Yemen & Human Rights: The Gap between the Word & the Practice [Archives:1999/08/Focus]

February 22 1999

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 

Hatem Bamehriz,
Yemen Times Senior Editor
Just over fifty years ago, the world community, took one of its bold steps in bringing more meaning to human civilization. It also shocked the skeptics who based their conclusions on the adversities of World War 2 by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The declaration was a move to help the world mourn, recover, and heal its wounds that resulted from the horrors of the war. Following the WW2, there was an urgent necessity for a new international moral standard in government, one that can provide all human people with justice, dignity and respect.
Out of the evils of the war, a new consensus emerged, calling for secure fundamental rights to all human beings. On 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights. A new vision was forged for all humanity, a vision based on freedom, justice, and equality, a vision to ensure full respect of every individual’s dignity.
That initial step was followed by a number of international agreements and conventions. They cover various specific aspects of human rights like the rights of refugees, children, handicapped, prisoners of war, etc.
Human Rights issues in recent years have become part of the political culture of nations, and an important concern and factor in international relations. Countries have been punished with trade embargoes, and other means for not respecting basic human rights, where others were rewarded with soft loans, and economic aid, for signing different international human rights covenants.
Yemen is one of the countries, which has signed almost all human rights covenants. However, it is not enough that we have signed and ratified. What’s important is that we are serious about implementing them!
Well, the adherence record of Yemen is not a good one. It is clear that we do not adhere to many aspects of the covenants and agreements.
Violations abound and can be easily seen and documented.
It is true our constitution demands the respect of individual’s rights, and emphasis on the protection of these rights. It is true that our government says it wants to respect human rights. It is true that our politicians speak nicely about the need to fulfill our obligations in this field. Unfortunately, however, nothing is being done when violations occur.
I do not argue that it is a government policy to violate human rights, although the fact that many government circles do so at high levels does raise many doubts. But the fact that the authorities are willing to turn a blind eye to these violations is in itself a crime.
In other words, the officials can do more than merely sign the conventions. We want to see them implement the obligations. I don’t think what we are asking is too much.
Ideas in politics do matter, but results matter more. Well, I think everybody will agree with me on this point. Now the question is what did our government do to ensure the implementation of basic human rights? Someone answered my question with rather a stupidly funny answer, he said ” Well, they have allowed the forming of many human rights organizations.” That is true, in fact they have a governmental human rights body. But is the government making the job of these organizations easy? In order to find out I spoke to some of these organizations. They all said that they do face a lot of barricades, and endless problems when they fight a case of human right violation. Now why can’t these organizations join hand with the media, to bring forward such issues? Why can’t they involve the media in fighting violations of human rights? This will help the community in a way of educating them, and make them aware of their rights, and it will help the organization to originate a strong public support.
When I asked them what kind of cases you usually come across quite often? Most of them admitted that it is torture cases. Well, let us have a look at this answer, and examine it. on one hand human rights is a new concept to our society and to our police officers as well, they hear the word, but they don’t understand what it means, and this is the bottom line of the problem. On the other hand one of their duty as police officers is to get confessions out of the bad guys, and in order to do that they are ready to do anything, this is because they are not well qualified as police officers, and that’s why they will go to any extent to prove their capability of making the bad man admit his bad deeds, and prove to their bosses that they were born to be police officers. A huge number of our police men have no clue on basic human right granted by law and the constitution , in other words they are human right illiterates. Surprisingly it is not only our police men, even citizens are not aware of the subject. To find out if people really are aware of their rights, I decided to ask them two simple questions. My survey covered 192 people belonging to different classes of the society
Q1: What will you do, if a police officer shows up at your door, and asked you to accompany him to the police station?
(a) I will accompany him, with no questions?
(b) I will refuse to go?
(c) I will ask if he has an arrest warrant ?
Answers were as follows:
(a) 96 %
(b) 1 %
(c) 3 %
Q2: According to article 48 of the constitution, do you know that you have the right not to answer any question/s without the presence of your lawyer?
(a) Yes
(b) No
Answers were as follows:
(a) 2 %
(b) 98 %
The answers show that we are a human right illiterate society. They also show that we really need to work harder, better and faster in order to honor our commitments in this field.
I wonder why the government is not trying to create awareness regarding human rights? Why is the official media so ignorant about human rights? So is the independent media?! Our television being a very effective media instrument, reaching to almost every house, could play an important role in educating the public and the officials as well, about their rights if it was really put on use.
Most of the human right organizations in Yemen have failed to emphasize the importance of educating the people, rather than defending them. As the saying goes, instead of giving a man a fish, teach him how to fish.
If our government is serious about respecting human rights, it should start a well designed educational program, through the media, school curriculum, mosques, etc. aimed at increasing public awareness in human rights.