In the first session of the Human Rights Communication Forum

Al-Mutawakel said that the reality of human rights situation in Yemen is a reality of war. She added “Yemen is going through a war for eight years. The whole state is in semi-collapse with various armed groups controlling it from Sa’ada to Socotra..

Monday, January 16, 2023
In the first session of the Human Rights Communication Forum
Forum En copy (1)

The international community must establish a mechanism for accountability

16 January 2023

On Monday 16 January 2023, Mwatana for Human Rights, via zoom, held the first session of the Human Rights Communication Forum, in which a general discussion was held about human rights field: realities, challenges and difficulties, achievements and aspirations.Radhya Al-Mutawakel, Chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, Renaud Detalle, the representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Yemen, Sarah Adnan, Researcher of Yemen and Iraq at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and Amat alsalam Al-Hajj, Chairperson of the Abductees’ Mothers Association, spoke at the meeting.Ali Jameel, director of accountability unit at Mwatana, who moderated this meeting, started by giving an idea about the forum and its purpose. Radhya Al-Mutawakel then spoke about the reality of the human rights situation from her perspective as a chairperson of one of the local human rights organization.Al-Mutawakel said that the reality of human rights situation in Yemen is a reality of war. She added “Yemen is going through a war for eight years. The whole state is in semi-collapse with various armed groups controlling it from Sa’ada to Socotra.All parties to the conflict commit violations against civilians, including the (Ansar Allah) armed group, the Saudi-Emirati led coalition, the Southern Transitional Council, the Yemeni Government Forces and its affiliated groups, and the UAE-backed joint forces.She continued by saying, “Yemen, with the continuation of war, turned into the worst humanitarian and human rights crisis in the world. This could have been avoided, despite the ongoing war, if the parties to the conflict had respected international humanitarian law and international human rights law, and if the international community had addressed a clear message to the parties to the conflict that there is accountability.”Al-Mutawakel explained that “The war has local, regional, and international dimensions and that civilians do not only suffer from the direct violations committed by the parties to the conflict but also from starvation used by the different parties as a weapon of war, in addition to the collapsing humanitarian and economic situation, day by day.”Renaud Detalle, the representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Yemen said, “Taking this initiative of launching this human rights communication forum is a good way to start the year and take stock of the situation after eight years of war in Yemen.”Renaud explained, “The situation in Yemen is negative and catastrophic as we all know. In light of this situation, the conflict continues and the crisis persists. In the reports of Mwatana and the UN, we conclude that the significant reduction in violations has not taken place on more than one level.”Renaud added, “In the last years I have worked in many conflict zones, from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria, and Lebanon where I witnessed the consequences of lack of accountability. There is no conflict where human rights are respected. As soon as armed conflicts break out, violations start and things get complicated and civilians fall victims.”In addition, Amat alsalam Al-Hajj, Chairperson of the Abductees’ Mothers Association, said, “the reality of human rights in Yemen has reached a critical juncture because of the multitude of regional and international conflicting parties, and therefore it is extremely difficult to work in this field.”Al- Hajj called for “acting together, joining hands, and working transparently to redress victims whose rights are being violated by various parties. The reality of today is affecting everything, including humans, animals, nature, and demography.”In the same context, Sara Adnan, a Researcher of Yemen and Iraq at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said that Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) need such initiatives with rich discussion and exchange of ideas.Adnan mentioned a challenge facing the Yemeni crisis, which is shaping a narrative of accountability to shed light on Yemen from this perspective.Sara said that “the world is in a state of dispersion and various crises, including Ukraine, Afghanistan, Tigray, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, South of Sudan, and Libya, which leads to dispersion of distribution of resources making Yemen’s humanitarian situation a priority.”She added, “Despite the importance of the presence of emergency humanitarian organizations, funding for human rights organizations has significantly diminished and the fact that CSOs are working according to the priorities of donors is not an issue just in Yemen but also in conflict zones in general.” Sara touched on the lack of a mechanism to discuss the situation of Yemen in the Human Rights Council currently.Sara spoke about another challenge, which is “Focusing on economic, political, and social rights only. She added that we only focus on the apparent violations of international law and international human rights law, and this is important. However, we must also focus on the violations at the household level and the society level. We are talking about a whole people who have been subjected to direct and indirect social and economic harm.”Radhya Al-Mutawakel was given the floor again to speak about the challenges encountered by CSOs. She said, “There was no professional human rights fieldwork, where violations are monitored in accordance with international standards and where victims are given a voice so the world can hear them.”Radhya Al-Mutawakel added that the work at Mwatana began from scratch. She said, “We are aware that the most important step you should take in any conflict zone or even in a normal situation is monitoring violations, i.e. information, and information is power. Through information, you can carry out advocacy and accountability, give the victims a voice, and work to protect civilians. To achieve this, we need to be present in all areas of Yemen and adhere to international professional standards. It was not easy for us as a local organization to embark upon this journey because every time we started working, we would start from scratch.”“The international community was not accustomed to a local organization carrying out monitoring and documenting human rights violations in accordance with the international standards, so we needed time to convince the donors of our ability to do that. Also, the grants allocated to human rights organizations are much less than those given to other fields such as the humanitarian field and development, while human rights are seen as the exception.” she added,Radhya said that “carrying out human rights work in a war situation and the control of armed parties is yet another challenge. Our team has been subjected to arrests by different parties to the conflict. Most of these arrests of our team members took place in areas controlled by the Ansar Allah group. However, some arrests also took place in areas controlled by the government and other groups.”In addition to that, Radhya said that “Organizations face difficulty in getting licenses whether in Sana’a or in Aden. She added that Mwatana has been subjected to misinformation and campaigns to tarnish its reputation. She concluded by saying, “Despite all these challenges, there is a space to work in Yemen. Whoever wants to work hard, independently, and professionally, they can do that. However, this will not be easy and you have to fight and leave your mark and carry on.”In regard to the issue of the reality of human rights in Yemen, the representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Yemen, Renaud Detalle said, “the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Yemen was opened in 2012. At that time, it was opened at the invitation of the authority to accompany what we expected, which is a democratic transition following the events of 2011 and the stepping down of the former president.”He noted that “the Office, on my own initiative, denounced the decision of the GCC to grant impunity for the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and anyone who served with him ever since he took power in 1978. He added, “this is not the way to build peace, which is promoting impunity.”Renaud explained the tasks mandated by OHCHR at the beginning of its work and at present:“In fact, after the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), our Office, just like many other organizations, sought to document victims and violations during the conflict period in 2012 and 2014 and then what happened after that at the hands of the coalition.”He added, “Our Office was originally a small one and was not designed, equipped, or staffed with specialists in documenting casualties or the many different violations that can take place in a conflict, so it took us some time to establish this. Then something happened, due to international pressure, which is the establishment of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE).”In regard to the new mandate of the Office, Renaud said, “By 2021, I started working in Yemen, a country I knew well because I was living in it in the 90s. The GEE was terminated by a decision, which many of us deplore, by the Human Rights Council. For me it was always clear that we need to resume our reporting because there was no other alternative.”Renaud noted that “OHCHR Office will be issuing its first report covering the entire year of 2022 within a few weeks.”He added that “We are not only feeding into a database for others to use, which the GEE had access to this database but also conducting analysis and advocacy work. This does not preclude a new international mechanism should be established. We will continue to support the establishment of such mechanism but this would be two separate entities.”Regarding the difficulties that OHCHR is facing, Renaud said that, “There is fragmentation in the country. I myself am speaking to you from Aden because I am unable to travel back to Sana’a, where our Office was established and where most of the staff is still based, because I have been denied a visa for the last two years by the de facto authorities in Sana’a.”“It was only last year that I was able to undertake my first mission to Saudi Arabia to initiate dialogue with the coalition, but I am hoping that my request for another visit in the coming weeks would also be approved because a single meeting with a number of interlocutors in Riyadh is not sufficient. I am also hoping that at some point I would be able to travel to Abu Dhabi and a number of other places where our voice needs to be heard and where we are able to advocate and ask for explanation on why so many civilians are still dying as a result of this conflict. I also hope that any peace agreement, that might be reached and that we hear is taking place, to be discussed in a transparent manner with the involvement of CSOs, which is unfortunately not happening.” Renaud added,Regarding the other dangers, Renaud explained, “There is a continuous danger that exists in the country. For example, simply traveling from Aden to Mokha, which is not very far, can be very dangerous because there are multiple attacks, abductions, and seizures of cars on the roads. Many roads are being shut down. For example, the road between Aden, Turbah, and then Taiz, through Tur Al Baha, is regularly shut down. We are not able to travel through Abyan because we have 5 UN colleagues who have been detained for almost year. I also must mention that two of my UN colleagues, one of them from my own office, are still arbitrarily detained in Sana’a. So, all these elements put pressure on me and my colleagues.”Amat Alsalam Al-Hajj, Chairperson of the Abductees’ Mothers Association, said that among the challenges facing their work are:“I personally and many of the Association’s members cannot access Sana’a because we are facing similar threats. There is also the issue of politicization of violations so that if someone talks about violations, they are being stigmatized and accused of belonging to a particular political party or entity.”Amat Al-salam also considered that “classifying, labeling, and accusing human rights workers of belonging to particular parties is one of the challenges that they face in their work.”Amat al-salam talked about how they are being persecuted by the Houthis and said, “In the beginning, we faced security threats from the Houthis. Now, we are also being threatened by the Southern Transitional Council, and the legitimate government. She also touched on the challenge of lack of sufficient support for human rights work, as well as the difficulty of obtaining visas to advocate for human rights work, in addition to the issue of the reluctance of victims and their families to report violations and their disenchantment and despair of the impact of CSOs’ work.”Amat al-salam addressed the difficulty of, “Protecting the eyewitnesses and whistleblowers in human rights cases, the difficulty of accessing special rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council (HRC), and the difficulty of affording the costs of working with them in case they were available.”Amat alsalam concluded by mentioning the obstacles and difficulties they face in "Obtaining and renewing licenses," warning that a peace agreement might be concluded without considering people's rights.”In response to a question about the achievements and aspirations of CSOs’ work, Radhya stated, “It is really difficult to talk about achievements taking into consideration the generally complicated situation where civilians are still facing the worst kinds of violations committed by all parties to the conflict and in view of lack of accountability.”However, Al-Mutawakel continues by saying, “Mwatana contributed to building a collective human rights memory of the war. We learned from our experience that even if one thousand people died and if these incidents were not accurately and professionally documented, then the international community would act as if nothing had happened and as if no one had died. Therefore, documenting violations is extremely important. Documentation has two dimensions: timely advocacy dimension to mitigate harm and protect civilians, and it has another dimension of accountability and redress in the future.”“This war goes beyond Mwatana and other NGOs’ ability. Nevertheless, Mwatana was able to contribute to accumulating a collective memory of human rights violations, giving a voice to the victims, and annoying the world with their voices in a war that was meant to fall into oblivion.” She added,Al-Mutawakel added, “CSOs have sought to ensure that the war in Yemen is not forgotten. We also at Mwatana in the Legal Support Unit, which includes male and female lawyers who work in most Yemeni governorates, can talk about a direct achievement when we help to release detainees or help those forcibly disappeared to return to their families.The magnitude of the tragedy is far bigger than the achievement. The work of NGOs has been met with a world where impunity is promoted rather than accountability. However, I do believe that civil society was able to sound the alarm of accountability.”In the section of questions from the audience of the Human Rights Forum, the representative of the High Commissioner answered a question about the role of the UN in supporting an international accountability mechanism in Yemen saying,“We are about to publish a report, which will be the first report issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Yemen since 2017. We will not only be documenting what we observed and verified in the course of 2022 in relation to civilian casualties but also we will cover what we call conflict nexus, therefore falling more under IHL violations. This report isn’t only about body count but will go beyond to look at the lack of accountability as well as what we suggest to bring this to an end.In addition to that, we have also recently established, with a number of member states who were empathetic to the cause of transitional justice, a small working group, which had its first meeting in Amman in December. On the occasion of Human Rights Day 10 December 2022, we organized a conference on Justice and the Rule of Law to Promote and Protect Human Rights, which was held in Aden. Despite the ongoing conflict, more can be done to restore the rule of law, which is pretty much absent from large parts of the country, allowing many violations to take place. Peace would not be built on impunity.”As for the action plan for the year 2023, Radhya Al-Mutawakel says that "Among our priorities of advocacy and accountability we have at Mwatana, which we have been working on mainly since 2017 and before that, is to have an independent international mechanism not only to monitor violations but also to have a criminal mechanism that preserves evidence and builds cases just like the mechanism that exists in Syria, Myanmar, and Ukraine.Yemen’s pain is no less than the pain of these countries that had this mechanism. The establishment of this mechanism is not a luxury. Ending the GEE’s mandate in Yemen was a green light message to the parties to the conflict to continue committing violations, and until now this message has not been replaced with a message of real accountability.Sara from the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies said, “One of the priorities of advocacy for us, as you have seen in statements and meetings with the responsible states in the Human Rights Council is that we are trying to pressure the member states of the United Nations, its agencies, bodies, and experts to support efforts for an urgent intervention, as well as for the establishment of an international body of a criminal nature to collect, preserve, and analyze evidence and prepare cases for the post-conflict phase, especially for victims of serious criminal violations.”When asked if there was an avenue for justice, accountability, and prevention of the recurrence of impunity, Raynaud replied:“I insist on reminding everybody that the international community is directly responsible for granting this immunity to the former president, and I hope that this error will not be repeated. I think that the fact we have seen, as part of this conflict, the emergence of a very strong civil society group such as Mwatana and the Abductees’ Mothers Association is an applauding achievement. I have not seen the equivalent of these think tanks of male and female researchers in any other place. They are now able to set global standards in documenting evidence and building cases.”As for the role of the Abductees’ Mothers Association, Amat al-salam Al- Hajji said,“As an outcome of the work we have been doing during these years, we were able to contribute to the release of more than 950 detainees and forcibly disappeared. We were also able to access many victims and document their cases. We received training from the scratch. We worked hard and thank God we are now among the most reputable human rights organizations. We have been able to convey our message to all international forums. I call for everyone to join hands as human rights organizations and to work together to find a mechanism for preserving human rights memory and for accountability for human rights violators.”