Webinar Recap: Yemen’s Political Prisoners and Human Rights

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Washington, D.C. – On Friday, May 15th, 2020, the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs held a webinar discussion on the war in Yemen, with an emphasis on the state of political prisoners and human rights in Yemen. The expert panel consisted of participants from around the world namely, Sana’a, Beirut, London, and Washington, D.C. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey, a former State Department official in the Obama Administration and a United Nations lead consultant. Featured speakers included Osamah Al-Fakih, Director of Media, Communications, and Advocacy at Mwatana Organization for Human Rights (Mwatana), Rafat Ali Al-Akhali of Deep Root Consulting, and Ahmed Nagi, non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. 

Jeffrey Stacey commenced discussion with an overview of the complicated situation in Yemen.  He noted, in addition to pre-existing complex issues including mass poverty, Yemen is a country where the coronavirus outbreak and an escalating six-year conflict  are causing a spike in concern for Yemen by the global community, starting with the United Nations (UN) and Secretary General Guterres. 

Rafat al-Rafikh began with a description of the dynamics of the conflict and its subsequent complications for the UN-brokered peace process. The Yemen peace process has been at a standstill since consultations in Sweden in 2018, with no formal grounds for negotiations outside of the current efforts of UN special envoy Martin Griffiths. Griffiths has detected sufficient marginal progress to make a formal report to the UN Security Council, including prospects for a ceasefire, a number of economic and humanitarian efforts, and resumption of the political process. Despite a unilateral ceasefire declaration by Saudi Arabia less than a month ago, there has been escalation on multiple fronts, not only between the Houthis and Saudi-led coalition. In his view there is no sign of sufficient positive development in the UN-lead peace process. 

According to al-Rafikh, there is a Catch-22 in the peace process in relation to south Yemen and developments since August of last year, and the November signing of the Riyadh Agreement that was supposed to be brought into the peace process. Because the agreement has not been implemented and the situation has escalated, the UN envoy has not been able to convene any formal meeting between the government and the Houthis because of escalation within the Saudi-led coalition, specifically the Hadi-led government forces and the forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Key players are waiting for the Riyadh Agreement to be implemented, which might enable the UN to again broker negotiations with the Houthis. 

The STC is a political and military organization recently formed with the aim of  gaining independence from the South, and is largely funded and supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The goal of the Riyadh Agreement was to bring the STC  into the fold of the Hadi-led Government. Because this ambitious plan has yet to be fully implemented inter alia, the STC has announced self administration of Aden and south Yemen. There are now hopes for further negotiations to move that agreement forward, but events in the past month have played out in a negative way with no clear signs of optimism including from the UN Special Envoy.

Next, Ahmed Nagi continued on by further delineating the key actors, both internal and external. He laid out the inter-related dimensions of what he described as a multi-layered conflict. One layer being the relationships between and among the internal actors, another between them and external actors, all of which as they evolve further complicate the situation. According to Nagi, the war in Yemen is often oversimplified and not fully accurately depicted as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for this is only one of the conflict’s primary layers. In addition, another layer comprises the complex relationships involving Saudi Arabia, Oman, and UAE. 

Three relationships of external actors affect the peace process in the Yemen conflict: 1) Saudi Arabia and Iran (Northern Yemen), 2) UAE and Oman (Eastern Yemen), and 3) Saudi Arabia and UAE (Southern Yemen). Internal actors, including Iranian-backed Ansah Allah, the Houthi government forces, the STC, and the Republican guards (supported by the Emiratis) are all fighting each other; moreover, these actors are fighting each other and also have connections to external actors. International actors are complicating the situation by contributing to the conflict by selling weapons used by both sides. Three contributing factors include the following: 1) Most of the internal actors feel this is unfinished business, viewing it as an incomplete war and each would like to gain further territory on the ground before heading to the negotiation table, 2) there is a general lack of political will among them because warlords on all sides are profiting from the conflict at present,  and 3) optimists who hope for and continue to push for, de-escalation in the country. He continued that it is the inability of the internal actors to get on the peace track with a big gap between civilian and warring parties’ interests, and no interest in protecting the people. 

Osamah al-Fakih expanded on these topics by shedding important light on the difficulties for humanitarian efforts amid the war and complications from the arrival of COVID-19. Yemenis are not only suffering from humanitarian violations, but also suffer from warring parties undermining state institutions at the expense of the rule of law. For Yemenis, over 5 difficult years have passed since the Ansah Allah and Houthis have extended their control over the capital. The outcome today is clear for all to witness, a country torn apart and the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. All warring parties continue to commit humanitarian violations, including: torture, airstrikes, ground attacks against civilians, assaults on health workers, looting, and denial of humanitarian aid. Warring sides also continue to undermine the press and the right to peaceful assembly. 

Last March, 120 attacks on medical facilities and healthcare workers were reported between March 2015 and December 2018. Al-Fakih mentioned third parties, e.g. the U.S., UK and France, that continue to support, sell, or directly provide weapons to warring parties, for example the U.S. in the case of the Saudi-led coalition and Iran in the case of the Houthi-led government. Regarding COVID-19, 108 confirmed cases and 16 deaths (with deaths increasing), but these numbers differ based on the origin of the news source and are most certainly higher in the multiple hundreds and growing quickly. The public health situation is a very concerning matter in light of poor infrastructure and the aforementioned complications from war. 

The presentations were followed by an in-depth question and answer segment. If you were unable to attend this event, you can watch a recording of the webinar here. The next Zoom webinar for the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs will be May 29th, and will cover the conflict in Libya—coinciding with the release of a major NYCFPA Policy Report on Libya. For updates on future event updates, please visit nycfpa.org or e-mail info@nycfpa.org.

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