be open as I travel more around the country to hearing about violations and improvements all over the country. I urge everyone to provide me with information.
The Embassy does not have an information gathering mechanism. We have no organization to go out and get information. Mr. Steven Walker makes some visits outside Sana’a when he has time. Therefore, you must provide information because we have no mechanism to do it.

Ahlam Abdulraqeeb Salam, Chairman of child and mother department at Saba Information Agency, managing editor of Al-Ehya Al-Alamia

Q: What are the standards that you depend on when writing the report?
The report did not come up with information about women issue and the hurdles they face. so what are the basis of this information? Have you launched field survey and visited jails to see their conditions there? and have you also reflect their suffering in the practical as well as political life?
A: First, there are a variety of sources to collect information. One such sources, for example, is that I take Yemen Times where I come to read an article about torturing a person in a prison. This will show that there is some kind of a violation. So, I properly call and ask him to give me more details about this. Then, I would contact perhaps Khalid Al-Akwa, or any other person who could give me more information. I may also contact some officials at the prison. I may also ask about his event in social sessions ” Makyal”. At the end, I would look at all the information I had and make the best assessment possible. This is, an example, on how can I collect information. But the very nature of human rights problems, you cannot have a document with a perfect prove, so you have to do the best you can.
Regarding women, one of the things I would hope to focus for the coming next year’s report is to focus on issue of women on prisons.
The issue of women in Yemen is a very big and important issue. It has limited space in the report. However, I think that some of the changes we have made in this year’s report on the section of women have made it a bit more accurate.