A new and worrying trend has taken hold in Yemen. According to a report by Amnesty International, the Yemeni government is increasingly sacrificing its human rights policies in order to preserve what they claim is their national security. Challenged by growing calls for secession in the south, periodic conflicts with the rebel Houthi movement in the north, and the regular appearance of al-Qaida throughout the country, the ruling elite is habitually resorting to repressive and illegal methods. An unknown number of Yemenis have disappeared; some have been tortured; and some have been condemned to death or long prison terms after unfair trials before specialized criminal courts. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, these measures actually only antagonized the Yemeni people, thereby preparing the ground for further extremism.
In part, the new Yemeni policies come as a reaction to intense pressure from governments in the US, Europe and the Gulf, which fear Yemen could break apart or even turn into a failed state. They especially dread the possibility of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) linking up with al-Shabab in Somalia, leaving the strategic Horn of Africa under the influence of Islamist militants and jeopardizing the safe transport of commodities to and from the Gulf and the Red Sea region. These external pressures, combined with domestic challenges to the legitimacy of the government, have prompted the Yemeni government to hit back with all the force it could muster.
As the world’s poorest Arab country, Yemen has turned into an ideal hunting ground for extremist organizations and something of a center of gravity for AQAP. Yet oblivious to the horrifying consequences of their policies, Yemeni officials are reacting to domestic realities by arresting and torturing thousands of people suspected of links to al-Qaida or other armed Islamist groups.
In the northern conflict with the Houthis, meanwhile, it is again the civilians who have to bear the brunt of the government’s wrath. The Amnesty report offers disturbing details of the joint Yemeni-Saudi “Scorched Earth” military operations, during which heavy aerial bombardments of civilian areas were carried out, displacing more than a quarter of a million people. In the south, finally, bandits, lawless tribes, secessionists and jihadis are all fighting the Saleh regime. Though they have few ideological connections, the groups are all contributing to one thing: a failing state where extremism can flourish.
Naturally, the Yemeni authorities have not only a right, but a duty to ensure public safety and to bring to justice those engaged in attacks that deliberately target members of the public. However, when doing so they must abide by national and international law. The current Saleh government is citing security as a pretext to deal with opposition and stifle criticism. As a result, the government’s grass-roots legitimacy is rapidly eroding. More and more Yemeni have come to perceive their government either as a policeman for the US, or as an illegitimate dictatorship.
Meanwhile, uncritical international support for Yemen’s security operations has facilitated the government’s resort to unlawful methods. This needs to change. It is high time the international community reacted to the country’s inhumane policies and made the Yemeni authorities understand that by violating human rights, security is jeopardized, not enhanced.
Yemen is treading in dangerous waters. With its conservative Islam, ragged mountains, unruly tribes and problems of illiteracy, unemployment and extreme poverty, Yemen is frighteningly similar to Afghanistan. The world would be wise to show an interest in this failing nation – before it falls into another abyss of violence.