Yemen’s Human-Rights Defenders Are Fighting Increasingly Desperate Odds

Yemen’s Human-Rights Defenders Are Fighting Increasingly Desperate Odds

Yemen’s Human-Rights Defenders Are Fighting Increasingly Desperate Odds

“This war will never stop until the international community decides to take action.”

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As one of the most prominent defenders of human rights in Yemen, Radhya Almutawakel is well-acquainted with danger. Working in active war zones in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Almutawakel has spent years documenting human-rights violations as chairperson of Mwatana, one of the few still-operational civilian organizations in Yemen. In a country where political parties now control the vast majority of NGOs, Mwatana’s nonpartisan reporting has indicted all sides in the conflict. “In Yemen, there are no heroes,” says Almutawakel, who has met with scores of victims of bombings by the Saudi-led coalition, as well as numerous survivors of torture and unlawful detention at the hands of the Yemen government and the country’s main opposition group, known as the Houthis. “It’s a balance of weaknesses, and everyone is committing abuse.”

Political neutrality is core to Mwatana’s mission, which looks ahead to a postwar Yemen where all sides will be held to account. Yet such impartiality is a perilous endeavor. By refusing to bow to any one faction, Mwatana has attracted retaliation from all sides. “Every day, when I leave my apartment, there’s a small part of me that knows I may not return,” says Osamah Alfakih, former director of research and current director of media, communications, and advocacy for Mwatana. “It’s not just the falling bombs or the land mines—there’s always a possibility for detention, harassment, or even violence as a result of this work.” Many of Alfakih’s 70-plus colleagues have endured abuse, arrest, or long-term detention.

Almutawakel, whose small frame and serene composure belie a steel will, takes the role of Mwatana’s public face in an effort to shield her team from the brunt of this danger. “We try to keep the identities of our members out of the public, for their safety,” she explains. “This work of accountability can make many enemies, very quickly.” Since co-founding Mwatana in 2007, Almutawakel has been subjected to elaborate smear campaigns, detention, numerous death threats, and physical attack. Almutawakel’s father, a longtime political dissident, was assassinated in 2014, while her husband and Mwatana co-founder, Abdulrasheed Alfaqih, has also been a frequent target for harassment and arrest. Both Almutawakel and Alfaqih have been blocked while attempting to move within the country or prevented from traveling abroad. At other times, threats by the various parties controlling Yemen’s airbases have left them functionally exiled while abroad, often separating the two from each other for extended periods of time.

While Almutawakel remains undeterred, she says the country’s deepening chaos has triggered a recent escalation in her opponents’ efforts to silence Mwatana. “The language used against us is much more aggressive than it ever was,” says Almutawakel, who has been accused of everything from betraying Islam to spying for Saudi Arabia to working for the United States. The rhetorical threats are compounded by the suppression of free speech and crackdowns on Yemen’s beleaguered grassroots groups. Almutawakel and Alfaqih have been detained by several warring factions this year, and they report a rise in credible death threats, including several from guerrilla groups. “Everyone is feeling more desperate—especially the people trying to hold on to power,” says Almutawakel. “This can lead to terrible acts. You feel anything could happen.”

Yet the stakes of her work are higher than ever. Three and a half years after the Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive on Houthi rebels—an attack the Saudis announced from Riyadh’s embassy in Washington, DC—at least 16,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed, mostly by airstrikes, many using US-made weapons (and that figure is almost certainly an undercount). Widespread starvation threatens 13 million more. War and famine, along with economic collapse and the worst cholera outbreak in modern history, have driven the country to its knees. “A generation has been lost to war,” says Almutawakel. “No one is untouched. There’s a sense now that if you’re alive, it’s by accident. Rockets could fall on you anytime, or disease could strike, or hunger could take you.”

The United Nations has identified Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with roughly 22 of the country’s 28 million people in need of aid—but Almutawakel is quick to point out that her country’s suffering is man-made. “This is not a natural disaster. It’s been created by people who are choosing to continue fighting, who are turning a blind eye to the Yemeni people and thinking only about their own political agendas.”

The gravest example of this unnecessary suffering is Yemen’s rampant hunger, which is not due to lack of food but rather the unraveling of the country’s economic and social fabric. Millions have lost their jobs as a result of the war, while thousands more have had their salaries frozen indefinitely. Meanwhile, the war has driven up the price of food, fuel, and other necessities, leaving two-thirds of Yemeni families unsure of their next meal. “After years of war, this starvation has really broken the back of Yemen,” says Almutawakel, her voice straining. “There is no more normal life—life is just a daily struggle to survive. Except for some of the most impoverished people, who don’t even have the privilege to struggle. The ones who are so poor and weak now, the struggle is over for them.”

There is also mounting evidence that much of the hunger is a result of deliberate strategy. Increasingly, humanitarian experts describe “starvation as a weapon of war” being utilized by numerous parties in the conflict. International aid groups have accused both the Houthis and the coalition forces of obstructing vital humanitarian aid, while foreign observers and press have been all but barred. “All sides in the conflict are responsible for this slow killing, by forcing people into poverty and blocking the aid that could save them,” says Osamah Alfakih. “It is a terrible crime to watch happening. Some days, it is very hard to have hope.”

Almutawakel agrees that hunger is being weaponized against her people, but points out that the most acute suffering could be quickly remedied. “If [the coalition forces and Houthis] had a cease-fire, if they paid salaries and reopened Yemen’s ports and airspaces or just cooperated with aid organizations, these steps would save many lives and relieve so much suffering. This could happen very quickly, if the political parties cared enough about the Yemeni people to take these steps.”

In the meantime, women and children are bearing the brunt of the crisis. According to the United Nations Population Fund, roughly 1.1 million pregnant and lactating women are malnourished as a result of the war, while over 3 million women are vulnerable to gender-based violence. Over half of the 1 million cholera cases reported in Yemen last year were children. Child marriages have risen sharply since the onset of the conflict, while the age of first marriages for girls has dropped, with as many as half of child brides under the age of 15. Marriages are arranged by families, either because of the family’s inability to support their daughters or as a means of acquiring a dowry. And hundreds of children, some as young as 11, have been conscripted as child soldiers.

Amid the desperation, Almutawakel has been forced to reexamine the role of Mwatana. Even as her work documenting human-rights violations grows more dangerous, it has also come to feel like something of a luxury. “There is no time for most people to think about their rights, or the country’s future,” she says. “Most Yemenis are just trying to survive the bombings and starvation. There can be no social or political progress while people are dying this way.”

It was this realization that prompted Almutawakel and her colleagues to shift Mwatana’s strategy. Previously, the group had focused solely on nonpartisan reporting of human-rights abuses, without commenting on politics or policy. Yet Almutawakel says the deepening horror of daily life in Yemen now demands more deliberate advocacy. “We realize this war will never stop until the international community decides to take action. This conflict is being fueled from the outside.” She draws a direct line between the vast suffering of her people and the actions of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western nations. “Western countries need to recognize that by arming Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab Emirates], they are directly fueling the war. They should stop this, immediately—they shouldn’t even have to think about it.”

Almutawakel also recognized a troubling absence of Yemeni voices on the global stage. “I realized we needed to represent ourselves to the world, to show the world that most Yemenis are still civilians, and peace is still possible. It’s a matter of will.” In recent years, she has traveled to Europe and the United States to call for action to protect Yemeni lives, emphasizing the need to halt violence and address the humanitarian crisis while pursuing a political solution. In 2017, she became the first Yemeni civilian to speak to the UN Security Council, where she urged the body to recognize the “grave human suffering of millions of Yemenis as a result of the war.”

Almutawakel feels that recent events may offer an unprecedented opportunity to push Western powers in this direction. Since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, many world leaders have been reexamining their ties to the Saudi regime, and to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in particular. The crown prince, commonly known as “MBS,” has been implicated in the journalist’s killing and is also the director of the Gulf coalition’s military campaign in Yemen. Recent weeks have seen a surge in critical coverage of his role in the growing crisis in Yemen, placing the future of Western military support for the coalition in doubt.

Like many others, Almutawakel has mixed feelings about this sudden change of heart. “It’s a horrible thing that the Saudis did to Khashoggi. But at the same time it shows that the Western powers can take decisive action when they want to. With the atrocities in Yemen, they used to say there was nothing they could do—but they have shown they have the mechanisms to pressure the Saudis when they want to.”

Almutawakel also contends that Washington’s complicity with MBS’s lethal Yemen campaign helped make the murder of Khashoggi a feasible option in the eyes of the crown prince. “For years, he was getting away with this brutal war, causing the death of thousands of Yemenis, and the US kept supporting him. And he also abused the rights of his own people, and the West still said nothing. So I can imagine he felt that the same would happen if he ordered the death of this one man.”

Since the start of the conflict, both the Obama administration and the Trump White House have tolerated rampant civilian deaths and potential war crimes in Yemen. In late October, facing pressure from Congress and civilian groups to divest from the Yemen war, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would increase its efforts for a cease-fire in Yemen, calling for a halt to hostilities “within 30 days.” His counterpart in Britain, Jeremy Hunt, echoed these sentiments the following day; Saudi Arabia promptly responded by ordering an air and ground assault on the Houthi-held port of Hodeida. The date for the proposed negotiations has since been pushed back.

Earlier this month, with evidence of MBS’s guilt in Khashoggi’s death mounting in the pages of the global press, the US and Saudi governments issued joint statements announcing that Washington would no longer refuel Saudi aircraft operating over Yemen. The decision will not affect the volume of US arms sales to the kingdom, however, and the measure is seen by many critics as toothless. “These small steps are not enough,” says Almutawakel, “The US should be taking the lead in moving the world toward peace in Yemen, because they’ve been taking the lead in supporting the war.”

The fact that Yemen remains one of the countries listed in Trump’s notorious travel ban can be taken as another sign of the administration’s disregard for the fate of Yemeni civilians. While Almutawakel was able to obtain a waiver to travel to Washington to accept the Baldwin Medal of Liberty this month, the vast majority of Yemenis around the world remain barred from entering the United States. Meanwhile, Yemenis already here must choose between remaining indefinitely or forfeiting their visas to return home.

Congress members on both sides of the aisle have sharply criticized the ongoing sale of US arms for the war, calling for sanctions against the Saudi state. Currently, the Senate is preparing to vote on a bill, sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders, Chris Murphy, and Mike Lee, which would revoke US military support for the war (Congress rejected a similar bipartisan resolution this past March). A growing list of academics, regional experts, humanitarian leaders, and nonprofit organizations have registered their vocal support for the measure, but the proposal faces opposition from hardliners as well as the White House. Pompeo, in an aggressive op-ed published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, derided “Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on” since the murder of Khashoggi, and argued that “degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies.”

On Wednesday, in prepared remarks released by the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that “pulling back our limited U.S. military support, our weapons sales to our partners, and our protection of the Saudi and Emirati populations would be misguided on the eve of the promising initial negotiations.” On the same day, Mattis and Pompeo briefed senators on the Yemen war in a closed-door meeting ahead of an impending vote on the Sanders-Murphy-Lee bill.

Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed admirer of MBS, has alternated between threatening retaliation for Khashoggi’s murder and lauding US-Saudi arms sales—and thus good relations with the crown prince—as indispensable. On November 20, Trump gave what appeared to be his final words on the subject, dismissing the CIA’s conclusion that MBS must have been involved in Khashoggi’s killing. He then reaffirmed the US commitment to “remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia.” Like many, Almutawakel saw Trump’s comments as an affront to justice, calling the comment “insulting not only for the victims but for his country and people. He was saying frankly that only money matters.”

Even so, other nations are taking more meaningful measures to curtail the conflict. August 2018 saw the release of the first report on possible war crimes in Yemen, the result of an investigation commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council. The report, written by the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, accused multiple parties, including the Gulf-led coalition as well as the government of Yemen, of “violations and crimes under international law” which “may, subject to determination by an independent and competent court, amount to international crimes.” The release of the report infuriated Saudi Arabia and its key coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, which attempted to block the renewal of the group’s mandate. Despite aggressive pressure from the Gulf states, the Council voted 21-8 to extend the report another year. Almutawakel, who worked for years to garner support for such an investigation, sees the renewal of the group’s mandate as a sign of shifting tides. “The Saudis saw the renewal as a slap in the face—it shows them the international community is taking steps to hold them accountable.”

Other governments have also made unilateral attempts to increase pressure on Saudi Arabia—Germany, Finland, and Denmark being notable examples—but Almutawakel’s eyes are on the United States, United Kingdom, and France. These nations are the top three arms exporters to Saudi Arabia, and she worries that a failure to properly censure MBS could have lethal implications for years to come. “MBS is watching to see if the US will really take a stand. If the US, the UK, and France don’t show themselves to be strong in this moment, it will be a very scary thing for the world. MBS will take this as permission to keep doing what he wishes. This would be terrible for Yemenis, for Saudis, and for human-rights workers everywhere, long into the future.”

This concern for the future is what keeps Mwatana at work, despite the odds. “Our efforts have always been focused on how we will rebuild Yemen one day,” says Alfakih. “That is why we are documenting everything we can, to keep the voices of victims from being lost, so they can have justice one day, somehow.” For Almutawakel, much will hinge on the coming months. “Peace is always possible, because Yemenis want to live. They are strong, and they love life. What I’m afraid of is what the rest of the world will do. Will they listen, and will they do the right thing?”

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