Thursday, February 2, 2023

Child Soldiers in Yemen: Cannon Fodder for an Unnecessary War

*Feb 2, 2023, The Arab Center Washington DC - Recruitment of children as actual or auxiliary soldiers in Yemen’s ongoing war is one of the most dire developments in the conflict since its initial eruption in 2014. Driven to the frontlines by the machinations of invested leaders, financial need, tribal solidarity, and other reasons, children have paid a heavy price, one that will continue to accrue for years to come and will affect all of Yemeni society. Aside from it being a war crime under international law, using Yemen’s children as fuel for a seemingly endless war will deprive them and their country of the chance to build both a modern economy that can guarantee a decent standard of living and a sovereign state that can safeguard the rights of its people.

All Parties Recruit Children

Walking down any street of Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa, which is controlled by the Houthi insurgent group (officially known as Ansar Allah), one quickly notices posters and photos pasted on walls and advertising stands that show the group’s child soldiers who were killed in the conflict, all dressed in military uniform. The Houthi armed group has recruited and utilized thousands of children in the fighting, and indeed, all parties to the conflict in Yemen have recruited children. According to the Annual Report of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict released in July 2022, children in Yemen have been recruited by the internationally recognized government of Yemen (IRGY), pro-government militias, the Houthis, unidentified perpetrators, the Security Belt Forces, and the so-called Islamic State. UNICEF reported at the end of last year that the UN has verified that 3,995 children (both boys and, to a lesser extent, girls) have been recruited since 2015. And the report admits that actual numbers are likely much higher.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported in 2017 that the majority of the reports it has received of child recruitment were committed by the Popular Committees affiliated with the Houthis. Local Yemeni human rights group, SAM for Rights and Liberties, together with Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, reported in 2021 that data it has gathered shows that the Houthi group alone has recruited 10,333 children since 2014. Despite the decline in active fighting following a series of truces last year, and despite the Houthis’ pledge to the UN in April to end child recruitment, the group continues to recruit children.

Recruitment of children under the age of 18 is a direct violation of existing Yemeni legislation, including the Juvenile Welfare Act established in 1992 and the Rights of the Child Act established in 2002. And recruitment of children under 15 is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Regardless, children who act as combatants in armed groups, militias, and even government forces typically engage in warfare in a variety of ways, including fighting, spying, laying mines, and working at security checkpoints.

Using Children as Fodder for War

Since the beginning of the Yemen conflict in 2014, child recruitment has become extremely prevalent among parties to the conflict. On December 2018, the New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia has recruited Sudanese children as child soldiers and sent them to the battlefield. Moreover, the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen reported in 2021 that it has investigated cases of children being recruited in Yemen, trained in Saudi Arabia, and used in hostilities in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition and the government of Yemen.

Child recruitment has also been taking place among Yemen’s UAE-backed, non-state armed groups. The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen reported in 2020 that the UAE was providing support to nearly 90,000 fighters in Yemen, and some of these fighters are known to be children.

The Security Belt Forces and the Shabwani Elite Forces are some of the major UAE-backed armed groups in Yemen. The Security Belt Forces, established in 2016, are the military unit affiliated with the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council—a political council seeking to establish a sovereign and independent federal state in southern Yemen. The Security Belt Forces have recruited children, according to a UN report published last year. And Yemen’s National Commission to Investigate Alleged Violations of Human Rights reported in 2021 that the Shabwani Elite Forces had recruited one child.

Factors Behind the Recruitment of Children

Before the outbreak of the current conflict, during former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, the recruitment of children happened mainly within government forces. In those days, the defense sector was one of the state’s most stable institutions, providing steady salaries. This situation encouraged families to alter their children’s birth certificates to raise their ages to 18, allowing them to enlist in the army and receive a salary. However, children didn’t necessarily participate in belligerent military activities at the time.

Another factor affecting such enlistment was the fact that Yemeni social customs and traditions associate carrying a gun with prestigious status and power, including when it comes to children. There is also a tendency in Yemeni culture to perceive someone who is 15 or 16 as an adult, and no longer a child. At this age, individuals are expected to work, especially if they are already married, having been victims of the practice of child marriage. Laws established prior to the conflict to prohibit child recruitment, such as the aforementioned Juvenile Welfare Act and the Rights of the Child Act, turned out to be extremely weak because they failed to deter perpetrators by mandating and enforcing concrete punishment.

The lack of legislation to ban child marriage has also had an indirect but significant effect on child recruitment. Unable to afford to feed and take care of their children, families escape poverty by marrying off their young children. Married children tend to have children directly after marriage and remain illiterate and without the skills to raise and take care of their children. Child marriages lead to an abundance of children in a family that is already struggling with poverty. It is not unusual in Yemen to find a man or a woman, especially in rural areas, who is still in their twenties yet is already a grandparent. And people who were married as children often push their children to do any kind of work to make money, even if it means taking part in war.

In a country where nearly half the population of 34 million is under 18, children are always plentiful. Given the profound economic crisis that Yemen is currently facing, children have been the victims of economic exploitation amid growing poverty. Reasons for child recruitment vary from one area to another; however, the most common reason behind its success is dire economic circumstances. The destruction of vital infrastructure during the conflict has destroyed livelihoods, including those reliant on farming and fishing systems, making an already dire situation even worse. And the war economy has made participation in armed conflict and related industries one of the key sources of income in the country.

The majority of Yemen’s child soldiers come from destitute families and regions and are lured with money. Through a combination of coercion, solicitation with salaries, and propaganda, children are recruited, and they are easily lured by the promise of a salary of 20,000 Yemeni rials (approximately $25), accommodation, a daily supply of khat (a plant that acts as a stimulant when chewed), tobacco, and other benefits. The salary makes a child feel that they will soon be in a better economic situation and will be able to transfer some of the money to their family and to thereby improve their economic situation as well.

The Recruitment Process

In the child soldier recruitment process, international humanitarian aid plays a significant role. According to numerous reports by local media, the Houthi group steals humanitarian aid and then exploits people’s need for said aid in order to recruit children. Several reports have documented that the group has diverted aid to its military effort.

The Houthi group has created the Supreme Council for Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation (SCMCHA), which supervises and regulates all humanitarian aid programs carried out in Houthi-controlled areas. However, it often uses this body and other means to “try to compel the selection of certain contractors, restrict the travel of aid workers or otherwise seek to influence aid operations,” according to a statement made in January by UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths.

The Houthi armed group has an advanced system of recruiting given its long history of recruiting children since the 1990s, one that includes brokers, Houthi supervisors, teachers, and neighborhood elders. Children recruited by the group go into a camp for children where they receive military training. Those camps date to the 1990s when they were called “summer camps” and intended to be run only during the summer, during children’s break from school. Today, those camps are open all year long. And traditional schools are actually being transformed to more closely resemble the organization of the old summer camps. This is being done by the second most important man in the armed group, Yahia Badreddin al-Houthi—the brother of the group’s leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi—who has been the Minister of Education in the Houthi’s de facto northern government since 2016. Al-Houthi has made changes to the curriculum in Houthi-controlled areas, with a focus on the group’s sectarian ideology.

Implications of Child Recruitment

The ramifications of child recruitment, if not carefully and thoroughly addressed, will negatively impact peace-building efforts, especially because numerous child soldiers repeatedly return to fighting, with local media groups claiming that some have returned as many as three times. The increasing militarization of Yemen’s youth in the course of the conflict might become one factor affecting the potential for the conflict to erupt again in the future, even if peace is achieved in the short term. Pre-conflict factors, the devastating impact of the conflict, and the lack of a comprehensive development strategy will all likely lead to continued recruitment—and most likely the re-recruitment—of children. However, comprehensively addressing child recruitment today will help minimize the chances of a return to conflict.

The recruitment of children for warfare in Yemen is not only a fundamental human rights issue; it is also a profound peace issue. No society can achieve peace by turning its children into soldiers. Any potential political agreement or negotiation to end the conflict in Yemen must therefore include a clause banning the recruitment and use of children in any form of hostilities. The UN and other stakeholders should then establish monitoring procedures to identify individuals and groups that violate such an agreement. The international community needs to play a more proactive role by instituting sanctions against officials and individuals responsible for child recruitment.

The international community should also donate generously to rehabilitation and reintegration programs organized and run by Yemen’s civil society groups who are documenting the recruitment of children for military activities, such as the Yemen Organization for Combating Human Trafficking and Mayyun for Human Rights and Development. The international community must rethink its humanitarian aid funding and limit the ways that local armed groups can manipulate aid to fuel the process of child soldier recruitment, ensuring that aid distribution happens independently and without interference. The Yemeni government must also be pressured to amend its inconsistent laws defining the age of a child, which also feed confusion and lead to victimization. Yemen’s children will soon be the ones building their country’s future, but in order to do so they must first be allowed to enjoy a real childhood, one that is free from exploitation and violence.

*This policy analysis report by Afrah Nasser was originally written for/published by the Arab Center Washington DC on February 2, 2023. Source link here

Sunday, December 18, 2022

‘Republic of fear’: A return to Yemen after 11 years

After almost 12 years of living in exile in Sweden, I went back to Yemen to visit my 
hometown Sana'a in May 2022. (Old Sana'a, Yemen (C) Afrah Nasser)

*As the plane descended, a once familiar sight appeared outside the window, one that I had not seen for 12 years: the waters of the Arabian Sea, the buildings in the distance and then, just when you think you’re about to land on the water, the runway of Aden’s airport.

When I left Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2011, with just carry-on luggage, I didn’t think I would be away for so long.

But a dictatorship, threats, and then a war kept me away.

The war was why, when I arrived for my visit in April, I had to fly to Aden, Yemen’s second city in the south of the country, and not Sanaa, where I’m from, in the north. Sanaa is controlled by the Houthis, the Iranian-allied rebel group the Saudi-backed government has been fighting since 2014.

As I was to find out, despite all those years of fighting, and Saudi-led coalition air raids, the Houthis are still deeply entrenched in the north.

“You still look the same,” said my 31-year-old cousin, Ahmed*, as he greeted me at the airport. “It’s like you’ve only been away for a short trip.”

Ahmed and the rest of my family have been following my reporting on Yemen from Sweden, where I have been based since I left, and the country I am now a citizen of. But writing about Yemen is not the same as being in it. As Ahmed hugged me, my tears betrayed how I felt about being away from my country and my family.

“Don’t cry,” said Ahmed gently, as we began the 14-hour road trip to Sanaa. “Save your tears for the destruction and despair that you are about to see.”

The flag of the former South Yemen, which united with North Yemen to form the Republic of Yemen in 1990, is visible across southern Yemen,a sign of the strength of separatist sentiment
 [Afrah Nasser/Al Jazeera]

Journey into exile

Before leaving Yemen I worked as a journalist. I had just started my blog, devoted to covering human rights in the country, when the 2011 uprising began. I covered the protests against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the former North Yemen since 1978, and then when it united with South Yemen in 1990, the Republic of Yemen.

In those early days of the protests, there was so much optimism about the future of the country, but at the same time, massacres of protesters warned of what was to come.

I was frustrated that only a few native Yemeni voices were writing about what was happening in Yemen in English, so I started to blog about it.

My writing brought warnings, hateful comments, and then death threats. But I continued until, in May 2011, three years into my work as a full-time reporter at the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sanaa, I left for Sweden to participate in a training course I’d applied for before the protests had begun.

While I was away, armed fighting started on the streets of Sanaa. “The violence is escalating. Don’t come back now,” my family would tell me on the phone. “If you do come back, you won’t be able to write, you can’t write any more. It’s too dangerous.”

I couldn’t imagine life without writing, so, at 25 years old, I made the decision to stay on my own in Sweden.

In my phone calls with my family, the main way I have been able to keep in touch during the long years of my exile, the warnings continued.

“If you come back and continue your journalism, you’ll end up in prison,” my mother would say. “I have no connections to get you out, and I will not come to visit you in your cell. You’ll be tortured and raped. Do not come back.”

My mother was terrified that my work would endanger me. Her solution was to try and scare me away from the profession.

I heard their warnings, but the pain of being away was growing unbearable. I’m sure everyone says the same thing about their country, or the place they grew up in, but Yemen had a hold of me.

Covering Yemen from afar was the only thing that filled the void inside me and helped ease the pain of missing home. 

Posters of Houthi fighters who have died in the fighting have become ubiquitous
around Sanaa [Afrah Nasser/Al Jazeera]

An opportunity to return

This April, a truce – which ended on October 2 after the Houthis failed to agree on its renewal – brought the opening I was waiting for.

An opportunity to spend the final days of Ramadan, and celebrate Eid, with the people I loved the most.

But my entire family, apart from Ahmed, remained oblivious to my plans. After all their warnings, I didn’t want to have them worrying while I made the arduous journey.

The trip from Aden to Sanaa was never an easy one – it passes from Yemen’s southern coast through the mountains, along winding roads with huge drops, and some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll see, the landscape changing from Ibb’s green mountains, to Dhamar’s fields, and then to the dustier, and yet still majestic, mountains of Sanaa.

That beauty was still there, but the trip was now far harder to make.

To avoid front lines, the route takes several detours, sometimes along roads that can barely be described as such, which occasionally flood in the summer rainy season.

Many have lost their lives along these treacherous passages – secondary casualties of this brutal war. Another cause of significant delays: the approximately 40 checkpoints we had to pass through along the road that belonged to the various parties to the conflict.

These checkpoints leave you drained, not only because of the gruelling interrogations that take place there, but also because of the realisation that you’re in a divided country, and Yemen is no longer a united land.

“Where are you from? Show me identification,” the guard yelled as Ahmed and I arrived at a checkpoint controlled by the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC).

The United Arab Emirates-backed STC, the major force in southern Yemen, controls all the checkpoints along the road we took, up to the central governorate of al-Bayda.

The STC guards had more questions: What city we were travelling to, where the car’s papers were, and whether they could take some of our qat (for all of Yemen’s divisions, qat, a mild narcotic, remains a great unifier).

As we drove away from the checkpoint, Ahmed explained why we had not had much trouble.“They wanted to know if we were from Sanaa,” Ahmed, who was born and raised in Sanaa, said.

“But my ID says that I’m from Hadramout instead.” Hadramout, a large governorate in eastern Yemen, has stayed out of much of the tension between the north and south. While it is a southern governorate, and separatist sentiment exists there, it has been spared much of the direct fighting that has occurred between government forces and separatists in other parts of the south.

Back in 2016, Ahmed had managed to change his identification card to show his residence as Hadramout, knowing that it would save him from a lot of suspicion on trips around the country.

The Houthi slogan, including the line ‘Death to America’ is plastered on a monument at one of Sanaa’s busiest intersections [Afrah Nasser/Al Jazeera]


Reunited with family and friends

As we travelled, the physical effects of this war became visible. Refugees and migrants, seemingly east African, walked along the roads, having picked a country at war to be their transit point to the Gulf. Tents housing internally displaced people dotted the landscape.

Infrastructure – such as roads, bridges and houses – was destroyed. Air raids and shelling had left roads impassable, forcing cars onto alternate routes.

“The car accidents that happen because of these unpaved roads are horrific,” Ahmed told me, almost nonchalantly.

“You know, I follow a great Facebook page that shares updates about car accidents and I never drive without checking it.”

When we arrived in Sanaa, I went straight to my family’s home. They were shocked and overjoyed to see me. Seeing my mother again, and being able to hold her, was amazing.

After all the hugs and tears of happiness, she was able to give me comprehensive updates on everything that had happened to our neighbours, relatives and friends.

Some had passed away, some had fallen ill, and many others had lost their jobs and depended on donations.

Things were a lot worse than when I left. My conversations with family members and friends were often about the catastrophic economic hardships that they had to go through on a daily basis.

Even if you receive your salary, and many millions do not, it is often worthless as a result of high inflation. Food prices are now extraordinarily higher than before I left Yemen, with some items at approximately the same price as I would see in my local supermarket in Stockholm, and sometimes even higher.

“Thank God I still have a job, but the salary isn’t enough to pay for all my monthly expenses,” my cousin Najat*, who is like an older sister to me, explained. Hearing her recount the hardship of the last few years made me sad and outraged.

Her side hustle, making and selling bakhour, wood chips soaked in perfumed oil and burned as traditional incense, was helping her get by.

“If I didn’t have that, I don’t know how I would have survived,” she said. “At home, we try to minimise our expenses: We almost never use electronics such as the television or the fridge because we need to lower our electricity bills. We buy and eat meat only on special occasions, maybe twice a year, during Eid, because it’s so expensive.

“I walk most of the time because transport has become so expensive amid the fuel shortages.”

The Houthis have refused to allow the newer government-printed currency to be used in areas under their control, forcing people to use older money [Afrah Nasser/Al Jazeera]

Surviving on generosity

For my aunt, who used to be a teacher at a state school, it was the same. “I used to receive a salary of 40,000 Yemeni riyals [$160 at the official rate] before the war. But I stopped going to work in 2017 because they stopped paying me.

“I tried to find another job in another school, but they only offered me 20,000 riyals [$80]. What can I do with that today? Our house rent on its own is 35,000 [$140].” My aunt has stopped trying to find work, and stays at home, her family solely reliant on her husband’s salary.

The solution, as presented to me by everyone I spoke to was simple: They didn’t want aid or donations as that wouldn’t help them in the long term. What they wanted was their jobs, decent salaries, and an end to the depreciation of the national currency and inflation.

Clearly, that will not come for a long time. And so I asked myself, how are people surviving?

Quite simply: on each other’s generosity.

In both Sanaa and Aden, where I spent a week, I was struck by how people looked out for each other, something that I have often missed in Sweden. As Ramadan wound down, I was reminded of the traditions that I had left behind in Yemen. Our neighbours would knock on our door and bring us food, unasked.

My mother would do the same for them, cooking big portions of food and sharing it with whomever she could. I would go shopping with Najat, but instead of buying clothes for herself, she was buying special clothes for Eid for the children in her neighbourhood.

“Let me buy clothes for those poor kids as a charity,” she said as we were heading to the shops.

“I heard one store had good sales, so we’ll go there. At least my bakhour business gave me some spare money last month.”

What remains of Change Square in Sanaa, once the centre of Yemen’s protest
movement in 2011 [Afrah Nasser/Al Jazeera]


The Houthi state

As I travelled around Sanaa, I was reminded that I was in a city ruled by the Houthis.

The signs had been there even as we travelled to the city. At the checkpoints, the guards were less interested in where we were from, than they were in whether we observed the rules of their state, such as the use of old and tattered bank notes instead of the new ones used in government and STC-controlled territory.

The Houthis had banned the new currency, printed since 2019, seeing it as a way of undermining their control.

While the vibe of Aden – laid-back, cosmopolitan and welcoming – had been much the same as when I left Yemen in 2011, Sanaa had changed.

Without exaggeration, it feels like a city that has been invaded. When the Houthis marched in from the mountains of the far north of Yemen, they brought with them the visible signs of their rule – the green posters depicting their slogan: “God is Great, Death to the USA, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews” – as well as the things that were harder to see, such as the way they have enforced their religious and political ideology on the people.

It felt like everywhere I went I could hear the voice of the group’s leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.

His location is unknown, hidden away out of fear of a Saudi air attack, but his voice could be heard from cars with large speakers on top, replaying his latest speech.

The brainwashing has had its effect. On the walls of Sanaa, alongside the Houthi slogan, are posters of their “martyrs”.

The faces of dead fighters, young and old, stare back from posters stuck onto the walls of the
Old City of Sanaa, a UNESCO World Heritage site [Afrah Nasser/Al Jazeera]


‘Death to this and death to that’

The Houthis have sent thousands to the front lines to fight the government and the STC. Many of the faces staring back at me from the posters were children. Seeing that was devastating.

“Death to this and death to that,” said Najat, as we passed by one of the Houthi posters. “It’s terrifying. I don’t know how I can protect my seven-year-old daughter from hearing that, it’s everywhere I go. Imagine your children growing up in a culture that glorifies death. What kind of future will we have? What kind of generation are we creating?”

My relatives and friends told me to be careful of the Zaynabiyat as I walked the streets. Female forces recruited by the Houthis to carry out a wide range of security and military services, including intelligence gathering. They are hard to notice as they walk in civilian clothing and can’t be picked out of a crowd.

The Zaynabiyat, some of them brought in as young girls, are recruited through a mix of ideology and economic incentives.

“Never speak to a woman you don’t know at a wedding,” Najat said to me one day, as my mother listened. “You never know, she might be one of the Zaynabiyat. At one wedding a woman was talking to me and started asking me if I wanted to contribute to the Houthi war effort by donating my jewellery. She told me she was one of them.”

My mother interjected. “Last year one of our neighbour’s sisters was summoned to the police station – she had said something against the Houthis at a wedding. One of the Zaynabiyat definitely heard her.”

The United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen has reported that the work of the Zaynabiyat is to repress and control women in prisons, professional workspaces and in public places.

“If you’re discovered, they [the Houthis] will detain you and torture you,” I was warned. It reminded me of an article I read a few years ago, detailing the abuses, such as beatings and psychological torture, committed against dissident women by the Houthis.

I also remembered the ordeal of the detained and prosecuted Yemeni model, Intissar al-Hammadi, who I had researched for my previous work at Human Rights Watch.

Intissar is still in a Houthi prison. Sanaa has become the heart of a republic of fear. The Houthis claimed they were bringing a revolution against the corrupt when they took the capital in 2014. But they have now become the corrupt, imposing their ruthless political and security repression on everyone in the areas they control.

Meanwhile, members of the internationally-recognised government of Yemen have also been accused of being involved in abuses. According to human rights groups, Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, has conducted indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in many parts of Yemen.

All parties to the conflict have been accused of committing violations of international human rights laws that rights organisations say could amount to war crimes. 

Yemen’s only branch of KFC remains in Sanaa, but billboards featuring the dead founder of the Houthi movement are more prominent [Afrah Nasser/Al Jazeera]

New Yemens

It’s impossible to predict what the future holds for Yemen. The current de-facto division is likely to become permanent. The Yemeni state I grew up in has disintegrated.

All the stories my family and friends told me during my visit demonstrated to me that the eight-year conflict has split the country into many parts.

In the midst of the destruction, new Yemens are emerging, waiting for sufficient political will from either local or international actors to acknowledge it.

Ahmed and his Yemeni ID card, with his false home of Hadramout, started to make sense. “See, there is more than one Yemen today,” he said. “The reason I changed my ID and pretended that I was from Hadramout is because it’s seen as peaceful. The other Yemens, the one in the north, and the one in the south, are in a raging war. The division and rivalry between the north and the south is impossible to resolve. Northerners can have their Yemen. Southerners can have their Yemen. And I prefer the Yemen in Hadramout.”

Yemenis disagree on what the solution is. To me, the potential division of Yemen would be the lesser of two evils. In its current form, with the current circumstances and tension, unity has become catastrophic for citizens across the country.

If Yemen’s relatively young unification project ends, it might be shaky and risky, but at least people might have a second chance to envision a new stable country of their own.

Is this something I want? Not necessarily, but it’s rather a matter that I try to be realistic about.

In the last few days of my near-month-long trip, as I prepared to go back into my exile, Ahmed drove me in his car and we passed Sanaa University, where the 2011 uprising began.

There was the monument, the place we had called Change Square. “What do you feel when you see this place now?” Ahmed asked me. “One part of me feels like I am visiting a graveyard, where my generation’s dreams and aspirations for a democratic Yemen were born and died,” I responded.

“But another part of me thinks that there are no shortcuts for going from dictatorship to democracy. Counter-revolutions are inevitable. Just like Saleh was overthrown, the Houthis will be overthrown.”

Ahmed nodded. With at least some hope in his voice, he started speaking about the time when it all began for me, the 2011 revolution when I had so much hope for the country’s future.

“The past has shown that, no matter what, Yemen will continue to live, to survive and to resist.”

*This essay by Afrah Nasser was originally written for/published on Al Jazeera English on December 18, 2022. The source link is here. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Yemen in Limbo: No War, Yet Still No Peace

*Dec. 2022 - Arab Center Washington DC. - Despite the substantial reduction, even the near cessation of military offensives between the Houthi armed group and the Saudi-UAE-led coalition, and especially following the October 2 expiration of a UN-brokered truce, Yemen today is far from peaceful. In fact, a state of “no war, no peace” currently prevails, while the country suffers from an economic collapse and an escalating humanitarian crisis consisting of scant food supplies, health problems, unaddressed trauma, and widespread displacement.

Yemen’s Ongoing Stalemate

The most recent UN-brokered truce expired on October 2 after the Houthis and the IRGY failed to reach an agreement on its renewal. Subsequent peace talks have also stalled. The Houthis continue to launch both conventional and drone attacks against civilian and vital economic targets in Yemen. Occasional fighting also continues between the IRGY’s forces and the UAE-backed STC. Meanwhile, escalating economic warfare between the Houthis and the IRGY is further exacerbating the country’s dire humanitarian situation, and Yemen continues to be ranked as one of the most food-insecure countries in the world.

More than half of Yemen’s population of nearly 30 million are expected to experience a high level of food insecurity by the end of the 2022 due to multiple impacts of the conflict, including still-rising levels of internal displacement (with over four million people already internally displaced) and a collapsing economy, and due also to disastrous flooding and other effects of climate change. One key factor, though, has been the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on global wheat supplies, including supplies to Yemen, since until recently Russia and Ukraine supplied nearly 45 percent of Yemen’s imported wheat.

Even though there is a perception that the country is enjoying a period of relative calm—the longest such period that the country has experienced since the beginning of the conflict—internal dynamics and armed violence continue to shatter lives. In June, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported on dozens of civilian casualties that occurred during the truce because of landmines, and sniper and drone attacks. And in November, the OHCHR reported on additional civilian casualties and called on IRGY forces and on the Houthis and their allies to “choose peace for good.”

As important as it is to silence all gunfire in Yemen’s conflict, landmines planted in many parts of the country remain among the most destructive and lethal weapons used in the conflict, and their presence requires immediate and comprehensive action. In the last six years, nearly 2,000 civilians have been killed and about 3,000 structures have been damaged due to landmines. A striking reminder of the danger posed by these weapons was a December 6 landmine explosion that struck an armored vehicle carrying UN officials during a field visit in Yemen’s al-Hodeidah Governorate, an explosion in which, luckily, nobody was hurt. Thus, the civil war continues, despite the perception that the country is experiencing the longest calm it has so far witnessed.

Rather than simply aiming to freeze the conflict, the international community must instead show more courage in addressing actions by the various parties to the civil war that delay conflict settlement and deepen the unspeakable suffering of Yemen’s civilians.

The IRGY’s Diminishing Influence

As new attempts to revive collapsing peace settlements are coming to the fore, the IRGY’s role in them continues to weaken. An exchange of visits in October between delegations from Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, which occurred without the presence of any IRGY officials, represented an unprecedented step in the course of the conflict, and raised questions about the possibility of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic acknowledgement of the Houthis as the de facto authority in northern Yemen.

The IRGY’s response to a series of major Houthi attacks during October and November on an oil tanker near the al-Dhabba oil terminal in Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate and on numerous ports in areas under its control was ineffective. Instead of ensuring the availability of an adequate and powerful mechanism to defend against such attacks, the IRGY’s response was only to issue a decree on October 23 designating the Houthi armed group a terrorist organization, an act that ultimately held no serious repercussions.

In the current situation, in which there is no war yet no peace, fuel and energy facilities are likely to form a new battlefield between the Houthi armed group and the IRGY. Houthi attacks on fuel targets in IRGY-controlled areas have disrupted fuel flow, and for several days now, Aden Governorate, where the IRGY is based, has been suffering a major blackout due to severe fuel shortages. The public’s discontent with the IRGY has recently reached a high level. Earlier this month, leaked official documents provided details about scholarships that the IRGY gave to the relatives of its own officials, including a relative of Rashad al-Alimi, the president of the government’s executive body, the Presidential Leadership Council, without any legitimate reason or merit. Given the endless obstacles that Yemeni students face to receive such scholarship opportunities, widespread condemnation from all across Yemen understandably followed the release of this information.

The question remains: Does the IRGY still have the capability to play a vital role in any potential peacemaking process? Although both its role in the next chapter of resolving the conflict and its public popularity have been dramatically diminishing, one of the key factors that has enabled this government to survive so far is the fact that it is still recognized by the international community as being the legitimate representative of the Yemeni people.

The Houthis: Spoilers of Peace

The Houthis continue to be one of the truce’s biggest beneficiaries, as most of their conditions have been met, including ending the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes and the closure of Sanaa International Airport. However, the group refuses to compromise in return. It remains reluctant to end its siege on Taiz Governorate, which was one of the truce’s terms, and in fact is trying to maximize its gains by setting conditions for peace, such as having the IRGY pay salaries to public sector workers, including Houthi security and military forces. Houthis have long been described by both Yemen experts and international diplomats as spoilers of peace. US ​​Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, for example, notably stated on December 6 that the Houthis were the ones who are “walking away from peace.”

The cessation of large-scale fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition that opposes it has enabled the group to recharge, reorganize, strengthen its military capacity, and train its fighters. And news reports came out in June revealing that the group is increasingly recruiting children to build up its forces during the truce, despite its pledge to the UN that it would stop the practice. Meanwhile, several separate incidents occurred during the truce wherein marine shipments carrying Iranian weapons bound for the Houthis were confiscated by authorities. In November, the US Navy said that it had seized more than 70 tons of rocket and missile fuel on a ship bound for Yemen, signaling that the Houthis are still continuing to prepare for conflict.

The Houthis’ fortified military capacity is evidently fueling their gains, and they clearly have no plans to stop. In addition to carrying out drone attacks on the IRGY’s ports, in December the group threatened any foreign oil and gas companies operating in Yemen if they looted “the wealth of the Yemeni people.”

More tragically, the cessation of large-scale fighting creates a favorable environment for the Houthis to continue waging their parallel war on personal liberties and basic human rights. And indeed, the lull has enabled them to shift their focus toward escalating their political oppression. In November, the group announced a new code of conduct binding all civil servants working in the public sector in Houthi-controlled areas, one that has been met with widespread rejection because of the limits it places on the right to freedom of speech and opinion, and to freedom of mobility. The new code also imposes the group’s sectarian ideas on society. Additional repressive Houthi regulations include restrictions on university professors to prevent them from working in private universities and enforcing the male guardianship rule for women travelling inside the country and abroad.

The Southern Transitional Council: Influential but Disregarded

The STC has been one of the most crucial and yet disregarded actors influencing the current situation of no war, no peace. The STC was not mentioned in the truce’s agreements, thus treating the organization as if it has no role to play in the cessation of violence. This is a mistake, since the STC authorities are predominately in control of the south of Yemen. And in fact, the STC enjoys more military power than the IRGY.

At many points during the conflict, UAE-backed, STC-affiliated forces successfully led military offensives against the Houthis’ armed forces, as happened, for example, earlier this year in Yemen’s Shabwa Governorate. In early August, forces affiliated with the STC also fought security forces affiliated with the IRGY. And later that same month, the UAE reportedly attacked IRGY forces in a show of support for STC forces. As long as there remains a disregard for the STC’s potential role in ending the conflict, it will be impossible to pave the way for a durable truce, let alone a durable peace agreement.
New Approaches to Peace

Stakeholders in ending Yemen’s conflict must truly think outside the box. This could entail giving women a chance to join the peacemaking process by creating mechanisms that facilitate their political participation in all peace efforts. Making statements in support of women’s political participation may sound quite wonderful, but what is more crucial is to actually create effective mechanisms to make that change happen. Despite the high prevalence of sexism and male chauvinism in all aspects of life in Yemen, Yemeni women have proven themselves to be diligent and hardworking, and possessing both a humanitarian consciousness and a peace-loving spirit. To be sure, no peace process would be complete without the inclusion of women, youth, local civil society organizations, and marginalized minority groups. And their inclusion must not be merely for decoration or for a good photo op, but instead needs to mark a meaningful step toward their real participation in determining the country’s future.

Another important step would be to end the practice of granting diplomatic impunity to those who work to spoil peace efforts. US Envoy Lenderking, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg, and UK ambassador to Yemen Richard Oppenheim, along with other European diplomats, officials from Oman, and any other relevant stakeholders who engage in regular meetings with parties to the conflict in Yemen must hold accountable those who work to prevent peace. As Lenderking stated in December in reference to the Houthis, “It is the international community’s responsibility to hold them accountable.” One starting point could be sanctioning the officials of groups that work to stymie peace efforts.

After nearly a decade of civil war, a resolution to the conflict in Yemen will require political courage from the IRGY, the STC, and the Houthis. Only meaningful negotiations with the participation of all of Yemen’s relevant actors can address the root causes of the civil war and eventually pave the way for a lasting peace. ​​And importantly, peacemaking efforts must adopt a critical approach that goes beyond merely pausing the conflict. The last thing the Yemeni people need is an incomplete peace. What they need is a definite and permanent end to the conflict.

*This policy analysis report by Afrah Nasser was originally written for/published by the Arab Center Washington DC on December 15, 2022. Main source here

Friday, November 25, 2022

Afrah Nasser: "Believe that you are worth listening to."

A feature about Afrah Nasser written by the Nobel Women's Initiative (NWI), part of the NWI's contribution to the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign featuring interviews with women activists about their experiences advocating for peace and women’s rights in conflict zones.

Nov. 2022 - Nobel Women's Initiative - A Yemeni human rights activist and writer who claimed political asylum in Sweden in 2011, Afrah is accustomed to freedom of movement. Here, in her native country in 2022, she faced mahram rules that forbid women’s movement without the presence or written permission of a male guardian.

“My concern about going to Yemen was that I didn’t know if my name was on a blacklist, but I realized on the ground there that my biggest problem was that I was a woman and a woman without a man, a woman without a guardian,” she said in an interview.

It was her first trip to witness the situation in Yemen firsthand since making the difficult decision to claim political asylum in Sweden in mid-2011 during the civilian uprising against the 30-year authoritarian rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“I didn’t choose Sweden, it was just an accident,” she said. “I was there at a workshop during the period when the peaceful revolution started to take a different turn.” Guerrilla warfare began in the streets of her hometown, Sana’a. The airport got shut down.

As a journalist and blogger in Yemen who exposed human rights abuse and criticized the regime, Afrah had stood up to hate messages and death threats. Could she remain defiant? “My family told me you can come back but you will not write again because it’s dangerous. So, I had to make the hard decision. I couldn’t imagine life without writing.”

Since then, staying connected from abroad with an extensive network of contacts, Afrah has chronicled arbitrary detention, torture, and other human rights abuses; the steady marginalization of women; and Yemen’s descent into poverty amid civil war.

“The majority of the country is just barely surviving economic hardship,” she said. “A young Yemeni woman today has the responsibility of putting food on the table. Women are the hungriest because they prioritize the men and their children. It’s a dire humanitarian situation.”

Conflict began in March 2015 between the internationally recognized government, backed by a Saudi and UAE-led military coalition, and the Houthi movement supported by Iran. A truce in 2022 lasted only six months.

An independent writer and commentator who worked as a researcher at Human Rights Watch, Afrah has been honoured frequently with awards for her journalism and activism. “I’m thankful for the blessing of passion,” she said.

Amid accolades, she remains acutely aware of her position in a privileged elite. “I feel a huge responsibility because what I’m doing is nothing to what a lot of Yemeni women are doing inside the country.”

She said persecution of “the forgotten women of Yemen” is a function of militarism and toxic patriarchy, with the worst treatment in areas controlled by armed Houthi groups.

During the war, child marriage increased, as has violence against women. Detainees are held without charge and face torture in Houthi prisons. “Women in Yemen are not cutting their hair on camera,” she said, referring to the Iranian women’s revolution. “They are suffering in silence.”

“If I would have one message in this interview, it’s that I think there is a big moral responsibility for European and American diplomats meeting Yemeni officials,” she said. “They must ask ‘Where are the women in this room?’ ‘Why in this delegation is there no woman?’ They have a responsibility if they are truly pro-women’s rights, to confront Yemeni officials with those questions and pressure them to include half of the society.”

She recently put the spotlight on severe failures in humanitarian aid delivery in Yemen, long the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa. “People are hungry, but they don’t even know where to register for aid that was given by the UN,” she said. “And God knows how much has gone in corruption cases.”

Among her proposals is a call for international condemnation of the Houthi restrictions on women, including female humanitarian aid workers (both Yemenis and foreigners), whom the Houthis force to have a male guardian when travelling for work inside Yemen.

Afrah posts her analyses for think tanks and publications on her blog which has been viewed more than a million times. The blog is illustrated by an Associated Press photo at Change Square in Sana’a where peaceful protesters gathered each morning near her university. “It represents the birth of my political work.”

She keeps a photo on her desk of her mentor, the pioneering Yemeni women’s rights advocate and journalist Raufa Hassan. “One time I told her ‘I want to be like you.’ And she said ‘I’m taken. Just be yourself.’ I always keep it in mind.”

That conversation is echoed in her advice for other activists. “Believe in yourself. Say and do things as if it’s the most important thing in the world. Believe that you are worth listening to. I wish someone had told me this a long time ago. Don’t wait for recognition. Have confidence in the significance of what you do.’

Afrah Nasser is a passionate advocate for the people of Yemen. She is an award-winning journalist, researcher and human rights activist who lives between Sweden and Yemen.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Houthi Male Guardianship Rule for Yemeni Women

(c) UNFPA-Yemen

Daraj - Nov. 21, 2022 - Male guardianship for women wanting to travel was something that would never happen in Yemen. It was something that Yemeni women would only see from afar in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Yet today, even as male guardianship has ended in Saudi Arabia, the Houthi armed group in Yemen has imposed exactly that on women living in areas under the control of the group.

A few months ago, Houthi authorities issued an order addressing transport companies, as well as the Sana’a International Airport to ban any woman from travelling unless she is accompanied by a male guardian (mahram) for the duration of the trip, whether inside Yemen or abroad.

This new restriction on women has been in the making for quite a while. Daraj was in fact one of the first publications reporting on the issue in early 2019.

“The mahram requirement, which is not part of Yemeni law, is being enforced by the Houthis through verbal directives,” stated Amnesty International (AI) in a press release on September 1. “Since April, the Houthi de facto authorities have increasingly insisted on the mahram requirement to restrict the movement of women across areas they control in northern Yemen, including Saada, Dhamar, Hodeidah and Hajjah governorates, and Sanaa.”

AI said the restrictive rule was a form of “gender-based discrimination” and called upon the Houthi authorities to end the mahram requirement, and the international community to pressure them to do so.

Since then, earlier this month, Yemeni journalist WB posted on her Facebook page that the guardianship rule had been changed. Instead of physically bringing a male guardian with them, women are permitted to travel but need a written approval note – paperwork that still represents a gruelling and discriminative process.

Recently, I took part in a closed virtual meeting with women’s rights advocates, both based in Yemen and in the diaspora. The women inside the country spoke about the humiliating treatment women face at security checkpoints, and being deprived of their freedom of movement.

One woman, who asked to remain anonymous for her own safety, said that in some towns under Houthi control, women are even banned from walking down the streets without a mahram. In the city of Hajjah, even women going to the hospital were asked to bring a mahram.

During the online meeting, one female lawyer told us about a woman who had been detained by the Houthis for three days for attempting to travel without a mahram.

Under Houthi rule, there have been unprecedented violations of women’s rights. Having worked in the field of human rights for some 15 years, I have never come across such horrific cases, varying from violent crackdowns on protests to detention, torture and sexual violence while in detention

The United Nations Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen in 2020 identified “a Houthi network involved in the repression of women who oppose the Houthis, including through the use of sexual violence.”

In 2021, the UN reported, “the Houthis refused entry to a senior UN official to Sana’a, following the publication of the report of the Group of Eminent Experts, and its findings related to sexual violence.”

The internationally recognized Yemeni government’s forces and armed groups operating outside government control also stand accused of human rights violations and abuse against women, according to the SAM Organization for Rights and Liberties.

In the eyes of Houthis, women’s visibility by default represents a threat to the movement. Women are a threat, especially when they are educated and have access to the international community.

While there are no reliable statistics regarding female participation in the labour market, women have increasingly joined the workforce in recent years. They have even started to take jobs that used to be reserved for men. It is widely believed that years of armed conflict have led to a relative increase in women’s employment.

Houthi men, like so many other men in Yemen, fear women’s excellence. Women who work hard and excel remind men of their failures. The Houthis’ marginalization and persecution of women is a clear demonstration of the deep misogyny ruling Yemen.

In the absence of any leverage from the internationally recognized government of Yemen over the Houthi Movement, women under its control’s only option is to plea with the international community, which includes western diplomats and human rights organizations, to put pressure on the Houthi armed group to end the mahram rule.

Most urgently, the UN Special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, and the US Special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, have a moral obligation to pressure the Houthis. Grundberg must brief the UN Security Council as soon as possible. The wider the circle of condemnation, the greater the pressure on the Houthi movement.

*This article was written by Afrah Nasser for Daraj media and published first on Daraj's website, link here.