Events of 1992

Human Rights Developments

Yemen, the most impoverished country on the Arabian peninsula, has embarked on a process of political liberalization, albeit with mixed results. The process was triggered by the May 1990 agreement that unified the formerly hostile states of North Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic, or YAR) and South Yemen (the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, or PDRY). In each state, the ruling party had not allowed multiparty politics since its assumption of power, in1962 in the YAR and in 1967 in the PDRY. Past rights violations included arbitrary and incommunicado detention, unfair trials, abuse of prisoners and detainees, and restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.

The transitional government, a coalition of the two former ruling parties that was formed with unification, has eased the patterns of state-sponsored repression that had been common in both nations. Most Yemenis formerly living in exile returned to the country, and general amnesties freed many, but not all, of the political prisoners. In 1992, institutions of civil society continued to develop, as political parties openly participated in the system and scores of opposition newspapers and magazines flourished. At the same time, the climate was marred by incidents of political violence by unidentified forces.

The country's first parliamentary election since unification was scheduled to be held by November 22, and would have represented the first legislative contest on the Arabian peninsula based on universal suffrage and competition between political parties. Although parliament's power does not equal that granted by the constitution to the five-member Presidential Council, the election was viewed as significant as a forum for legitimizing the expansion of civil society in Yemen. But on November 14, the Presidential Council announced that the election would be postponed until April 27, 1993, thus extending the life of the transitional government beyond that envisaged at unification. The government's explanation for the move, which caused an outcry by some opposition political parties, was that the 17-member multiparty Supreme Elections Committee – whose chair is a member of the Presidential Council – had been unable to complete the tasks assigned to it in preparation for the election.

Loosened restrictions on freedom of expression and association since unification has yielded some 160 newspapers and magazines. Over 40 political parties operated freely, although most of them were small and distinguished more by personal conflicts among their leaders than by substantial variations in agendas. However, new laws governing the press and other media (issued in 1990), and political and other associations (1991), contain vaguely worded provisions giving the government the power to clamp down again on civil society if it wishes.

Although opposition publications openly criticize the government, some issues remained off-limits, such as criticism of the president. The press law stipulates that journalists, editors and publishing houses must refrain from any statement that might "criticize the person of the head of state, or to attribute to him declarations or pictures unless the declarations were made or the picture taken during a public speech." The law stipulates that "[t]hese provisions do not necessarily apply to constructive criticism," without defining the term. In September, Minister of Information Muhammed Ahmed Jerhoum told Middle East Watch that his office had tried to stop a publication from attacking Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the government of Saudi Arabia. He explained that the ban on criticism of the Yemeni head of state also applied to leaders of other countries, in effect making press comment on Yemen's foreign policy hostage to the considerations of the government of the day. A Western diplomat told Middle East Watch that comment on the government's stance regarding the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis remained beyond the limits of permissible discussion.

Yemen's political parties functioned during 1992 without formal legal status, despite the 1991 political parties law which provided for the licensing of parties and an appeals process against adverse administrative decisions. The commission assigned by the law to vet political parties was unable to process applications for licenses because of the resignation of its chair, who nonetheless continued to serve as the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs. One possible reason why the government dragged its feet in implementing the law was its potentially substantial effect on Yemen's political scene. The law prohibits any member of the judiciary, police, military or diplomatic corps from participating in a political party. In 1992, several opposition figures called for ruling party leaders in the transitional government with military rank, such as Yemen's president, Lieutenant General Ali Abdullah Saleh, to resign in keeping with the law.

Shortly after Yemeni voters approved the unification constitution in1990, a series of unexplained armed attacks on political figures began to mar the path to peaceful elections. Until September 1992, most of the violence was directed at members of the Yemeni Socialist Party and other political parties of the left, suggesting to some that northern conservatives perhaps were responsible. But, in late September, members of President Saleh's General People's Congress (the ruling party of the former YAR) also were targeted by unknown assailants.

For most of 1992, the government refused to acknowledge any pattern to the attacks and did not characterize the incidents as politically motivated violence. This stance changed in October, when President Saleh announced that arrests had been made, and that the assailants – still unidentified – intended "to sow suspicion and create a crisis of confidence.... [P]erhaps their aim was also to prevent the general elections from being held by disrupting security." Political violence has precedence in recent Yemeni history, and many citizens have voiced concern about the prospects of its return. The attacks contributed to a climate of uncertainty amid the broadly positive developments that have marked the post-unification transition period.

The Right To Monitor

The Yemeni government permits international human rights groups to visit the country and monitor conditions, and allows local rights advocates, such as the Yemeni chapter of the regionwide Arab Organization for Human Rights, to operate and publicize concerns. While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has monitored the YAR's detention centers for many years, it gained access to the prisons of the former PDRY only in 1989, after being denied admission for over a decade. The ICRC now conducts regular visits to prisons throughout the country.

U.S. Policy

Despite the lessening of rights abuses in Yemen, and the country's tentative steps toward political liberalization, U.S. policy toward the newly unified state has been decidedly cool ever since Yemen voted against the 1990 U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait. When the Gulf crisis erupted in August 1990, Yemen was receiving almost $22 million annually in U.S. economic assistance grants ($10.6 million of which was for agricultural development) and about $10 million in concessional food loans. In what the Bush administration termed "program adjustments," aid to Yemen was slashed to $2.9 million for fiscal year 1991 and $3 million for fiscal year 1992. Food assistance was eliminated. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, aid to Yemen "is now confined to humanitarian and human resource development assistance, with the health sector as the program cornerstone and maternal child health and family care (family plann ing) services its primary focus." For fiscal year 1993, the Yemeni government has requested $6 million in developmental assistance and $10 million in food aid. Although Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Edward Djerejian in an address on October 16 noted "positively the upcoming parliamentary elections in Yemen," aid levels have not been adjusted.

The Work of Middle East Watch

Middle East Watch initiated its first work on Yemen in 1992, establishing contact with a broad range of Yemenis, including parliamentarians, members of the political opposition and government officials, in an attempt to assess the progress that was being made toward the institutionalization of political pluralism and respect for human rights. In November, prior to the government's announcement that the parliamentary elections would be postponed, Middle East Watch published a 25-page newsletter, "Yemen: Steps Toward Civil Society." The document examined issues of concern as the elections approached as well as the context of some of Yemen's human rights improvements. Earlier in the year, Middle East Watch wrote to President Saleh on behalf of Mansur Rajih, a writer and poet who had belonged to a leftist organization in the YAR. He was sentenced to death for a murder in 1984 in a trial that may not have met international standards for fairness, and Amnesty International had adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. In August, the Yemeni government responded to the letter with a defense of its legal process.

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