Hadil al-Mowafak

The Role of Yemeni Civil Society in Shaping Security

March 2021

The dire security situation in Yemen demands urgent reforms to the security and justice institutions. After six years of unremitting armed conflict, the security sector has largely disintegrated and, in many cases, the security providers have been implicated in violations against civilians. Within this environment, women, men, and children experience extreme insecurity, including the threat of death, sexual abuse, forced recruitment by armed groups, as well as the ongoing threat of starvation and disease.

The core objective of security sector reform (SSR) is to build a security sector that is both effective in its provision of services and accountable to citizens. This suggests that SSR is a technically complex process that aims to professionalize security institutions, usually through institutional and human capacity building. It equally suggests that SSR is a political undertaking that aims to ensure civilian oversight over the security sector, as well as improve accountability and transparency control mechanisms.[1]

Historically, efforts to reform Yemen’s security sector have entailed a state-centric view of security. This traditional approach tended to prioritize SSR’s technical aspects, such as improving the operational capability of the police or the army, at the expense of more politically sensitive work that promotes democratic governance and accountability to citizens.[2] Neglecting this political dimension of SSR allowed security and intelligence institutions to oppress citizens with near impunity. This created a security sector that is unresponsive to the needs of the community, especially disenfranchised groups such as women and children. However, more recently, there has been a slow shift towards community safety initiatives that prioritize meeting the security needs of local communities. These initiatives focus on reforming security institutions at a more local level, and often include community-based assessments of security needs and of community policing programs that attempt to build bridges between local security actors and local communities.

Civil society has a crucial role to play in security sector oversight, ensuring that these community safety initiatives are people-centered, gender-sensitive, and locally owned. By virtue of being embedded in local communities, civil society organizations (CSOs) are uniquely positioned to design, promote, and monitor security policies and programs that take the security interests of these communities and individuals into account.

However, civil society’s influence in matters of national defense and security remains limited in Yemen despite research showing a broad recognition of its positive contribution to SSR.[3] This situation is not new. Prior to the recent conflict, civil society was often sidelined in SSR during Ali Saleh’s rule. The conflict has further weakened an already fragmented civil society and increased the costs of performing accountability and oversight functions over the security sector. The fragile security situation has put many CSOs working on SSR in danger. However, with these new challenges has come a new set of opportunities for civil society to assume a greater role in re-building an effective and accountable security sector.

This paper considers what civil society involvement in SSR entails, largely through looking at the experiences of some local, national, and international organizations currently working on SSR in Yemen. It argues that it is precisely during this critical time that Yemeni civil society can, and should, impose itself on SSR activities, participate in visualizing the future of their country’s security sector, and develop the necessary practices to achieve that vision. It also recommends that external actors working in this field should push for more meaningful inclusion of civil society in SSR’s design, implementation, and monitoring stages to bolster ‘sensible’ local ownership predisposed towards democratic norms and respect for human rights.

Working amid increased insecurity

Pursuing SSR to create effective, inclusive, and accountable security institutions is a complex and controversial undertaking even during normal times. It becomes even more challenging in a conflict-affected environment, as in Yemen, where civil society’s activities are severely limited.

This highly unstable political climate has created a volatile civic space that is subject to restrictions and attacks from many sources. The large number of organizations that emerged after 2011, with many focusing on human rights advocacy and the promotion of democratic governance, have diminished as a consequence of war.[4] According to a 2015 survey, around 70 per cent of CSOs were forced to close their offices shortly after the 2015 outbreak of hostilities, and 60 per cent were subject to violence, looting, provocations, harassment, or asset freezing.[5] Moreover, journalists, human rights defenders, and community activists are subject to detention, harassment, and even death in response to their work, forcing many to escape the country.[6]

Civil society actors who are involved in SSR are especially at risk of reprisal and persecution if they adopt a confrontational approach to security forces. This applies to organizations monitoring human rights abuses, publishing reports denouncing them, and demanding accountability. CSOs’ endurance in the face of these intimidation tactics depends on the expertise and capacity of the institution and the strength of its social networks. For example, a renowned Yemeni human rights organization’s representative explained that although its members are harassed and detained, the organization is able to continue its sensitive work, benefitting from its quality expertise and operational capacity, as well as its strong partnerships with national and international civil society.

Conversely, local grassroots organizations with limited capacity and weak connections find it more challenging to continue their sensitive work in this climate of insecurity. For example, a local grassroots organization’s representative in Taiz stated that soon after they initiated a judicial reform program, the team received threats from local armed groups who feared the reforms would result in greater accountability. Because of its small size, the organization lacked the resources to fend off any possible attacks, and it could not rely on local law enforcement to offer any protection measures from outlaw groups. The representative explained, “We had no other choice but to cancel the judicial reform project altogether in response to the threats.”[7]

Indeed, the relationship between CSOs and security actors is often fraught, characterized by mutual suspicion. The level of mistrust towards CSOs increases if they are assumed to lack independence or have political and security interests tied to one of the political factions. The fact that Yemeni political factions have established organizations to gain legitimacy or access to foreign aid has only contributed to the narrative that CSOs are corrupt and biased.[8] Sometimes, independent CSOs that coordinate or carry out projects with local security actors come to be associated with those actors. This CSO–security connection can become especially stigmatizing in areas under the control of non-state actors, such as Houthis or Southern Transitional Council. Organizations who operate in these areas risk being seen as collaborators with non-state factions, especially if their work focuses on the capacity building of security institutions.

Moreover, political factions use slander campaigns as a tool to discredit the work and independence of civil society groups whose work does not align with their interests. These defamation campaigns further interfere with the work of local organizations; as one non-governmental organization (NGO) representative describes it: “Sometimes we are able to build enough level of trust [with security actors] which helps facilitate our work, like coordinating with local authorities to release detainees. Then comes a defamation campaign, usually after the release of one of our human rights reports, and that throws all that progress away.”[9]

Some challenges vary by region, depending on the security situation and the respective de facto authority. In the South, the rapid shifts in power and territorial control have resulted in high turnover rates within security institutions, further disrupting CSO–security relations. One NGO representative explains that working in this unstable security environment is like “working within a cloud of ambiguity”, where organizations have to coordinate with multiple authorities when wishing to implement a project with local security institutions.[10] Similarly, as another NGO representative explains, the work of CSOs has been further slowed down by the ad hoc and rigid requirements imposed by Houthis in the North. He stated that organizations need to get permits directly from the Ministry of Interior when they want to work on any single activity with local security institutions, a process that takes a long time.[11]

Strategies to circumvent difficult security terrain

Despite these challenges, many civil society groups have been able to push their way through this highly political and sensitive area and continue their work on SSR. Some organizations reported that building the capacity of local security institutions is a good entry point to building trust with security actors. Many of these security institutions, such as local police stations, courts, or prosecutors’ offices, suffered extensive damage during the conflict and thus require considerable rebuilding. Others lack basic facilities, such as electricity, sewage infrastructure, furniture, and office supplies.[12] These issues can open the doors for CSOs, starting from simple reconstruction projects, such as furniture provision, and moving to more fundamental institutional improvements, such as enhancing these security institutions’ accountability and transparency procedures.

One grassroots organization in Taiz has been successful using this strategy. The chairperson explained that rebuilding the infrastructure of local police stations opened communication channels with the police, which improved cooperation on other projects, such as community policing initiatives. He stressed that security actors’ buy-in is essential to the success of any SSR program: “You cannot expect effective change to take place if you talk about human rights with people who have not received their salaries in years. Those police officers have families to feed too.” He suggests that helping pay for these security actors’ salaries could incentivize them to collaborate with CSOs, while also helping curb the pervasive corruption that permeates these institutions.[13]

Civil society’s technical and specialized expertise on areas related to SSR offer yet another opportunity for productive engagement with security institutions. For example, most security institutions lack specialized family units, and female staff constitute a negligible percentage of their composition.[14] Hence, CSOs that work on women’s or children’s issues can offer much-needed policy advice to security actors and can collaborate with them to enhance service provision for these often-marginalized groups. In fact, one NGO’s thematic expertise in gender equality created an entry point to engage with local security actors, as a representative explains: “When a local police department established the family protection unit, we became the go-to experts since we had a team of lawyers and social workers who have ample expertise on gender issues.” The NGO’s partnership with the family protection unit allowed them to work on prison reform projects as well as build the capacity of the police through trainings on case management, human rights, and gender-based violence amongst others.[15]

To establish sustained connections with security actors, many organizations avoid getting involved in the political aspects of SSR, such as accountability and governance, and end up focusing on the capacity building of security institutions and service provision. As one NGO representative notes, taking a politically neutral stance has helped his organization continue its SSR work in areas under Houthis control.[16] Indeed, such compromises are unavoidable in highly insecure environments.

Yet, civil society must not cede ground on critical issues like ending impunity. After all, the sustainability of SSR necessitates strengthening checks and balances, with a mix of internal controls and external oversight mechanisms. In light of this, civil society must be able to monitor the security sector and perform watchdog functions that hold security actors accountable for abuses. Interestingly, some Yemeni CSOs have managed to utilize existing judicial structures to hold security actors accountable for abuses, albeit on a small scale. Pursuing these accountability initiatives has the potential to institutionalize accountability mechanisms as part of the existing justice and security systems while also changing the culture around impunity. One NGO representative adds that although risks will always be there, they can be mitigated through consistent communication with authorities while also maintaining independence to reinforce legitimacy as an organization.[17]

Civil society and local ownership

Local ownership is one of the central underpinnings of SSR. According to the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD DAC), SSR should be “people-centered, locally owned and based on democratic norms and human rights principles and the rule of law”.[18] The term local ownership, however, denotes different meanings to different people. International actors promoting democratic governance often struggle to determine who are the relevant local actors that matter in SSR. This task becomes more challenging in Yemen where a myriad of relevant actors exists, including state and non-state security actors, local authorities, and civil society. Those actors have competing interests that pull SSR in different directions.

Amongst the locals, however, civil society is the one strongly associated with democracy.[19] Civil society’s potential to democratize the security sector is premised on its representation of the various strands of Yemen’s social groups. Indeed, it is civil society, through its associations, organizations, activists, and free press, that can voice the security concerns of marginalized groups, including women, children, ethno-religious minorities, and the poor. Hence, the promotion of a ‘sensible’ local ownership of SSR – one that rests on democratic values, human rights principles, and rule of law – necessitates a broad and inclusive participation that extends beyond the small circle of security officials and political elites to reflect the needs of all citizens. However, despite civil society’s role in building ownership over the security sector, they remain on the margins of SSR in Yemen.

The majority of Yemen’s SSR programs remain externally driven by international actors. Interviews with multiple representatives of INGOs promoting SSR show that CSOs are rarely, if ever, included in the design phase of these programs. Instead, CSOs involvement has been reduced to less meaningful, sporadic engagement, not extending much beyond initial consultation and infrequent dialogue. This exclusion reinforces top-down approaches to SSR, whereby local communities’ security needs and views are not integrated in security policy design.

International actors often cite the weaknesses of CSOs to justify their exclusion from SSR processes. These local actors are perceived to lack the technical skills necessary to play a leading role in designing, and even implementing, SSR programs. Many local CSOs are also seen to lack the necessary organizational structures and effective operational mechanisms that would qualify them to collaborate with INGOs or receive funding from them. This kind of rigidity, however, prioritizes a few professional INGOs and NGOs, who may not be well-rooted in the society, while sidelining a large number of local organizations with weaker institutional capacities. Also, limiting SSR engagement to professional and elite organizations largely restricts the scope of SSR activities to urban areas where these organizations are often located. The current setup of SSR then largely excludes rural areas, where 70 per cent of the Yemeni population live, despite the fact that rural areas suffer greater insecurity compared to cities.[20] Prioritizing technocratic expertise over more participatory and inclusive processes treats SSR as a top-down exercise, thus undermining democratic governance of the security sector.

Sometimes, the realities on the ground force international organizations to steer away from the political aspects of SSR to ensure the continuity of their other activities. Houthis, for example, oppose any SSR program with a human rights-based component, forcing some INGOs to revise their activities in Houthis areas or halt them altogether. Consequently, CSOs’ role has been mostly reduced to capacity building and service provision at the expense of more politically tailored monitoring, human rights advocacy, and watchdog functions.

Furthermore, the Office of UN Special Envoy (OSESGY) has also reinforced the de-politicization of CSOs’ role in peace negotiations, which can be a major entry point for SSR. Understandably, there is legitimate concern that placing CSOs in direct confrontation with warring parties might place them at risk. For example, if CSOs adopt a naming and shaming approach, it might antagonize the warring parties and threaten trust-building in a fragile peace process. However, many civil society representatives still find the level of CSOs’ engagement in the peace negotiation frustrating. For example, a Yemeni NGO representative described CSOs engagement in these negotiations as “nominal” where, “the outcomes of the discussion are more or less predetermined”, and with “little time and space for CSOs to study the proposals of UN experts or to offer their own perspectives and inputs”.[21] Another NGO representative expressed similar frustration when talking about women’s participation in these negotiations: “Women hold so much potential to influence negotiations in a positive way, yet our inclusion in peace talks has not been more than a box to check off.”[22] In view of this, OSESGY has been working towards ensuring greater CSOs participation after the initial low level of engagement it allowed at the beginning of these negotiations. Yet more needs to be done to ensure civil society’s inclusion and ownership of the peace process.

Moving forward

Although promoting democratic governance and respect for human rights might appear futile in a conflict setting, it is precisely during this time that ‘windows of opportunity’ are created to transform the security landscape. If an effective, accountable, and responsive security sector is to be built in Yemen, civil society would have to assume a greater role in shaping the conditions that would lead to its establishment.

Given the low level of their current integration in SSR, civil society should impose itself on security debates and take on more initiative. Currently, SSR activities are carried out at random and in isolation from activities by other national and international actors. To maximize their impact, CSOs, in coordination with international actors, should design a unified strategic framework for defining their SSR priorities and operate within that framework. This would require establishing networks and alliances among various civil society groups to amplify their voices and generate greater impact, which would consequently help them achieve greater representation in SSR processes. Operating within alliances can also provide CSOs with more freedom to hold political actors accountable without being singled out or targeted by those actors. The effectiveness of these alliance networks will depend largely on the ability of CSOs to rise above competition for donor funding and be willing to share information and expertise. The strength of civil society will also depend on the level of its independence from the various political actors.

Given the multiplicity of local actors competing to shape Yemen’s security landscape, international actors have an opportunity to support the inclusion of ‘sensible’ local actors in SSR processes. This inclusion should move away from establishing passive partnerships, and instead engage CSOs in the broader SSR process, from inception to implementation. The promotion of true local ownership will also require international actors to commit to long-term SSR interventions that would allow for a broader and more meaningful local community engagement in these initiatives. Yemeni civil society’s lack of capacity and substantial experience related to SSR should no longer be regarded as a reason for their exclusion from work related to the security sector. Given the context, in which state institutions have transitioned from authoritarian rule to a fragmented state in a civil war, it is only to be expected that civil society is weak and inexperienced in this field.

Moreover, INGOs should take the learning-by-doing approach whereby they include CSOs and Yemeni experts in their work, in order for them to gain experience and knowledge through participation in the process. Only real inclusion, in place of short-lived training workshops, will ensure an effective transfer of knowledge. This approach will ensure the sustainability of SSR project outcomes, as well as local ownership, which is mandated by many donor strategies regarding SSR and stabilization. Civil society in Yemen, as in other countries, is not a homogeneous whole with shared interests and perspectives. For that reason, integrating a broad range of Yemeni voices in SSR processes is imperative for ensuring local ownership, and the success of SSR.

Considering that peace talks can be a major entry point for SSR, the United Nations, and especially OSESGY, should strive to empower civil society vis-à-vis political actors.[23] The inclusion of civil society at the early stages of peace talks not only ensures the integration of broad perspectives into the outcomes of these talks but also signals to political power holders that civil society must have a place at the table. To that end, OSESGY must consult with various civil society groups to determine how they can be effectively and safely included in peace negotiations. There should be more efforts to ensure those groups are representative of a wide range of social groups in different geographies. The success of the peace process rests on its inclusivity, which contributes to its legitimacy in the eyes of the Yemeni public.

Author bio: Hadil al-Mowafak is a research fellow at the Yemen Policy Center. She recently graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Previously, as a researcher for the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, she documented war-time human rights abuses including civilian casualties, the use of child soldiers, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions. Al-Mowafak was one of the thousands of Yemeni citizens who took to the streets during Yemen’s popular uprising in 2011 demanding a peaceful transition to democracy. 

German Federal Foreign Office
Mareike Transfeld
Copy Editor : Jatinder Padda
Ahmed al-Basha


[1] International Security Sector Advisory Team, “SSR Overview”, 2015, https:// https://issat.dcaf.ch/Learn/SSR-Overview .

[2] Léonie Northedge, “Security Provision in Yemen: Applying a Human Security Focus”, in Marie-Christine Heinze (ed.), Addressing Security Sector Reform in Yemen. Challenges and Opportunities for Intervention During and Post-Conflict, Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO)-Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Report, 20 December 2017, https://carpo-bonn.org/en/addressing-security-sector-reform-in-yemen/.

[3] Sedra, Mark. Security Sector Reform (SSR) Monitor: Timor-Leste. Waterloo: The Centre for International Governance Innovation, 2011, https://www.cigionline.org/sites/default/files/the_future_of_security_sector_reform.pdf .

[4] Moosa Elayah and Hadil Mohamed, “Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Peacebuilding after Yemen’s Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh,” Governance and Peace-Building Center, September 2018.

[5] Moosa Elayah and Willemijn Verkoren, “Civil Society during War: the Case of Yemen,” Peacebuilding 8, no. 4 (November 2019): pp. 476-498, doi:10.1080/21647259.2019.1686797.

[6] “World Report 2020: Rights Trends in Yemen,” Human Rights Watch, January 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/yemen.

[7] YPC interview with NGO chairperson, Taiz, 24 November 2020, interview ID:2.

[8] Elayah and Verkoren. 2020.

[9] YPC interview with NGO executive, Sana’a, 16 December 2020, interview ID: 3.

[10] YPC interview with NGO chairperson, Aden, 22 November 2020, interview ID: 4.

[11] YPC interview with NGO director of legal affairs, Sana’a, 11 December 2020, interview ID: 5.

[12] Mareike Transfeld, Kamal Muqbil, Shaima Bin Othman, Hakim Noman, Rule of Law Institutions Assessment, Yemen Policy Center, June 2020.

[13] Interview with NGO chairperson, Taiz, 25 October 2020, interview ID: 1.

[14] Laila Al-Zwaini, “Rule of Law Quick Scan Yemen: The Rule of Law in Yemen: Prospects and Challenges,” The Hague Institute for the Innovation of Law (HiiL), September 2012, https://www.hiil.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Rule-of-Law-in-Yemen.pdf.

[15] YPC interview with NGO chairperson, Hadhramaut, 11 December 2020, interview ID: 6.

[16] YPC interview with NGO director of legal affairs, Sana’a, 11 December 2020, interview ID: 5.

[17] Ibid.

[18] OECD DAC (2007). “OECD DAC Handbook on Security System Reform: Supporting Security and Justice.” Paris: OECD.

[19] John J. Patrick, “Civil Society in Democracy’s Third Wave: Implications for Civic Education.” 1996.

[20] A 2013 survey published by the Yemen Polling Center reveals that 24 per cent of urban areas and a staggering 89 per cent of rural areas lacked a local police station and 7 out of 21 governorates had none.
YPC. 2013. “Public Perceptions of the Security Sector and Police Work in Yemen: Main Findings, Jan 2013.”

[21] YPC interview with NGO executive, Sana’a, 16 December 2020, interview ID: 3.

[22] YPC interview with NGO chairperson, Aden, 22 November 2020, interview ID: 4.

[23] Eboe Hutchful, Security Sector Reform Provisions in Peace Agreements, African Security Sector Network, 2009, https://ciaotest.cc.columbia.edu/wps/gfnssr/0018026/f_0018026_15453.pdf.

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
Yemen Policy Newsletter