Hadil al-Mowafak

For Sustainable Peace, Human Rights Must be Front and Center of Yemen’s Peace Process

November 2021

Yemen’s seven year conflict has led to a severe humanitarian crisis coupled with grave human rights violations set against a climate of impunity. Since 2014, local and international human rights groups have been documenting 1 a wide range of violations – some amounting to international war crimes – committed by a broad range of conflict actors, including the Houthis, the Internationally Recognized Government of Yemen (IRG), the Southern Transitional Council, and regional actors such as the Saudi/United Arab Emirates-led coalition. However, the continuous and widespread violations and the deepening humanitarian crisis have not been met with sufficient mitigation efforts, let alone accountability or redress.

To make matters worse, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) recently voted against 2 renewing the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen, the sole independent international mechanism to investigate war crimes in the country. This development marks a heavy setback for efforts to address the humanitarian crisis and the “acute accountability gap”3 in Yemen. With the international community turning a blind eye to the gross violations committed by all parties to the conflict, local efforts to document human rights violations and war crimes are more necessary than ever.    

The centrality of the human rights dimension of the conflict deserves greater attention from the conflict mediator4 and international actors engaged in peacebuilding activities in Yemen. As Kofi Annan once put it: “There can be no healing without peace, there can be no peace without justice and there can be no justice without respect for human rights and the rule of law.”5 Widespread and systematic human rights violations are an integral element of the conflict’s causes, dynamics, and consequences. Yet, despite being an important part of the problem, human rights have yet to constitute a part of the solution, at least not in any meaningful and institutionalized form. The current efforts to end the conflict in Yemen – which are mostly led by the Office of the UN’s Special Envoy for Yemen (OSESGY) – have focused primarily on reaching power-sharing arrangements between the IRG and the Houthis. While this approach seeks to secure a speedy agreement that ends the conflict, it risks sweeping aside underlying grievances that will undermine any agreement that the parties may reach.

Directing the peace process towards human rights, through which people “are empowered to shape the decisions that impact their lives”,6 could open up new doors for building a sustainable and positive peace. This begins with acknowledging that much of what drives the conflict is rooted in the political and economic marginalization of large segments of the Yemeni people, including regional identity groups (Southerners/Tihamis), women, youth, and Muhamasheen. Therefore, promoting a more pluralistic and participatory peace process that engages the different stakeholders could help transform power imbalances and unjust social relations. Equally important is moving beyond addressing the visible manifestations of the conflict, such as impediments to aid delivery or prisoner exchanges, to addressing the wider economic, political, and social injustices that underlie and animate the conflict, including issues of inequality, inequity, and injustice.

In preparation for an upcoming nationwide ceasefire,7 OSESGY has the opportunity to help transform some elements of the conflict by applying a human rights perspective to the ceasefire process. Other international actors (i.e., UN Security Council, UNHRC, European Union) can further support the ceasefire and the broader peace process by taking concrete and urgent steps towards pursuing accountability for crimes committed by both local and regional actors in Yemen’s conflict. As a human rights activist interviewed for this research emphasizes, “transitional justice and accountability processes cannot wait until a comprehensive peace agreement is signed. Once the cessation of hostilities begins, human rights issues, such as the extrajudicial killings, the unlawful seizures of lands, and arbitrary detention amongst others, will come up to the surface, and failure to address them will threaten the durability of the ceasefire”. Accordingly, the goal of a human rights approach is to help establish positive peace, which does not stop at just ending the violence (the aim of traditional ceasefires), but rather seeks to transform attitudes, institutions, and structures to create and sustain a peaceful society. 

This research explores the ways to integrate human rights into Yemen’s peace process, specifically the process of negotiating and implementing a nationwide ceasefire. It looks at opportunities to adopt a human rights-based approach to the ceasefire process and the accompanying challenges, with suggestions on how to overcome the latter. It further seeks to clarify the role that local human rights groups can play in advancing the peace agenda, either as part of or outside of the formal UN-led peace process structure. The research is based on 21 interviews with local human rights groups working in five geographical areas: Taiz, Marib, Sana’a, Aden, and Hadramout. It is also supplemented by consultations with two international experts of human rights and transitional justice.   

A History of Marginalization and Denial of Human Rights

A human rights-based approach seeks to establish positive peace not only through a reactive response to the visible manifestations of the conflict but also by addressing the underlying structural causes. To this end, it is helpful to look at the decades-long grievances in Yemen to understand how they relate to the conflict dynamics today. One of the research interviewees, a former human rights organization’s CEO, traces the roots of much of Yemen’s conflict to the inequitable distribution of wealth and power. After the war of 1994, former President Ali Saleh’s regime embarked on a process of political disenfranchisement and economic marginalization across communities in the South and North. The resulting inequalities8 have come to represent one of the most salient factors that helped escalate today’s conflict and remain a barrier to enduring peace. As was to be expected, the regime’s systematic denial of human rights led to the frustration of people’s basic needs, adding to increasing societal tensions and feeding into existing nationalist and sectarian divisions. Without proper avenues to voice frustrations and induce change in state practices, the systematic denial of rights sparked the mass protests in 2011 that toppled the Saleh regime.

The transitional period, which was closely supported and guided by the UN and members of the international community, constituted a series of missed opportunities. One of them, as highlighted by one of the research respondents, was the immunity given to Saleh by the GCC initiative, a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and endorsed by the UN Security Council. Proposed to resolve the political crisis in 2011, the GCC initiative prioritized implementing a quick transition of power at the expense of achieving justice and addressing the regime’s long record of human rights violations. This agreement helped entrench Yemen’s culture of impunity with the blessing of the international community, despite the serious violations9 committed by the Saleh regime before and during the 2011 uprising.

The transitional period was also tainted by the inadequacy of the interim political, legal, and security systems to alleviate the immediate needs of the people and to provide avenues to resolve tensions in non-violent ways. Despite the achievements of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference10 in establishing a moderately inclusive and constructive negotiation model, the interim government’s neglect of the population’s struggles and basic needs created a sense of disillusion with the transitional process. In particular, the transitional period11 saw a rapid inflation of food and fuel prices, a deterioration in living standards, and a rise in unemployment, accompanied by a worsening security situation with the destabilization of rule of law institutions.  These conditions provided a fertile ground for non-state actors such as the Houthis to mobilize people to their side with an anti-corruption12 and anti-elite rhetoric. The current conflict has only aggravated these grievances, and if the UN chooses to move quickly with the peace process without adequately addressing them, they might fuel support for post-conflict spoilers – and therefore repeat the same pattern.

Inclusive Peace Can Help Transform Imbalanced Power Structures

Due to the current conflict, the Yemeni state’s collapse has enabled new groups to access political and economic power structures from which they were formerly excluded. Yet, the mechanisms that produced this power shift have not changed, where violence, civil war, and secession remain the viable means for armed groups in Yemen not only to challenge traditional power structures but also to perpetuate the same inequitable distribution of power. As one research respondent, a professor of criminal law, explains: “Our problem in Yemen historically has been the domination and control of one party over power to the exclusion of all other parties, causing conflict in every period.”

By limiting the peace process in Yemen to armed groups, the UN risks sustaining the same unequal power structure and prevents the important voices of less powerful groups from getting a fair public hearing. In this environment, it appears only practical and reasonable for groups to take up arms in order to make their voices heard, a worrying prospect highlighted by many research respondents. This is well illustrated by the example of Yemen’s Southern Movement, also known as Hiraak, which started as a peaceful mass demonstration movement in 2007 but by 2017 had developed into an armed movement, culminating in the establishment of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), after years of forceful suppression of their grievances. Frustratingly, the voices of Southerners whose interests are not necessarily represented13 by the STC remain largely excluded from the peace process today, and their grievances remain unaddressed.

Against this backdrop, a human rights-based approach to the upcoming ceasefire process can enhance calls for inclusion by pointing to the importance of unjust social relations and power imbalances in escalating and sustaining conflict. The process itself of meaningfully integrating the various stakeholders, including civil society, into the ceasefire process is important, as it can help lay the foundation for pluralism and equality, which are key14 ingredients for a lasting peace. It could also help challenge power imbalances where only those who bear arms have a monopoly on decision-making, especially when the legitimacy of the conflict actors is highly contested, such as the case in Yemen. In this sense, an inclusive process can empower civil society actors to assert their rights and advance their interests independently from the conflict actors, while pushing the latter to interact with civil society actors on an equal footing. This is important given that the current approach to the peace process in Yemen reinforces the view that civilians are passive agents, reducing them to mere objects of humanitarian aid charity and war violations.

Furthermore, the meaningful participation of civil society, including human rights actors, in the ceasefire process could help establish persuasive pressure towards addressing the structural causes of the conflict. In a forum attended by nine representatives of local human rights groups, participants raised the issue that as long as conflict actors have veto power over the ceasefire agreement, they will never agree to add provisions that might limit their ambitions or impact their interests, such as stricter human rights measures. They stressed that a ceasefire agreement, however, should not shy away from recognizing and touching on the root causes of the conflict, including issues relating to power abuse, human rights violations, as well as unequal access to public goods, economic opportunities, and resources. Hence, engaging civil society in the ceasefire process could create a wide space for discussion of these root issues and shift public opinion in favor of addressing them in peace processes.

The Role of Human Rights Groups in Supporting the Ceasefire Process

In the struggle to enhance the human rights situation in Yemen, the most important role will fall to local human rights organizations and civil society as a whole given their close ties to communities and their knowledge of local contexts. The relationship between human rights violations and conflict escalation makes human rights organizations important actors in supporting the ceasefire process and the broader peacebuilding efforts. In Yemen, human rights groups have mostly focused on documenting human rights violations, adopting a naming and shaming advocacy approach, and, to a lesser extent, providing legal assistance to victims. Some of the organizations included in this research have also worked on mediating local conflicts, such as water disputes, and facilitating prisoner exchange initiatives.

In light of their extensive knowledge and expertise, linking human rights groups with the ceasefire process could not only enhance the quality and outcome of the ceasefire agreement but also help identify blind spots. For example, research participants insisted that fundamental human rights files, such as detainees’ files, should be shielded from the quid pro quo arrangements that often characterize ceasefire processes. A representative of a rights group warned against repeating the mistakes of the 2018 Stockholm Agreement that linked the fate of civilian detainees to that of war prisoners, which had serious implications for local mediation efforts. She emphasized that the file of civilian detainees, including journalists, should be dealt with through a purely humanitarian lens, where the release of civilian detainees should occur regardless of any concessions from opposing conflict actors. Indeed, considerations of how the ceasefire might create more harm can be lost on the conflict mediator, which is why consultations with local civil society groups are needed.

The capacity of local human rights organizations to perform monitoring functions in regard to human rights violations will also help to make up for the absence of similar structures in the ceasefire process. Although still in the design phase, the ceasefire currently developed by OSESGY is unlikely to include any monitoring components, including monitoring of human rights violations committed by the various conflict actors. Part of the reasoning behind this monitoring-free approach, as explained by officials at OSESGY, is that the inclusion of monitoring could thwart conflict actors’ willingness to participate in the ceasefire. But even if monitoring was included, the lack of viable enforcement measures is likely to render it moot.

This is where human rights groups can make the greatest contribution to the ceasefire process: by setting up a comprehensive, systematic, and independent monitoring structure for human rights violations. Consequently, human rights violations that threaten to break the ceasefire can be communicated with OSESGY through direct private channels to offer a form of protection from possible retaliation. These organizations can identify clear criteria of violations that have a serious impact on peace and societal stability to ensure conformity between local organizations documenting and reporting these violations. Although OSESGY might not be able to publicly name and shame conflict actors based on this information, especially if this compromised its efforts to build trust with conflict actors, it can at least delegate this task to others in its network who are better positioned to act as the ‘bad cop’. More specifically, OSESGY can debrief the UN Security Council and other relevant UN bodies (i.e., the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNHRC), who can impose pressure, and even take concrete action, to halt violations and hold perpetrators to account.

Being a vital part of civil society, human rights groups can also directly participate in the governorate-level ceasefire committees. The entry points to accessing these committees are not much different to those available to women’s groups15 and other civil society groups. More specifically, human rights groups can, at least theoretically, join the local ceasefire committees through the integrated consultative mechanism of governorate-level security committees, which could enable their inclusion as advisors in the technical and subcommittees created to address particular security issues. However, one of the challenges, as shown by the research, is that the relationship between human rights groups and security actors is uniquely strained relative to other civil society groups; hence, it is unlikely that security actors would voluntarily welcome this addition to the committees. To overcome this problem, one of the research respondents suggested the establishment of a legal subcommittee under the ceasefire agreement to address violations of human rights in relation to how they threaten the ceasefire, where human rights groups can participate given their legal background and expertise. To quell the tension and resistance that might arise from this, human rights groups can participate under the label of ‘legal experts’ with technical expertise as opposed to ‘human rights monitors’.

Advancing Human Rights Through Partnerships and Collective Action

It is worth noting that the important role that human rights organizations play neither begins nor ends with the UN-led peace process. Already, local human rights organizations are working tirelessly, and in highly insecure environments, to document human rights violations, produce evidence-based reports, and demand accountability and redress for the victims. Some of them have had success,16 albeit limited in scope, in utilizing local rule of law structures to bring justice to victims of human rights violations, while others have carried out local awareness-raising activities with community members and security actors. However, some research respondents emphasized that the traditional activities related to the documentation of violations and the individual ‘naming and shaming’ campaigns are no longer sufficient at this point of the conflict. Rather, they stressed the need for more mobilization efforts in order to make any kind of difference in the country’s worsening human rights situation. This is made even more acute following the UNHRC’s recent dissolution of the GEE.

Human rights organizations can maximize their influence and impact if they work as part of broad coalitions and networks, both inside Yemen and in the diaspora. However, many research respondents noted that there is a high level of friction among different rights groups in Yemen, partly due to competition over limited donor funding for human rights activities, and partly due to perceptions of biases in human rights reporting. The latter is aggravated by the conflict parties’ generously funded smear campaigns17 targeting independent human rights activists and organizations, along with the establishment of their own biased organizations across the country. Overcoming this division will require high levels of maturity and willingness on the part of rights groups’ leadership and activists to collaborate with one another to advance the human rights agenda in Yemen. The research respondents underscored the importance of these local collaborative structures, especially given the reluctance of the international community to take an active role in addressing human rights violations and supporting accountability and redress measures.

Accountability is Key for Lasting Peace, but Remains Contentious

Recently, a group of local and international rights groups intensified18 their advocacy and lobbying efforts, calling for the establishment of independent international monitoring and accountability mechanisms in Yemen. While these internationally oriented advocacy campaigns are instrumental for the cause of human rights, it is at least as important to create a local momentum that endorses and pushes for these demands. This could start by engaging the various local civil society groups (i.e., syndicates, labor unions, journalists, grassroots rights organizations) with these advocacy efforts to increase local understanding of their nature and utility. This could also help minimize perceptions of elitism attached to these campaigns, especially since a handful of professional and urban-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) tend to lead these efforts.

In opposition to the first approach, other rights groups, including some interviewed in this research, emphasize another approach – one involving the role of national monitoring19 mechanisms in advancing accountability claims. More specifically, they are calling for strengthening the work of the National Commission of Inquiry (NCIAVHR20), which was set up by the IRG in 2015 as a monitoring body for human rights violations. However, given the status of the IRG as a conflict actor in Yemen’s war, it is unlikely that human rights reporting by the NCIAVHR will adhere to impartiality in its work, which seriously compromises its effectiveness and credibility in holding all conflict actors to account.

Finding a middle ground between the two groups is not impossible. A third avenue could include the development of hybrid monitoring and accountability structures that are internationally supported and locally operated. Of course, an effort of this magnitude will require generous funding from international donors who must be seen as neutral actors to lend this process credibility. Members of the European Union could potentially take the lead in this effort. Establishing a hybrid structure might prove more efficacious in achieving some form of accountability, especially given the long-term nature of pursuing international mechanisms and the limitations in utilizing national and local institutions whose independence and credibility are compromised. Other actors engaged in peacebuilding activities in Yemen can also support this process since pursuing accountability and advancing a human rights agenda can help establish a solid foundation for the emergence of sustainable peace.

In a meeting with two international experts on human rights and transitional justice, they noted that the reparative justice dimension has been largely missing from discussions around accountability in Yemen. Although reparations are usually a long-term process implemented in the post-conflict period, laying the ground for future reparation processes can start now. More specifically, one expert suggested “re-orienting the level of analyses towards harm suffered by victims and mapping it across the individual–community levels”. A collaboration between international and local rights groups can set off this process by collectively determining and clarifying the kinds of damage that may be compensated and restituted. Engaging as many local rights groups as possible in this process can ensure a high level of conformity in the mapping effort itself. Another expert emphasized that the availability of this kind of data can also inform policy recommendations around post-conflict reparative development projects, making them more responsive to the disproportionate harm suffered by the different communities during the war.  

Financial and Strategic Support Is Needed

Given this interdependence between human rights and the peace agenda, more support is needed for the work of local human rights groups. Research respondents note that declining donor funding coupled with increasing attacks from the various armed groups have pushed many human rights organizations in Yemen to work on less sensitive areas such as the delivery of humanitarian aid. Yet, as argued above, donors’ emphasis on humanitarian aid as opposed to other areas, such as economic development and human rights, ascribes a form of dependency and lack of agency to Yemenis. By investing in human rights, international donors can help empower Yemenis to take a more active role in advocating for their own needs and interests. This funding will need to reach groups in rural communities and marginalized governorates to break the elitism attached to human rights work in Yemen. Less bureaucracy is also needed to enable grassroots rights groups access to this fund. At the same time, donors can work on strengthening the financial, monitoring, and evaluation systems of these groups over time to prevent creating inefficient and undemocratic NGO structures.

Local and regional conflict actors in Yemen are actively seeking new ways to silence human rights groups and close civic spaces. Local rights groups need to come up with innovative ideas for holding them accountable, with the support of international civil society and international donors. One area of support is to help rights groups build alliances with other local groups (i.e., syndicates, journalists, grassroots rights organizations) to build a strong human rights movement. Networks in the diaspora should also be included in this process, and if no such networks exist, then establishing them can enhance rights groups’ capacity to mobilize internationally. Another area of support can focus on equipping rights groups with the knowledge and tools that can help them tell a different narrative that transforms public opinion and challenges conflict actors’ toxic narratives that sow division and mistrust. Finally, human rights groups themselves must adhere to impartiality and the highest principles of ethical conduct to maximize the impact and credibility of their work.

Hadil Al-Mowafak became a Yemen Policy Center Research Fellow in 2020. In 2015, she joined Mwatana Organization as a researcher of human rights violations, documenting cases of civilian casualties, child soldiers, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and restrictions on journalistic freedoms. She holds a B.A in Political Science from Stanford University (2020).

Supported with German Federal Foreign Office’s funds by IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen), zivik Funding program
Mareike Transfeld
Copy editors:
Jatinder Padda
Akram Alrasny
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  20. The National Commission to Investigate Alleged Violations to Human Rights. https://www.nciye.org/en/
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