Violent dispersal of protestors triggers conflicting reactions [Archives:2005/905/Front Page]

December 22 2005

Nadia Al-Sakkaf
SANA'A, Dec. 20 – The Yemeni National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (NORDF) known as 'HOOD' had put blame mainly on UNHCR-Yemen for the death of the five Somali refugee and injury of another five during their demonstration last week. A press statement issued by HOOD on Monday Dec. 19 mentioned the UNHCR calling for security forces to the scene of the Somali sit-in outside the UNHCR office had indirectly caused the death of one Somali refugee and injury of others. Khalid Al-Anisi, Executive manager of HOOD said his organization had sent official memorandum to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and Director of UNHCR in Geneva requesting an inquiry into the action of UNHCR-Yemen which “called for force to be used against defenseless refugees who have been peacefully asking for solutions to their problems.”

Mr. Al-Anisi said security forces had been called in large numbers to arrest protesters and disperse them by force from the scene, adding, “What is even more outrageous is the fact that the use of force was based on a request by the UNHCR-Yemen, which is an international organization concerned with protecting the rights of the people.” He said his organization opened investigations into the use of force against the refugees who were demonstrating peacefully at the time the forces arrived in the scene.

Simultaneously, the Somali Refugee Intellectuals Committee (SRICY) in Yemen denounced the killing of the Somali refugees in Sana'a on during the protest last Saturday 17 December 2005. The press release issued on 18 December 2005 by SRICY stated: “The Sana'a police used tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators, killing poor and destitute refugees including children. “

“There was no need for the police to use violence to break up peaceful demonstrations, “said Abdulrahman Al-Marwani the Dean of Dar al-Salaam Organization, as quoted in the Somali press release.

On the other hand the UNHCR expressed its sadness at the way things turned for both the Somali refugees and the Yemeni security officers – of which four were injured during the clashes.

In the press release issued by the UN agency it said: “Since the start of the protest, UNHCR had sought to reach a peaceful solution through dialogue. UNHCR staff met several times with the demonstrators to discuss their demands. We agreed to meet several of them, including more assistance for vulnerable refugees; more Somali-speaking UNHCR staff; and additional health care. One of their main demands, resettlement to third countries, is only an option for a few vulnerable cases and at the discretion of the resettlement countries themselves – not UNHCR. Registration and provision of ID cards is also being arranged.”

However, despite all UNHCR's attempts and advocating for a peaceful solution, by last weekend the crowd had become increasingly aggressive and were blocking the entrance to the office and was in a very violent manner preventing staff from leaving. Yemeni anti riot forces decided to intervene to protect UNHCR staff and restore public order. UNHCR's Yemen's office commented on the security intervention:” The intervention was done in a professional manner, but turned violent when the demonstrators started attacking the police with heavy stones. “

In a letter to the Yemen Times – to be published next week – the UNHCR Yemen's office stated that it is ensuring that the injured receive medical care and is assisting the family of the deceased, whose identity and cause of death until today remain unknown. We also remain in contact with the demonstrators to ensure our previous agreements are met.


The Somali refugees in Yemen who are estimated to be more than seventy thousand had been complaining to the Yemeni authorities and UNHCR's local office of their deteriorating conditions continuously. Since last month, hundreds of the refugees residing in Sana'a held a sit-in regularly outside the UNHCR premises demanding their rights as refugees. For more than a month, about 500 refugees, along with their families, have been expressing their demands for improving their current legal, economic and social living conditions, as well as, their forsaken human rights. They complain that they have been badly treated and still they have not received their financial allocations. Some of them reported to the Yemen Times that “with the help of police officers, some Yemeni nationals who look like Somalis managed to get aids from the commissioner for refugees in Yemen, while real Somali refugees have not received any aid”. Following a 12-day continuous sit-in in front of the UNHCR's office end of last month, Somalis refugees had their names registered in six centers in Sanaa in an effort by UNHCR and the Yemeni government to sort their problems. However, this effort did not seem enough as the Somali refugees continued their protesting plight again. Last Saturday Yemen Times reported that four Somali refugees and one child were killed during clashes with Yemeni security forces who rushed to break up a sit-in outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the capital Sana'a. Five others were also hurt, one of them died in the hospital. Police detained 25 others. Four policemen were badly injured while trying to disperse the refugees. Anti-riot police also moved in to control groups of refugees who attacked officers. Police forces first used water hoses and sticks to break up the sit-in, and then they resorted to using arms. Yemen Times source at the Ministry of Interior stated that the clashes took place outside the UNHCR in Sana'a between Somali refugees assembling there and security forces that tried to disperse them at the request of the UNHCR.

The clashes have taken a serious trend violating the international standards for free assembly, association, and expression the government of Yemen has ratified. The international human rights law guarantees the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” Article 21 of the Civil and Political Covenant secures the right to peaceful assembly and Article 22 protects freedom of association. Article 11(1) of the European Convention declares, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others . . ..” In addition, Articles 15 and 16 of the American Convention guarantee the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

In terms of containing a demonstration; generally, both local and national authorities have the power to control demonstrations in the interest of restoring public order.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials stress the need for governments and law enforcement agencies to adopt and implement rules and regulations on the use of force and firearms against people by law enforcement officials. In particular, the general provisions state that the use of force and firearms should be a last resort, and that law enforcement officials must always:

– “exercise restraint…and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence…;

– minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

– ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment”;

The general provisions also state that:

“Exceptional circumstances such as internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked to justify any departure from these basic principles.”

During the 1991 Somali Civil War, many Somalis fled to neighboring countries like Yemen. Here, Somalis live in refugee camps, cities and villages begging with their children who, as a result, are uneducated. They survive by begging, washing cars, shoe shiners, porters and becoming housemaids and prostitutes. Their earnings from these menial jobs pay mostly for food and house rent. There are approximately 50,000 registered Somali refugees in Yemen, while officials here in Yemen estimate the number of refugees and illegal immigrants to be around 70.000. According to the UNHCR, Somalis entering Yemen are automatically granted refugee status by the government. At the end of October, some 79,000 refugees had been registered with UNHCR in Yemen, more than 68,000 of whom were from Somalia. Somalis in Yemen are able to work and to stay in the country indefinitely. Most Somalis live in urban areas, with roughly 7,500 staying at the Kharaz refugee camp in the Lahj governorate in the country's south.