Human Rights and Democracy: The 2012 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Section IX: Human Rights in Countries of Concern - Yemen

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Throughout 2012, Yemen failed to meet its international human rights commitments in most areas, notably on juvenile execution and detention of political prisoners.  The National Unity Government (NUG) has repeatedly stated its intention to uphold basic rights, tackle impunity and investigate allegations of human rights violations and abuses, but implementation has been slow.  Calls by the international community for transparent investigations into the violence and deaths of over 200 civilian protesters in 2011, the wholesale release of political prisoners, the passing of a law on transitional justice, improving basic services to ordinary Yemenis and protecting civilians from armed conflict have not yet been addressed.  Some, but not all, activists detained during Yemen’s Arab Spring have been released.  Promises were made to conduct investigations according to international standards, and a decree issued in September to set up a panel, but there is no evidence of further action.  The humanitarian situation remains critical and there are over half a million internally displaced persons, many of whom fear returning to their homes because of the threat of armed conflict, instability and the lack of state control.  We welcome the signing of the agreement by the Yemen authorities and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in September to formalise the opening of an OHCHR office in Yemen.  The human rights ministry has proactively raised the profile of human rights, making preparations for the creation of an independent national human rights institution and also, on 9–10 December, organising Yemen’s first national human rights conference.

The security, economic and humanitarian situations in Yemen remain fragile.  A political transition, unique in the region, is edging forward but remains delicate and complex.  The UK took a leading role in restarting and reinvigorating the Friends of Yemen process, which the Foreign Secretary co-chairs with his Saudi and Yemeni counterparts.  The Friends of Yemen provides international support for Yemen’s political transition whilst holding the Yemeni government accountable for progress, including on implementing a transitional justice law.  At two meetings of the Friends, and together with a conference of donors, nearly $8 billion was raised for development projects, including £196 million from the UK.  The UK also supported UN Security Council Resolution 2051, which includes the principle of an end to impunity and importance of accountability.  The UK sponsored resolutions at the March and September sessions of the Human Rights Council encouraging the NUG to implement OHCHR recommendations, in particular on detentions, to end the recruitment of child soldiers and encourage the participation of women in public and private spheres.  We urged the NUG to ratify a law on transitional justice and worked through the EU to lobby the NUG to end the practice of juvenile capital punishment.

In 2013, we expect the Yemeni government formally to adopt the transitional justice law, but as this is likely to be a non-judicial process, we expect it will not address all the concerns of those affected by violence up to and including in 2011.  President Hadi is expected to announce the start of the National Dialogue Conference.  This is a key milestone of transition designed to bring together all parts of Yemeni society, including southerners, women and youth groups, to build consensus on the future of Yemen.  In December, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt visited Yemen and travelled to Aden to encourage the participation of southern Yemeni factions in the National Dialogue.  The conference will provide a platform for the expression of long-standing grievances and will conclude with recommendations on constitutional and electoral reform.  In parallel, we expect the Yemeni electoral commission to conclude updating the electoral register to enable millions of entitled voters to participate.  A referendum on a new constitution will follow.

The UK will continue to support the Yemeni government’s efforts to improve its human rights record, including through additional support at the fifth meeting of the Friends of Yemen due to be hosted by the UK on 7 March 2013.  The importance of transitional justice and reconciliation, and independent investigations into allegations of human rights abuses and violations, was underlined at the last meeting in New York.  We will participate in reviewing progress by the NUG at the Human Rights Council in September 2013.


An interim presidential election was held on 21 February.  This concluded the first phase of political transition and led to the inauguration on 25 February of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s first new head of state in over 33 years.  This election, brought forward from the scheduled date of 2013, saw significant turnout, and gave President Hadi the mandate to lead Yemen through the next two years of transition.

Yemen now looks forward to its first full presidential election since 2006 at the end of the second and final phase of transition in early 2014.  Parliamentary elections, not held since 2003, are also scheduled to take place at the same time.  To ensure the full turnout of all eligible voters, it is imperative that the Yemeni electoral commission, established in November, urgently begins work to update the register of voters.  This will ensure an inclusive process which reflects the choices of all Yemenis.  The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UK Department for International Development aim to provide funds and logistical support.

Freedom of expression and assembly

There has been a reduction in the frequency of the mass demonstrations seen in 2011 and in the levels of violence and threats directed at protesters and journalists.  Nevertheless, there have been cases of restrictions and violations, and an unspecified number of political activists remain in custody in both private and government-run centres.  The government has not provided a list of those currently in detention.  Frequent small-scale protests have continued, principally calling for the revocation of the immunity law which makes former President Saleh and his officials free from prosecution.

We welcome reports of the increase of human rights non-governmental associations, but are concerned about alleged interference by the licensing authority when assessing the registration of groups promoting the cause of accountability and transitional justice.

Yemen is ranked 171st out of 179 countries by Reporters Without Borders in their Press Freedom Index.  Reporters highlighted in September an escalation of violence towards journalists, in particular against both foreign and Yemeni camera crews covering demonstrations.  The visiting OHCHR mission in June pointed to the lack of police intervention to uphold the right to the freedom to peaceful protest during clashes in Aden and Mukalla.  There were reports of at least 25 cases of attacks on journalists including illegal arrests, and the looting and disruption of a number of media outlets.

Human rights defenders

Many of those detained for political reasons in 2011 have been released, but many remain in both government and opposition prisons.

Britain supports Yemen’s vibrant and growing civil society.  Embassy officials regularly meet human rights defenders in Sana’a, and Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt met groups of political activists both during a visit to Yemen in March and in the margins of the Friends of Yemen meeting in New York in September.

Access to justice and the rule of law

There is widespread mistrust of judicial institutions for their lack of accountability, independence and professionalism.  With a change in government, and the start of the universally welcomed political transition, there is an opportunity for wholesale reform.

The UK is playing a key role in EU-led support to the government of Yemen on reform of the civilian security sector.  We have seconded a senior UK police officer to the EU Delegation in Sana’a to work with the Yemeni authorities and other partners on the restructuring of the Ministry of Interior and police.  In particular, the focus is on EU policing initiatives to strengthen the rule of law, work to counter corruption, and the use of forensic and other scientific evidence to reduce reliance on forced confessions.

Corruption in Yemen is endemic and an obstacle to development and justice.  A key feature of the Friends of Yemen meeting in September was the agreement on creating the Mutual Accountability Framework, incorporating the implementation of reforms to increase levels of professionalism and efficiency in the ministries responsible for planning and finance.

Death penalty

Yemen continues to use the death penalty and on 3 December executed an alleged juvenile prisoner, Hind al-Barti, despite international protests.

The UK, in coordination with the EU, will continue to take every opportunity to oppose the death penalty as a matter of principle, and especially the application of the death penalty in respect of crimes committed when a suspect is a juvenile.  We will make a formal appeal to the government to suspend all pending executions.


Some arrests were made in connection with the 2011 sniper attack on protesters in Sana’a and also the attack on the presidential mosque.  However, the OHCHR has expressed concern at reports of the use of torture following meetings with detainees at a Political Security Organisation (PSO) prison.  Yemeni and international human rights NGOs have indicated that the real perpetrators of this incident are not in custody and question the rigour of investigations.

Whilst the Yemeni authorities have responded to calls for the release of those detained in 2011, there is still no official list of all those held.  It is likely that a number, perhaps a few hundred, are still in government-run or private detention centres.  Reporting by international and local NGOs, in addition to the OHCHR following interviews with detainees, show a continuing trend of mistreatment and occasional torture.  Detention without recourse to mistreatment is complicated in Yemen as a result of Yemeni security organs operating in the margins of the law and without parliamentary oversight.  The OHCHR received reports of arbitrary arrests, prolonged incarceration without trial, secret or incommunicado detention, torture and mistreatment.

Whilst Somalis are recognised as prima facie refugees in Yemen, other nationalities, including Eritreans and Ethiopians, are alleged to be subject to arrest on arrival, torture and degrading treatment.  Others are kidnapped and abused by criminal gangs able to operate with apparent impunity in a country with porous borders and weak immigration controls.

Conflict and protection of civilians

The government has sought to reduce tension between government forces and the armed opposition.  In addition, President Hadi has followed through on his promise to address the threat of violent extremism.  There have been notable achievements in Abyan, in the south, from April to June when key towns and cities were retaken from Ansar al-Sharia, an affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Following the offensive, approximately 80,000 internally displaced persons were able to return to their homes.

Women’s rights

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for 2012, Yemen remains bottom, ranked 135 out of 135 countries.  Yet the political transition promises an opportunity for Yemeni women to participate in the National Dialogue and contribute directly to the debate on constitutional reform, which may have a positive effect on future legal protection for Yemeni women and promote their role in all parts of society.  The transition plan stipulates that 30% of delegates must be women.  Furthermore, in November we saw the new electoral commission include female Yemeni judges, in accordance with the government’s pledge to promote the participation of women in public life.

The UK ensured the inclusion in September’s Human Rights Council Resolution of a paragraph encouraging the government to continue efforts to ensure that women are represented in all levels of the political process and are able to participate in public life, free from intimidation and discrimination.  We will review developments in 2013.

Children’s rights

In June, the annual report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG CAAC) listed the Yemeni armed forces and the breakaway First Armoured Division as parties that recruit and use children.  During her visit to Yemen in November, the SRSG was able to secure commitments from the NUG and Abdul Malik Badraldeen al-Houthi, the leader of the Zaidi al-Houthi sect in the north of Yemen, to end the recruitment and use of children by the Yemeni Armed Forces.  The next UN report on violations against children by parties to conflict is expected in March 2013, and the SRSG is set to update the UN on developments in June.

There is no minimum age for marriage in Yemen, and girls are married as young as eight.  Current legislation includes a provision that forbids sex with underage brides until “they are suitable for sexual intercourse”, an age that is undefined.  Recent studies in Yemen have indicated that a quarter of all girls were married before the age of 15.  The problem of child marriage in Yemen is politically contentious; the government does not promote public awareness campaigns on the negative effects of child marriage.  A 2009 law setting the minimum age for marriage at 17 was repealed in 2010 due to pressure from traditionalist elements of Yemeni society and no attempt has been made to reintroduce legislation setting a minimum age for marriage.  Yemeni law prohibits FGM, and government health workers and officials discourage the practice.  The Women’s National Committee and the Ministry for Endowments and Religious Guidance have published a manual for religious leaders on women’s health issues, including the negative effects of FGM.  However, FGM remains a problem and is pervasive in coastal areas of Yemen with reported rates as high as 90%.

Poverty and the right to an adequate standard of living

Yemen remains the poorest country in the Middle East, and according to the UNDP Human Development Index is ranked 154, placing it in the lowest level.  A survey by the World Food Programme (WFP) concluded that Yemen suffers from rising levels of poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition.  Around 10 million Yemenis do not have the food that they need each day – a stark increase of nearly 50% since 2011, with five million in urgent need of food assistance.  Thirteen million people are without access to safe water or sanitation and five million have no access to healthcare.  Conflict and political unrest in the north and south of Yemen have disrupted the provision of basic services and resulted in over 500,000 internally displaced persons.  Instability in the Abyan in the south caused 200,000 Yemenis to flee violence and seek shelter in and around Aden – often in schools, thereby disrupting the provision of education.  Many have now returned to their homes.

The UK has responded by increasing its humanitarian aid to £33 million, making it the third-largest donor behind the US and the EU.  UK assistance, delivered through UN agencies and NGOs, targets sectors including food, nutrition, healthcare, safe water, education, protection and livelihood support.  Of the $585 million needed under the 2012 UN Humanitarian Response Plan, only 57% was funded.  The plan for 2013 has increased to $716 million, a clear demonstration that the situation remains critical.  As part of the UK’s wider support, DFID announced a three-year operational plan worth £196 million, dedicated to development and promoting human rights.

The UK will co-host the fifth Friends of Yemen meeting in London in March 2013 and will encourage increased contributions to the latest UN Humanitarian Appeal.