Last Updated: Friday, 11 July 2014, 13:14 GMT

Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Yemen

Publisher United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Publication Date 31 March 2011
Cite as United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Yemen, 31 March 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4d99aa7bc.html [accessed 12 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The government of Yemen faced a multitude of challenges in 2010. Yemen's economy remains overly reliant on declining oil revenue, though the signing of a comprehensive reform programme with the International Monetary Fund signalled progress. Commitment to political inclusion and stability, incorporated in the National Dialogue, stalled towards the end of 2010 with disagreement over electoral reform. Ongoing conflict in both the north and south of Yemen and the continuing presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula persist in destabilising the country. Reports from NGOs and the media showed that the government continued to perpetrate human rights abuses in response to conflict, demonstrations and media criticism, which included violent dispersal of demonstrations in Aden and extrajudicial processes to manage political opposition.

Although the recent round of conflict in Sa'dah, northern Yemen, between Huthi rebels – a Zaidi sect in dispute with the government – and government forces has ceased, there are approximately 300,000 internally displaced persons. Humanitarian access to the area remains restricted. Tensions remain high in the region, with the possibility of further conflict, and we are concerned that civilians may be caught up in armed conflict. Yemenis are frustrated by economic, social and political issues, and in southern Yemen grievances are aggravated by the reportedly heavy-handed tactics of the security forces. We are concerned by arbitrary detention of suspects, the use of live rounds to suppress demonstrations, state control over the freedom of the press and restrictions on freedom of expression.

The government of Yemen rarely prioritises respect for human rights. In response to the increasing threat of extremism and growing internal instability in Yemen, we organised the London Friends of Yemen Conference in January, to coordinate international support for the Yemeni government's efforts to address the underlying causes of instability. We launched the Friends of Yemen group, comprising 28 countries and international institutions. We identified freedom of expression, opportunities for women, protection of civilians in conflict and promotion of human rights within the security services as key human rights areas where we hope to encourage positive change. We worked bilaterally with Yemeni departments and ministries and in collaboration with the EU, US and local and international NGOs. Coordinated action with the EU, in particular, remains important. In 2010 we participated in EU démarches regarding freedom of expression, changes to NGO laws and the proposed execution of a juvenile.

During the 2010/11 financial year, we have funded projects to address the underlying causes of tension and to improve Yemen's ability to manage conflict, thereby reducing the risk of human rights violations. Members of the Yemeni security forces attended courses at a variety of UK military training establishments, which included training on the law of armed conflict and the importance of human rights in security activity. Project work also included efforts to address tension and potential conflict between Yemeni communities and Somali refugees, and a pilot study to assess options for the provision of desalinated water. We hope that the latter study, whilst focused on one area of Yemen, may result in a model for other parts of the country.

We have a cross-government approach to encouraging stability, and with it respect for human rights in Yemen. This approach is supported by the programme work of the Department for International Development (DFID), including its Development Partnership Agreement, its Justice and Policing Programme, various education projects and its humanitarian assistance to those affected by armed conflict in northern Yemen.

Despite the challenging security environment we will continue to lobby the government of Yemen on human rights issues, using the EU Human Rights Strategy as a framework for coordinated action. In 2011 human rights abuses could act as a driver of instability, especially in already volatile regions, such as Sa'dah governorate and the south. We will continue to communicate to the government the benefits of respecting human rights in order to reduce grievances and build stability. The next Friends of Yemen ministerial conference will be held in March 2011. This will offer an opportunity to review reform progress thus far and to encourage the government to take greater responsibility for improving political inclusivity and stability in Yemen.

We will also offer the government direct bilateral support. Future funding will look to address some of the key potential conflict drivers and development areas in Yemen. We hope that these projects will lead, for example, to greater participation and leadership by Yemeni women in society and add support to Yemeni civil society.

Elections

Parliamentary elections, which were originally postponed in 2009 and were rescheduled for April 2011, look likely to be postponed again. Some progress was made in July when the ruling party and opposition began a process of National Dialogue. However, a new election law passed in December last year has threatened this process and may result either in opposition parties boycotting the parliamentary elections or a further delay of these elections.

Rule of law

Human rights abuses are not systematic within the Yemeni judicial and penal system but media and NGO reports of summary arrests, police brutality, prolonged pre-trial detention and torture are commonplace. The extent of these abuses is unclear: the Ministry of Human Rights is not forthcoming and the government has yet to establish the independent Human Rights Commission, as recommended Yemen's 2009 UN Universal Periodic Review.

The judiciary lacks independence and is vulnerable to executive interference; Yemen's Supreme Judicial Council is appointed by the president. The law is inconsistently applied. For example, the Yemeni constitution forbids slavery, yet the practice continues with an estimated 500 slaves in Yemen, mainly in remote areas.

Death penalty

Yemeni criminal law allows for the death penalty for murder, rape, adultery, armed robbery, serious kidnapping, treason and homosexuality (when both parties are in heterosexual marriages). There are no reliable reports on the number of people on death row, but we believe there are hundreds. In theory the law prohibits the application of the death penalty against juvenile defendants, yet inconsistencies in the age of criminal responsibility mean that juveniles continue to be sentenced to death. On 17 January 2011, we participated in an EU démarche regarding the juvenile death penalty.

Prisons and detention issues

We are concerned at reports of incommunicado detentions. In November, ahead of the football Gulf Cup in Aden, a number of southern political activists, including Southern Mobility Movement leader Hassan Baoum, were arrested without clear charges or any expectation of a trial. In February, after being held incommunicado for 100 days, Muhammed Al-Maqalih, editor of the opposition Socialist Party's news website, Al Eshteraki, was tried before the extrajudicial Specialised Criminal Court and sentenced to a further term of imprisonment. More recently a southern political activist, Zahra Salih, was held for more than two months before being released in January 2011.

Freedom of expression

Media freedom is steadily declining and in 2010 Yemen fell further down the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom rankings – it is now 170 out of 178 countries. Legislation exists to protect media freedoms, but in practice self-censorship is widespread as independent media, especially those allegedly linked to the Huthis or southern activists, face sustained government harassment. This includes enforced publishing suspensions, office searches and summary arrests of journalists. Extra-judicial press and publication courts, established in 2009, and specialised criminal courts, established in 1999, have been used to suppress political opposition. In January, Anissa Uthman, a journalist for Al-Wassat newspaper, was convicted by the specialised press and publications court on charges of defaming the president. Ms Uthman was sentenced to three months imprisonment and banned from publishing for one year.

Human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Women Journalists Without Chains, were critical of clamp-downs on media freedom throughout 2010. On 10 February the European Parliament expressed "serious concerns about developments in Yemen with regard to democracy, human rights and the independence of the judiciary" including "cases involving the persecution of journalists and human rights defenders". Our Ambassador and senior visiting officials raised their concerns about media restrictions with the Yemeni government and in September the EU issued a démarche criticising the treatment of journalists opposed to government policy.

Freedom of religion and belief

The Yemeni constitution protects freedom of religion, with the exception of proselytising by non-Muslims, but reports of discrimination continue. Ongoing clashes with the Huthis, who adhere to the Zaidi school of Shi'a Islam, has increased government harassment of the wider Zaidi community. This included the detention of suspected Huthi sympathisers and attempts to restrict Zaidi teaching by forcibly removing Zaidi imams from religious institutions and replacing them with Sunni salafists.

Yemen's small Jewish community reportedly faces some discrimination. In the last five years the government has assisted in relocating around 400 Jews from rural areas to Sana'a, where the authorities are better able to ensure their protection. In 2010 visiting Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) ministers met leaders of the Jewish community on two separate occasions and were satisfied with Yemeni government measures to protect and support them.

Women's rights

Yemen consistently ranks last in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index. Yemen is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, but Yemeni law, which is based on Sharia law, offers women little equality or protection. Women's testimony carries less weight than men's. They must seek government permission to marry non-Yemenis, and cannot obtain ID cards or passports without the approval of a mahram, a male family member. Even Sharia provisions allowing women to own property are not uniformly implemented.

Efforts in 2008 and May 2009 to pass a minimum marriage age law failed and the proposed legislation continued to face strong parliamentary opposition. Yemeni NGOs regularly report on marriages of girls as young as 12 and the EU estimates that 50% of Yemeni women marry aged 15 or younger. Child trafficking remains a concern, particularly near the Saudi border. The use of child labour is growing and the EU estimates that children comprise 10% of the total Yemeni labour force.

Protection of civilians

The sixth round of conflict in Sa'dah resulted in a significant number of internally displaced persons. Peace negotiations between the government and the Huthis, supported by the Qatari government, remain ongoing. Continuing humanitarian access is a priority, especially to the 100,000 internally displaced persons located in the Huthi held areas of Sa'dah, Amran and Hajjah, and the provision of basic services to those affected by the conflict.

Secessionist activists in southern Yemen have demonstrated in support of greater political freedom and against perceived discrimination. In 2010 there were reports of heavy-handed tactics by the security forces, the use of live fire and arbitrary detention. We continued to urge the government, at all levels, to participate in a politically inclusive National Dialogue which would help to address southern grievances.

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