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.