Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 33
There have been some notable exceptions. Early in the war, Zaydi-affiliated organisations documented and denounced war-related human rights violations in Saada despite government pressure on its members.212 More recently, in 2007, a group of Yemeni organisations set up “Together against the Saada War”; they chose as their director a non-Zaydi intellectual, Abu Bakr al-Saqqaf, to discourage the notion that it supported the rebels.213 Activists have met with government officials, staged sit-ins in front of parliament and the presidency building and called for the release of detainees.214 In 2008, various NGOs convened conferences to draw attention and discuss issues related to the war.215
None of these efforts have effectively challenged official discourse or affected public debate; they remain marginal – tolerated but ineffectual and, indeed, tolerated because ineffectual. That is not a reason to abandon them, for they hold a key to improving public information, debunking myths on both sides and building confidence between belligerents by establishing forums for open expression and debate. Local, non-affiliated organisations also could help provide credible assessments of destruction and casualties and assist in reconstruction projects,216 thus enhancing their credibility in rebel and international eyes.217
211 The government’s war blackout has meant media coverage and public debate based on partial information and unverified rumours. Examples of unsubstantiated (at times absurd) assertions abound. On 21 April 2005, al-Shumua, a Sanaa weekly close to some army officers, portrayed Huthi militants as agents of international freemasonry; conversely, rumours have spread alleging massive al-Qaeda involvement with army forces since the beginning of the fourth round in 2007.
212 This was the case in particular of the Yemeni Organisation for the Defence of Democratic Rights and Liberties. It was created in 1993 by Muhammad Abd-al-Malik al-Mutawakkil, a renowned intellectual of Hashemite background and a political science professor at Sanaa University.
213 Crisis Group interview, human rights activist, Sanaa, 20 January 2009.
214 Sawt al-Shura (Sanaa Zaydi weekly), 1 December 2008.
215 For example, on 28 June 2008, the NGO Muntada Hiwar organised a conference on possible solutions for Saada; on 19 August the independent English-language Yemen Times organised a conference on detainees and the disappeared.
216 Crisis Group interview, international development expert, Sanaa, 4 January 2009.
217 Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Sanaa, January 2009.
D. A New International Role
International efforts essentially have been of two types: regional intervention (at times well-intentioned but unable to solve the conflict) and humanitarian (chiefly by UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations). A more positive, political and proactive international role is important. This will require a change in outlook on the nature of the war and a more acute understanding of the dangers it poses.
Working with regional actors (notably Gulf Cooperation Council members) and existing Yemeni mediation and reconstruction committees, Western governments should consider several steps: pressing the government to end its information blackout and lift its ban on access to war-affected areas by media, independent researchers, human rights organisations and most humanitarian agencies; pushing the Huthi leadership to articulate practical demands; indicating backing for a negotiated settlement; and pledging reconstruction assistance and diplomatic support as a means of nudging the parties back to the negotiating table. The last point is of particular importance: donor countries should hold out the promise of long-term development aid to neglected regions such as Saada as an incentive to end the war.218
How aid is structured also matters. Support should be allocated to specific reconstruction projects jointly identified by the government, rebels and members of civil society; this should be preceded by an independent survey of destruction and casualties. For both tasks, an inclusive mediation and reconstruction committee ought to be established comprising representatives of the government,
218 Muhammad Thabit, head of the Saada reconstruction fund, asserted: “In early 2009, Great Britain and Italy both announced aid reaching a total of $7 million, but it is intended primarily for food distribution and to answer other urgent needs. This is not the main problem in Saada right now. Refugees have returned to their villages, and communal solidarity is playing a big role in addressing urgent needs. What the people really need is reconstruction and development. Satisfying urgent needs is important, but it will not solve the conflict in the long term”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 21 March 2009. Donors have been wary of infusing additional resources for lack of certainty that, Salih’s pronouncements notwithstanding, the war truly is over. A major donor country representative said, “additional money could be made available to support projects linked to water, health and education once we get the sense that a political process between the government and the Huthis has been launched”. Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Sanaa, 14 January 2009.