Contemporary Discourses

The language of human rights began to permeate national political discourses in many languages and settings around 1990. Yemeni unification in 1990 ushered in a new era of unprecedented, if still hardly unfettered, freedom of association, expression, publication, and movement. For the first time, political parties campaigned in contested elections. A constitution drafted (nearly a decade earlier) by a committee of the nation’s best jurists, adopted in popular referendum in 1991, offered a significant bill of rights and promised a democratic form of government. In addition to universal adult suffrage, the constitution guaranteed ‘‘freedom of thought and expression by speech, writing, or pictures within the law,’’ ‘‘equal treatment’’ without discrimination due

to ‘‘sex, color, racial origin, language, occupation, social status, or reli-

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gious beliefs,’’ and the presumption of ‘‘innocent until proven guilty.’’ Political rights including freedom of association ‘‘inasmuch as it was not contrary to the constitution’’ were also affirmed. There were fewer military checkpoints, a number of political detainees were released, and many exiles returned home. All the political tendencies from the previous generation of activism surfaced, from the socialist left through various brands of Arab nationalism to liberal globalism to different sorts of Islamism. In one way or another, each and every significant political tendency adopted the discourse—perhaps one should say the rhetoric—of human rights.

Several socialist and independent progressive intellectuals, especially those involved with the Yemeni Writers Union, had introduced the term ‘‘human rights’’ into political debate even before 1990 as part of a plea for tolerance. Northern and Southern educators, journalists, and attorneys from the liberal-left were well represented among the first group to meet to found what later came to be called the Yemeni Organization for the Defense of Human Rights and Democratic Liberties (ODHRDL) in the early 1990s.25 Professors introduced human rights curricula at Sana’a University and penned editorials on the subject. From the intellectual elite, there was some trickle-down as students and others formed branches of Amnesty International. Indeed, rather quickly, the language of rights spread across the full political spectrum. The platform of the party organization that had ruled North Yemen and was still rightly called the ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), made ‘‘citizen rights in freedom, equality, and justice’’ a leading principle.26 A second association called the Yemeni Organization for Human Rights (YOHR) was founded by members of the two major parties on the right, the GPC and the Reform Party.27 Although this group sacrificed some credibility to a blatant security presence in their midst, it nonetheless signified a widening of the discourse of human rights, in recognition of the wide popular appeal of notions of liberty, justice, and nonviolence. The YOHR leadership included at least one prominent traditionally educated judge, Hamud al-Hitar, who familiarized himself with and encouraged others to read international covenants. YOHR’s first aim was to ‘‘promote greater respect for human rights and liberties as outlined in shari'a, current legislation, the International Statement on Human Rights in Islam, the International Declaration on Human Rights, and in Arab, Islamic, and international charters, conventions and agreements.’’28 Other stated objectives were equality; the pursuit of liberty; protections against violence and surveillance; judicial and penal reform; and attention to the rights of women and children under shari'a. Like ODHDRL, YOHR published investigations of prison conditions in the many weekly newspapers then widely available.

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Notions of political liberties and legal protections were widely discussed among the political elite. Although exercising unprecedented editorial leeway with the suspension of prior censorship, newspapers were sued by the Ministry of Information in Sana’a for a range of alleged misdemeanors. Journalists and attorneys, enjoying newfound possibilities for non-civil service careers, animated their syndicates to defend the reporters and editors from various charges. Publicity for these cases, some of which have attracted the attention of international organizations to protect freedom of the press,29 was another occasion for the articulation of legal principles. So much did the discussion of protection of human rights catch on, in fact, that in the months leading up to the 1994 civil war an experienced foreign human rights investigator worried privately that ‘‘human rights has become a stick both sides [GPC and socialists] beat each other with.’’ Some citizens, perhaps a majority, doubted the sincerity of political leaders’ rhetorical commitment to basic protections and freedoms. By the same token, there is no doubt that the term ‘‘human rights’’ was bandied about in ruling circles as well as by popular organizations because of its widespread appeal.

On the far right, the most puritanical wing of the Islamist tendency30 has tailored a notion of ‘‘Islamic human rights’’ to a particular political agenda.31 Most conspicuously, neo-Islamists advanced a separate notion of ‘‘women’s rights’’: women and girls have rights to separate education and work spaces, to be supported by their male kinfolk, to travel with an escort, and so on. Thus restrictions are portrayed as rights. Inequalities under legislation introduced in the mid-1990s assert women’s inferior capacity to serve as witnesses in court, mandate lower inheritance for sisters than for brothers, insist on spousal obedience, and tolerate polygamy and unilateral divorce by husbands but not wives. But even at the extreme fringe of the post-Afghanistan, radically antisocialist fundamentalist movement, Yemeni neo-Islamists were not questioning whether women have citizen rights. They recognized that women must be free from family or state violence and forced marriage and are entitled to participate in parliamentary elections, hold public office, and press contractual obligations in court.32 In the lead-up to the 1993 parliamentary elections, the Reform Party organized the first ever nationwide campaign to register women voters. Feminine voluntarism, for instance, concerning human rights violations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Kashmir is encouraged.33 The neofundamentalists—among them some fully veiled spokeswomen—insisted that women and men should all be educated in their rights under shari'a and that female illiteracy is a major barrier to protection of women’s legal rights. At the center and left of the political spectrum, many authors writing within Islamic or civil

law frameworks contradicted the rejectionists. A number of authors

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deduced rights principles from an Islamic, Arab notion of what it is to be human, citing both moral principles and legal doctrine. Only a few of these can be cited here. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil refuted the ‘‘rejectionist’’ perspective by quoting from Qur’anic, scholarly, and Saudi sources on the major issues on which Islam is sometimes said to conflict with the Universal Declaration: freedom of belief, gender equality, inheritance, polygamy, and female legal competence. In an essay for the Sana’a official daily newspaper, Ahmad al-Marwani traced the idea of human rights to the ancient Yemeni kingdom of Ma’en, the ancient Greeks, and the Qur’an.34 Zayd al-Wazir philosophically reconciled Zaydi political theory with internationally-recognized precepts of democracy and human rights.35 A prominent politician and benefactor of a scholarly foundation, Ahmad Jabir ‘Afif, published a long essay on women’s rights using both civil and religious law precedents to demonstrate governmental obligations to equal treatment before the law,36 and legal scholar Ahmad al-Wada’i’s controversial analysis of North Yemeni constitutional and legal documents emphasized the legal obligation to protections consistent with international standards.37 Several other legal histories and countless editorials expounded on these notions.

The many pleas of human rights activists seemed to fall on deaf ears as Northern and Southern armies squared off in the winter and spring of 1994. As in earlier national moments of crisis, political elites joined together to try to write a social contract. The National Dialogue of Political Forces was a committee of three members from each of the leading parties, one from each of a half-dozen prominent lesser parties and the opposition coalition, and several independents, a total of twenty-seven men, all with national reputations, selected to represent every major region and social group from within the body politic. University faculty, legal scholars, journalists, and others seized the opportunity to present their research in the many seminars arranged to discuss subjects like the line between censorship and libel, women’s rights, and shari‘a. Excerpts and full transcripts of these symposia appeared in the popular press, thus influencing wider discourse and ordinary conversation. At the popular level, a score of regional conferences involved tens of thousands of people, mostly but not all men, in the national dialogue. Protection of human rights was among the resolutions of mass meetings in cities and towns across the country. The most common themes overall were public safety, removal of the military from population centers, elections for local administration, judicial independence, a serious plan to limit government corruption, and the building of modern state institutions. These issues in turn were incorporated into the accords issued by the

Dialogue Committee on January 18, 1994.38

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The document opened with a set of proposals to curtail the roles of security forces and the interior and defense ministries in politics and policing. These immediate ‘‘law and order’’ concerns were to be followed up through provisions for the independence of the judiciary, for separation of armed forces from criminal prosecution, and for ministerial, parliamentary, and civilian control of the security establishment. In the remainder of the accords, three major modifications of the current constitutional order were called for: a bicameral legislature, a limited executive, and decentralization. Support for these constitutional principles was widespread. Amid gathering war clouds, more conferences affirmed the work of the Dialogue Committee and their proposals. Urban scholars, attorneys, and other professionals held weekly seminars to examine each section of the document. In meetings from Sa’adah in the far north to Lahij and Hadramawt in the south there were calls for prompt, full implementation of the Accords. Members of the Dialogue Committee now met in Sana’a, Aden, Taiz, and elsewhere to plan a strategy of regular, peaceful, sit-in protests in cities and towns throughout the country, Ample coverage of these events in the partisan press showed how the GPC, Socialists, Reform Party, and other parties each tried to associate themselves with a movement that clearly represented majority public sentiment.39

War erupted between the two former armies, however, and human rights suffered as a consequence. A security crackdown accompanied the three-month state of emergency,40 and subsequently the victorious Sana’a government (a wartime alliance of the GPC and the conservative Reform Party) sponsored constitutional amendments and legislation that threatened human rights by strengthening executive authority, retracting women’s legal competence, eroding judicial autonomy, and constraining other rights and guarantees of rights. As a number of intellectuals were interred or beaten up and honest judges found themselves in obscure rural courts, the challenges to the weakened nascent human rights movement were formidable indeed.41 Members of the Dialogue Committee outside the ruling coalition, including Abu Bakr al-Saqqaf, Anis Hassan Yahya, and Omar al-Jawi, charged the regime with disregard for human rights.42 Even six years after the civil war, facing no significant domestic security threat, the administration persisted in harassment of independent newspapers, judges, associations, and opinion leaders. While the political security organization seemed ever-vigilant, ordinary crimes often escaped prosecutors’ attention.

Still, as Naguib A. R. Shamiry of the Supreme Judicial Council observed, Yemen was bound by its signature to thirteen international human rights covenants and instruments. In principle, the courts were

constitutionally charged with upholding human rights in a number of

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ways, including presumption of innocence, protections against unwarranted search, right to legal defense, prohibition of torture and forced confessions, and punishment commensurate with the crime.43 There were at least some indications that the regime was conscious of these obligations. After the war the victors said they had fought for unity and the values of ‘‘democracy, political pluralism, freedom of the press and respect of human rights.’’44 In 1998, the National High Committee for Human Rights in Yemen, established some years earlier, declared 10 December National Human Rights Day.45 The president of the republic himself, in the opening address at a human rights day conference in December 1999, reiterated the national commitment to guarantee citizens their rights.46 His GPC party’s Web page contains a strong statement of the goal to ‘‘protect and preserve human rights and public freedoms.’’47

Official statements may well be purely rhetorical pronouncements for foreign public relations purposes, since it is clear that practice does not live up to rhetoric.48 But politicians across the political spectrum seemed to recognize the popular appeal of this discourse as well. Awareness was higher than ever at the end of the twentieth century, especially within the growing legal community. Just as civil society institutions may protect political pluralism, wrote Ahmad al-Wada’i, the courts were the guarantors of human rights and liberties; both zones are highly politicized, and the protection of rights proceeds both through individual cases and in larger efforts to secure judicial autonomy.49 In terms of Yemeni culture, argued attorney Muhammad Naji ‘Alaw, there is both a philosophical tradition of judicial independence and a history of political attempts to bend legal practice to the imperatives of governing authorities.50 Research showed that, despite many obstacles, members of the judiciary did attempt to exercise their constitutional function in the protection of the law.51 Under a program conceptualized by an Egyptian teacher with help from the British Council, there was even a project called Children Painting Their Rights, involving students from thirty-six schools in five provinces in publicity for the rights of children.52 In the mid-2000s, a traditionally trained jurist, Judge Hamud al-Hitar, earned international attention by training jailed neo-Islamist militants in a learned reading of the Islamic rules of war that prohibits targeting of civilians.53

In conclusion, then, ‘‘human rights’’ was not an alien concept introduced into southwestern Arabia by Euro-American influences, but an ideal that has evolved endogenously and continues to develop as Yemenis reconsider the nature of law and its implementation. This conversation, reflected in essays, constitutional proposals, legal briefs, and the press, has been influenced by international movements, ideologies, and

declarations. It has also involved a fair number of citizens, over the years,

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in constitutional conventions and popular conferences. Although I have by no means reviewed all the literature or explored specific legislative developments, in ongoing constitutional debates ideas of ‘‘freedom to’’ and “protection from’’ were steadily refined and expanded. It is simply wrong, or a wrongful simplification, to represent this as a polarization between traditionalists and modernists or Islamic versus Western values, for we have seen a range of political perspectives weigh in on human rights issues. Moreover, there is nothing traditional about the neo-Islamist rejection of ‘‘human rights;’’ many Yemenis searched their own intellectual heritage for legal, moral, and logical support for international conceptions of human rights. If rights are not respected, it is not because traditions and values stand in the way but because actual practices do not stand up to stated, widely held ideals.

 
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