by Kizito Ssekitooleko, CIVICUS intern, Geneva
On 29 January 2014, I attended the side meeting on Yemen, organized by CIVICUS and its partners, as well as the 18th Session of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Yemen. One of the issues that arose in the side meeting and the UPR process was concerning investigations into the human rights violations during the 2011 uprising in Yemen. This issue caught my attention, because it directly touches on the work of human rights activists and human rights defenders in Yemen. As it will be shown below, the rights violated included attacks on peaceful protesters, restrictions on exercise of the right to expression, association and assembly which are core to the work of human rights activists and human rights defenders and other civil society organizations. Before I dwell on this issue, let me briefly talk about the 2011 uprising in Yemen.
Inspired by civilian uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, in January, 2011 peaceful protesters marched on the streets of Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen demanding, among others, the resignation of the then authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh. After interventions from regional and international actors including the United Nations Security Council and the Gulf Cooperation Council, in November 2011, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to resign by signing an agreement on the transition of power, transferring power to the Vice President and formally stepping down by the Presidential elections of 21 February 2012, in exchange for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family. The Presidential election was held on 21/2/2012 where the Acting President, Mr. Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, was the only candidate. He won by over 99% and took the oath of Presidency on 25/2/2012. Accordingly, Yemeni protesters effectively got a new government at the end of February 2012.
Although these peaceful demonstrators succeeded in getting a new government, they suffered severe violations of human rights at the hands of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government during this civilian uprising. In a bid to quell the peaceful demonstrations, the government brutally responded by use of excessive and live ammunition resulting in a number of deaths and injuries. More so, during this period, freedom of expression, assembly and opinion was greatly curtailed as armed government forces attacked, threatened and arrested journalists, human rights activists and human rights defenders for reporting violations of human rights of the peaceful protesters.
When the new government assumed power, it made a promise to set up an Independent Commission to investigate violations of human rights during the civilian uprising and hold accountable or punish the perpetrators as well as offer redress to the victims. In September, 2012, the President lived up to the government’s promise by authorizing the creation of an Independent Commission through a Decree. However, reports indicate that no such Commission has ever been established, which means that to date, no investigation into the human rights violations during the 2011 civilian uprising has ever been made. To make matters worse, a draft law on Transitional Justice that makes provision for compensation of victims has never been enacted.
In the side meeting, all the presenters (Mr. Ezzedine Al-Asbahi, Mr. Yousuf Aburas, Mr. Arafat Alroufaid and Mrs. Bushra Alameiri) who are human rights activists from Yemen confirmed that no investigation into the 2011 human rights violation has ever been made as promised by new government. These activists rightly pointed out that the failure of this new government to fast track investigations into the 2011 human rights violations was a clear sign that this new government was not committed to promoting and protecting the human rights of the Yemen people.
In the UPR process, the same issue of lack of investigations into the 2011 human rights violations came up. The delegation of Yemen was headed by H.E. Ms. Hooria Mashhoyr Ahmed, Minister of Human Rights. In her report, she highlighted a number of steps the new government had taken to ensure promotion and protection of human rights in Yemen, including among others, establishing a national committee to combat human trafficking, establishing a department for human rights and a department for family protection under its Ministry of Human Rights, establishing a National Committee tasked with developing a National Human Rights Strategy, issuing a Cabinet Decision to release all prisoners of conscience detained in 2011 from all lawful and unlawful places of detention, tabling a draft text on amendments to the Press and Publications Act before the House of Representative for debate to improve press freedom and issuing a circular in which Registrars of marriage were instructed to refuse to register the marriage of any person under 17 years of age.
However, on the issue of establishing an independent commission to investigate the 2011 violations of human rights, Her Excellency said that the government was still considering this issue. In effect, the government also confirmed that no investigations have ever been carried since it assumed power in February, 2012. During the UPR Session, delegates from Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Australia called on the new government to carry out investigations into the human rights violations in 2011 by among others appointing the Commissioners and ensuring that those responsible are held accountable.
Although this government has been in power for only two (2) years and remains fragile, facing several financial and humanitarian challenges, failure to commence investigations into the 2011 human rights violations is inexcusable because it requires limited commitment of financial resources. I agree, in totality, with the human rights activists from Yemen, Mr. Ezzedine Al-Asbahi, Mr. Yousuf Aburas, Mr. Arafat Alroufaid and Mrs. Bushra Alameiri, who all presented during the side meeting that the delay to start investigations into the 2011 human rights violations is evidence that this new government’s commitment to promote and protect human rights is still lacking.
It should be noted that the 2011 violations of human rights happened when peaceful demonstrators, civil society organizations, human rights activists and human rights defenders were exercising their right to assembly, speech and expression. Therefore, the delay to carry out investigations into these violations implies that the right of civil society organizations, human rights activists and defenders to assemble, express their opinion and to associate is still under threat as the perpetrators are yet to be held accountable and the victims are yet be offered any kind of redress. It is not surprising that serious threats to journalists, human rights activists and defenders still exist today as reported in the Human Rights Watch report (2013).
According to the Draft report of the Working Group on the Universal Period Review and adopted by the said Working Group on 31 January 2014, Yemen accepted 165 recommendations, including the recommendations (by the Netherlands, Australia, Portugal and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) on investigating into the 2011 human rights violations. This is welcome. However, if the people of Yemen and the international community are to believe the new government’s assurances that it is committed to promoting and protecting people’s human rights, it must, as a matter of urgency establish the independent commission to investigate into the 2011 human rights violations. This commission, after its establishment, should expeditiously carry out its work free of interference from the government, publish its findings and those found guilty of human rights violations be punished in accordance with the law. Hopefully this will be done before the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council in June, 2014, where the Draft report of the Working Group will be adopted by UNHRC.