Human Rights Promises and Abuses

To this point, then, alternative political elites developed some of the language, concepts, and principles of political rights and liberties. This discourse was idealist rather than realist: the power of the pen, not the power of the gun. New regimes promised these ideals would become governing principles. In the 1960s and early 1970s, when Free Officers and the National Liberation Front respectively came to power, constitutions were issued acknowledging many rights. The North Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic, YAR) 1963 provisional constitution, the first of several documents reflecting Egyptian models, specified equality before the law, due process, and property and labor rights. Revisions in 1964 added freedom of opinion, press freedom, and the right to unionize. The 1970 ‘‘permanent’’ constitution (suspended in a 1974 military coup) further emphasized scholarly and press freedoms. Article 42

called for policies recognizing ‘‘human [or perhaps humane] rights

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common to all humanity on an equal basis’’ [‘‘al-huquq al-insaniyya l’al- basharjamiyan b-safa mutasawiyya’’], with specific mention of the rights of women, children, the aged, the infirm, prisoners, and exiles; and of nondiscrimination on the basis of religion, color, or gender.20 The 1978 Southern constitution, drawing on Socialist as well as Arab models, explicitly mentioned the International Declaration, and further specified a rather long list of social and economic rights for all citizens.21 The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) also practiced ‘‘state feminism,’’ promoting women’s education, employment, and political representation, issuing a progressive family law, and eventually signing the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination against Women.22 Although the two Yemeni governments advertised different kinds of rights, it can be inferred from their pronouncements that successive regimes in both Sana’a and Aden believed that the enunciation of basic rights would bolster their domestic and/or international legitimacy.

Unfortunately, the regimes in the PDRY and the YAR, were (to put it bluntly) both unstable Third World dictatorships that did not live up to these proclamations. Post-imamic and postcolonial policies did eliminate the status differentiation of old, suspend hated tax practices, expel royal families from power, and recognize Yemeni citizenship. But progress toward the full realization of basic rights and liberties called for by reformists and revolutionaries was negligible. Notwithstanding the contrasts between socialist ‘‘law and order’’ in the PDRY and the North’s ‘‘chaotic capitalism,’’ national security forces operated beyond constitutional or judicial constraints in both systems. Grave atrocities were committed during and after the Southern revolution, and inside Aden, especially, the group that evolved from the NLF into the Yemeni Socialist Party controlled political activity tightly. Because every new regime issued a new list of state criminals, security prisons remained full even after the periodic amnesties. Fifteen hundred people were detained after Aden’s intraparty bloodbath in 1986, and much was made of the political trials of a hundred traitors. Whereas the YAR permitted the Red Cross to inspect its admittedly medieval and rat-infested jails, the Aden regime, like its colonial predecessor, denied reporters access to its detention centers.

Sana’a’s military regimes and an increasingly pervasive security apparatus also suppressed dissent, open political organizing, and flow of information. Moreover, by the mid-1980s a new, right-wing sort of Islam- ism was spreading in North Yemen and among emigres to the Gulf. This movement had its intellectual legacy in puritanical Wahhabism as taught in Saudi-financed religious schools established throughout the Muslim world at the height of the oil boom. Its militancy was cultivated for the

Afghan anti-Soviet jihad. As instructed to Yemeni immigrants by Saudi

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preachers, to Yemeni students by fundamentalist Egyptian and Sudanese teachers, and to volunteer mujahideen training in Pakistan, this ‘‘born- again’’ fundamentalism put greatest emphasis on the elements of shari‘a that seem most antithetical to international conceptions of human rights, such as hyperseclusion of women, corporal punishment, and hatred of infidels. With Gulf funding and government support, the intellectual wing of this movement gained a slew of influential positions at Sana’a University, where a sociology professor was branded an apostate for ‘‘blasphemous’’ writings, a bare-headed woman was assaulted, and self-appointed zealots policed male-female encounters. By the late 1980s, a reformist movement was taking shape in Aden. Show trials following the shootout in 1986 became a forum for legal defense of political dissent. Constraints on speech, press, association, and movement were loosened. The impetus for this tentative but unmistakable liberalization evidently came from within and beyond the party. Leading socialist intellectual, Jar Allah ‘Umar began urging the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party toward pluralism (ta addudiyya), human rights (huquq al-insan), citizen rights, freedom of intellectual pursuits, and other liberties. As a first step, intellectuals, businessmen, and popular organizations should be engaged in the ongoing constitutional and unity negotiations. In view of perestroika in the USSR, the events of January 1986 in the PDRY, and religious currents in the YAR, he argued, it was time for tolerance of opposition parties and relaxation of restrictions on the press. A new elections law relaxed nomination and polling supervision and redrew constituency lines.23 To one American diplomat, there seemed to be a ‘‘tacit agreement’’ within the ruling party to allow ‘‘freer journalistic expression’’ as well as ‘‘the first stirrings of political demonstrations and strikes.’’24

 
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