By Edmund Fitton-Brown
This is my first blog as the UK’s Ambassador to Yemen. Sadly, I am unable to be based in Yemen due to the security situation. But our work continues apace – currently from London, although I hope to be opening an office, outside Yemen but in the Middle East, soon.
Today the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has published its Annual Human Rights Report, which details our efforts to promote human rights globally in 2014.
The report highlights a lot of the problems Yemeni people experience: child soldiers; child marriage; restrictions on media; religious persecution; the use of the death penalty; and limited women’s rights. The latter is a subject I feel strongly about and which I intend to speak and write about more during my tenure as Ambassador to Yemen.
Yemen’s future lies with all its people: men, women, and children. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Yemen has ratified, is a political foundation of Yemen’s current constitution, and the basis for the secure, prosperous and democratic Yemen that its citizens deserve. The Declaration stresses that all citizens must be permitted to fulfil their potential for the benefit of society. Women make up more than 50% of Yemen’s population, yet they enjoy a fraction of the rights, freedom and opportunities available to their Yemeni brothers. Only 25% of Yemeni girls are in education at the age of 15, whereas 71% of Yemeni boys are still studying at this age. The Yemeni parliament comprises just 0.7% women. Suppression of women’s economic participation and gender-based violence continue. These grim facts help explain why Yemen was ranked 152 – the lowest of all countries assessed – in the most recentUN Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index.
This is why throughout 2014 the UK continued to urge the government to fulfil the National Dialogue Conference (NDC)’s recommendations on women’s rights and welcomed the draft Child Rights Law, which includes important provisions on FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and the age of marriage. We also funded a project to help increase the role of women in the security sector in Sana’a, Taiz and Aden, as well as a Human Rights and Democracy Programme project in Hodeidah, to educate women and men of the socio-economic and health implications of child marriage, and the benefits of women’s participation in the public and private sectors.
It’s also why we continued our work in Yemen on democracy and elections; access to justice and the rule of law; and protection of civilians. Through the Department for International Development (DFID) we contributed £10 million through multi-donor UN Trust Funds to provide operational and technical support to the NDC, constitution drafting process, and election preparations.
Whilst no one was under the illusion that there was a quick fix to Yemen’s human rights challenges, in the first half of 2014 those leading and contributing towards Yemen’s transition were beginning to tackle the roots of these important issues. There was concrete action improving the lives of the Yemeni people. The NDC, which concluded in January 2014, and where women comprised 126 of the 565 seats, agreed a number of principles to build the capacity of the state to safeguard human rights, increase gender equality, and a minimum age for marriage. Four women were appointed to the 17-member Constitutional Drafting Committee. Laws on children’s rights and human trafficking were drafted, and a government action plan to end the use of child soldiers was agreed. A draft National Human Rights Strategy was also developed. President Hadi’s Government, represented by his Minister for Human Rights, Hooria Mashour, also played a constructive role during its UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva and undertook further action based on the review’s recommendations. Yemen was one of 138 countries that endorsed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in June, and also signed up to the London Girl Summit Charter commitment to end early and forced marriage and FGM.
The impact on the rights of Yemeni people of those seeking to destroy Yemen’s progress and transition in the latter half of 2014 and in to 2015 should not be underestimated. The appointment of a new government in November, following the 21 September Peace and National Partnership Agreement, was a positive step, but their ability to work was severely hampered and then ultimately stopped at the start of 2015. The Houthi so-called “universal declaration” of 6 February – a unilateral action – has no basis in Yemen’s constitution and is a flagrant disregard for the democratic rights of the Yemeni people. The Houthi take-over of government institutions and Yemeni territory; continued assassinations and bomb attacks against civilian, political and security targets by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other armed groups; and interference by the former President and members of his regime have all seriously impeded the government’s and civil society’s ability to continue their hard work and in many cases has unravelled previous achievements. More people than ever – 60% of Yemen’s population – now require humanitarian assistance; the economy is fragile. Yemen’s people need help – and fast.
The UK is currently able to deliver most of our development and humanitarian programmes, supporting Yemen’s poorest and most vulnerable people. But this depends on the security situation, and the overall commitment of all concerned to reduce poverty and respect human rights.
I may have been Ambassador to Yemen for only a few weeks but one thing is clear: the only way that Yemeni people are going to stop suffering and start experiencing improvements in their lives is if all political actors stop the violence, politicking, and putting their personal interests first. This means constructive engagement in negotiations where all parties are able to participate freely – parties who demonstrate they hold the human rights of the Yemeni people, and the well-being of Yemen, at their heart.