In the final days of August 2017, a coalition of over 60 nongovernmental organizations submitted an urgent letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council, urging action on what they called the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” in Yemen. After more than two of civil war, at least 3 million Yemenis have been displaced, 7 million are on the brink of famine, and at least 20 million are in need of humanitarian aid. With the widespread collapse of sanitation and basic services, hundreds of thousands have been stricken by cholera in a country where fewer than half the health-care facilities are operational.
The letter’s main concern, however, was the thousands of civilians who have been killed and injured as a result of the violent turmoil—at least 5,110 dead and at least 8,719 injured since March 2015, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many of these deaths have been intentional, or the result of gross negligence by military actors. The letter spread blame widely, indicting the “Saudi Arabia-led coalition, forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Houthi armed group” as perpetrators of “serious violations” of international law and human rights. The letter ended by repeating an appeal, first presented in 2015, for an “independent international inquiry to investigate alleged violations and abuses” of human rights in Yemen. The effort had been stonewalled by Saudi Arabia and its allies at the previous two Human Rights Council summits.
At the forefront of the campaign for this independent inquiry was Radhya al-Mutawakel, a self-described “human-rights defender” and the co-founder of Mwatana, a civilian-led organization working to document human-rights violations on the ground in Yemen. For years she and her partner/husband, Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih, have trained and dispatched dozens of Yemeni men and women to track abuses perpetrated by all parties in the conflict. In a deeply divided nation, the group’s nonpartisan work has garnered enemies on all sides, and over the years al-Mutawakel has endured slander, detention, physical abuse, and rampant death threats. Her husband has faced similar treatment, while her father, a longtime political dissident, was assassinated in 2014. These experiences have not deterred her, nor her organization, which so far has documented hundreds of cases of violations of human rights and international law involving thousands of civilian victims.
I spoke to al-Mutawakel several times in October. We met in New York City, where she’s been in functional exile since April. She arrived here in the spring for what was intended to be a 10-day visit, but her critics in Yemen, outraged to learn that she’d come to advocate in the United States, doubled down on their incendiary campaigns against her. Her colleagues in Sana’a, alarmed by the unprecedented vitriol, warned her not to return home.
In the intervening months, she’s kept busy. She’s been a Practitioner-in-Residence at Columbia Law School and has traveled repeatedly to Washington to lobby for de-escalation and human rights. In May, she became the first Yemeni civilian to address the UN Security Council. And in September, she celebrated alongside fellow signatories of the joint letter when, after a bruising three weeks of political jockeying, the Human Rights Council granted its request for an independent inquiry into the violations in Yemen.
The decision appoints an “international eminent group of experts,” on a fact-finding mission—a softened version of the “commission of inquiry,” with greater prosecutorial powers, that was originally requested by rights groups. Yet the decision represents a real victory to al-Mutawakel—what she calls a “practical step” toward peace in Yemen. (She was further vindicated when, the following week, the UN added Saudi Arabia to its “shame list” for violations against children. The list already included several other Yemeni factions.) In a Brooklyn cafe, over crumbly scones and black tea, the petite 41-year-old gave me her take on the crisis in her country, the possibility of peace, and why she believes a strong, organized civil society is the only way forward.
Sarah Aziza: It seems that wherever you go, whenever you write or speak, you make sure to emphasize the grass roots, and the need for citizens to organize. But it’s one thing to say that, and another to do it. You also seem to have a very clear idea of how to do it. Could you tell me where you learned the practical steps to running an organization?
Radhya al-Mutawakel: It started with my father. He always taught us that everyone should be aware of the issues in their society and have a role in public life…so it was just a choice of what kind of path to take. But I found my path gradually. In 2004, after I graduated college, a war broke out in the north of Yemen, and I started writing articles against the war. The families of victims started to notice my writing, and they’d come to me and ask for help, telling me more stories. This made it more real to me—the situation on the ground, the people suffering. From there, I got stuck on the issue of human rights. And I thought about trying to address the issue through politics, or through writing, but pretty soon I realized, no, I just want to engage directly, on the ground.
SA: When did you formally launch your organization?
RM: I was trying to do activism more independently, and then in 2006 I met Abdulrasheed, who was interested in the same things. We tried to start a human-rights organization together, but the government refused us—at the ministry of social affairs, they said there was a red line under both our names, because we’d both been speaking out about violations in public. They said, “You’ll never get a permit, not even if you wanted to form a dance group!” [Laughs] It was hard to work without a permit, because we weren’t recognized and couldn’t get donations, but we kept going. Then things really started to change in 2008, when Human Rights Watch connected with us. They asked us to help their field researchers, and in exchange we got to learn from them.
SA: What did you learn?
RM: The biggest thing for me was learning to just focus only on human rights, nothing else. Most of the time in a conflict, people just want to know, “Who’s the good side, who’s the bad side? Who’s at fault?” But the human-rights approach says, “Who cares?” Their issue is just documenting violations and protecting civilians. This was like magic to me. It simplified so much. And for the next several years, we got to do lots of field work with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty. I traveled to different parts of Yemen, visiting the homes of victims, or to the field to record the kinds of weapons being used against civilians. Calculating the number of civilian casualties from drones is very difficult. Many of the numbers reported in the international media are not correct, because they’re working from a distance. We were on the ground, slowly collecting data. We also monitored the detention of journalists, government abuses of prisoners. Lots of things.
SA: What was it like to be so close to people who were suffering so much?
RM: The work of a field researcher is always painful. We are so close, but it feels like we don’t have a lot to give them directly. Human-rights work is a very long process; it’s not like humanitarian work, where you just give someone something: Here you go, here’s medicine, here’s food.
SA: You’ve also been targeted by a lot of different groups inside Yemen who don’t like your work.
RM: Yes, we have critics on all sides, and they all take turns with different hate campaigns. [Laughs] The Houthis will accuse me of being a Saudi spy, for example, but then the Saudis or the Hadi loyalists will say I’m a disgrace to my family or a traitor to my country. They attack me as a bad Muslim, or they use offensive language about me as a woman—like “bitch” in English, or worse—and they accuse my husband of being my “purse.” [Laughs] This kind of thing is so stupid, I don’t feel it. But other times, it does scare me, like when people are dying from Saudi drones and they hear rumors that I’m a Saudi spy. You never know what someone will do if they believe this kind of thing.
SA: Have they ever harmed you physically?
RM: Once, we were doing a sit-in on the street in front of a security office, on behalf of detainees, and the Houthis sent women agents to break it up. They did this strategically—I was the only woman in the sit-in, and the men couldn’t do anything to help me, because they couldn’t touch the women. They said, “Radhya, you have to come with us.” I said “no,” and then they went crazy, they started beating all of us. And behind them there were guards who had weapons, and another one was filming us. If any of the activists had responded or touched the women to defend themselves it would have been very bad.
Abdulrasheed was holding on to me, and then they pulled me from his hands. The men were taken to jail, and I was taken to a car. They covered my eyes with a blindfold, and they were shouting and using very insulting language. They kept me for two hours, but people outside started calling around and demanding that we be released. Eventually they let me go. They took Abdulrasheed’s passport, but they let him and the other men go later too. But most people aren’t so lucky. Many people are detained for years without being given a reason.
SA: Could you tell me what it was like to watch the Arab Spring happening in 2011? What did you feel? And when the wave reached Yemen, what did that look like to you?
RM: It was very moving to see some of the things happening in other countries. The biggest moment for me was when [former dictator Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali fled Tunisia. It was very surprising—the people in street could make their ruler flee! I was so happy. And when [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak stepped down, it seemed like every Yemeni was celebrating—I’ve never seen so many people run down in the streets, all on their own, with no one calling them out. We couldn’t believe what was happening in the Arab world.
But I was also worried. I knew that Yemeni civil society wasn’t organized enough to take on the government, and that nothing was prepared to set up any kind of new, democratic system. Very quickly, the revolution was taken over by political factions. We started seeing different political parties, and their militias, taking control of public squares where demonstrators would gather. We started to see human-rights violations by different parties and by the government.
SA: Was there ever a time when the demonstrations were truly civilian?
RM: There were moments where many people who had no affiliation with political parties did go to the street—especially in the beginning, when they were observing what was going on in Egypt. They were inspired.
SA: If one were to ask one of these independent people in the street, in 2011, what they were hoping for, or wanted to change, what would they have said?
RM: They wanted just…a better life. They were fed up with [President] Saleh. They wanted a better economy, better services, just…a better life. And there really were so many people who did believe things could change. They thought the revolution could give them that.
SA: But you didn’t?
RM: No. But Abdulrasheed and I, and our organization, we worked very hard not to take sides in politics. We just worked to point out human-rights violations—which were happening very early on in the demonstrations, in the squares. But people didn’t want us to speak up about those things. Even ordinary people, they were so excited about the revolution, they didn’t want to hear any critique of the movement.
SA: Would you say the Arab Spring politicized a lot of Yemenis?
RM: Yes, definitely, that is one of the few good things that came out of 2011—a lot of young people became involved in civic life and politics for the first time. Right now, that doesn’t mean anything, really, because there’s only war, and no political progress. But I hope that in the future, when the war ends, these people will stay engaged, and they will become our future leaders.
SA: How did things change for you, once the civil war broke out?
RM: Things were more intense, of course, but as always we just made ourselves focus on one thing: human rights. We traveled to Taiz, Aden, and other parts of Yemen to document violations. We were also working with Open Society Foundation on a report on civilian deaths caused by US drones. And we started getting more invitations to go abroad to do advocacy or speak at human-rights events. But most of the time, we were unable to travel to attend these events.
SA: Why couldn’t you travel?
RM: There are no more embassies in Yemen, so to get a permit you have to go to a second country, like Jordan or Lebanon, and apply there. It can take two or three weeks. And then you can go to your final destination. Also, Abdulrasheed didn’t have his passport. But eventually, when we decided to make an advocacy visit to the United States this year, we were able to get him another passport.
SA: How did you manage that?
RM: That’s one good thing about having two governments! The Houthis had his passport, so he went quietly to Aden and applied through the regime there, and that’s how he got a new passport. The Houthis were very surprised to learn he was out of the country! [Laughs]
SA: But now he’s back in Yemen?
RM: Yes…we were in exile together from April until October, since our colleagues said things would be very dangerous for us to return to Yemen. But we saw that, with both of the leaders gone, the organization was weakening. Abdulrasheed told me he felt very strongly that he needed to go back to support the work. I was so scared, but he told me, “If we give up on this work, what’s the point of our existence?” He told me to trust him, and that he’d be very careful. He traveled through Sudan and flew into a small airport in Yemen, Seiyun, very quietly. Now that he’s so glad to be there, I feel a part of me is in Sana’a, it feels closer to me now. So now we feel, yes, this is right. He can do the work there, and I can do the work here.
SA: And how is the work going? What does it feel like to be here, advocating in the United States, when the United States plays such a big role in the conflict and violations in Yemen?
RM: It has been difficult. When I came here to start meeting officials, my advisers in the other NGOs would give me the same advice. They said, firstly, US officials don’t know much about Yemen, and secondly, they don’t care about human-rights violations. They told me to talk about security—they said this is the language the Americans respond to.
SA: So what do you do?
RM: I do both! I can’t ignore human rights—that’s who I am, a human-rights defender. But I have to start by educating people with the basics. Most American officials look at Yemen like a black hole. They don’t understand it. They don’t care, and they don’t see a solution. But I tell them, they don’t have to feel this way. The best way to understand it is as a balance of weaknesses. I always tell them, “There are no heroes in Yemen. There are only criminals and victims.” And these criminals are failures! They’ve failed. That’s why peace is possible. Not like in Syria, where you have a strong regime like Assad’s, and strong militias. Every faction in Yemen is weak.
SA: Do you feel like you’ve had some success with US officials?
RM: Yes. When we first got to the United States, the rhetoric around Hodeida Port was very escalated. It sounded like [the Saudi/United Arab Emirates coalition] were getting ready to launch a military strike any minute! We spoke to many people and gave them the civilian perspective. We tried to put a human face to the issue, we talked to them about the impact of military intervention on Yemenis. I think it was the first time they had ever even thought about this perspective. Gradually we saw the rhetoric cool down.
We also got them to listen by talking about fanatical groups. This is something US officials seem very interested in. They are all scared of Islamist extremists. But some of their strategies are empowering the extremists! Because while the coalition is fighting the Houthis, and the Muslim Brotherhood is weakened, all the fanatics and Salafis are getting stronger—especially in the South. Is that what they want?
I’m not saying these things to manipulate them, either. I’m saying it because Yemenis are scared, too, of extremists. I’m worried. Because that would be the worst possible future for Yemen.
SA: You’ve had some big victories lately, with the independent inquiry and the “shame list” now including Saudi Arabia. What’s your strategy going forward?
RM: Yes, after a lot of work, it feels like there’s a little bit of response to our cause now. The size of the response still does not match the size of the crisis, but there are good indicators. Right now, we are pushing some “urgent actions” to help relieve some of the most extreme suffering in Yemen. We are asking for the reopening of Hodeida Port and Sana’a Airport, and for the government to pay its employees’ salaries—the central bank has been used as a tool of war, and many families have gone months without receiving their paychecks. They were already poor, and now this! So we are calling for a mechanism to push these basic actions, as well as working on a solution to the conflict in Yemen.
SA: You are clearly very determined, but you also seem optimistic. Do you feel hopeful?
RM: Yes. I am hopeful. Because you must be hopeful. And thank you for asking about my story. Thank you for being interested in my country.