The year-old conflict in Yemen between the Saudi-backed government and Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels has killed more than 6,000 people and left an estimated 2.5 million people homeless.
Aid groups have appealed for US$1.8 billion in aid just to keep millions of Yemenis alive this year. Meanwhile, there is widespread criticism of the Saudi airstrikes.
A recent UN panel found “widespread and systemic” attacks on civilian targets and Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of using American-made cluster bombs in civilian areas –a charge the Saudi government denies.
Equal Times contacted Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni human rights activist and co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize – the first Arab woman to do so – about the prospects of peace in her war-shattered land. She responded to written questions through a translator.
What is the situation on the ground?
The suffering of Yemenis is getting increasingly worse. All state institutions and public services have collapsed due to the Houthi militia coup against the elected president [Abd Rabbu Mansoor Hadi] and the government of national reconciliation.
A fascist militia allied with the ousted president [Ali Abdullah] Saleh and Iran has caused the transitional process approved by all Yemenis to completely break down. [The militia has] occupied cities and taken over all state institutions by force. Moreover, it has violently attacked all rights and freedoms, shut down newspapers and TV channels, prohibited political parties from working, and thrown thousands of opponents in jails. The rest have been driven into exile or buried in tombs.
What has been the people’s response?
All that has led to a peaceful resistance involving many youths from a wide range of backgrounds. This resistance has come in the form of demonstrations, protests and conferences, accompanied by a campaign to mobilise the support of the world’s governments to reject the coup. I still believe that we can respond to violence with non-violence and rise up against regression and terrorism without resorting to similar violence.
What do Yemenis need right now, in terms of humanitarian aid?
Yemenis have the right to receive food and medicines in addition to public services such as health services, electricity and drinking water. Yemenis need all of that urgently. Unfortunately, humanitarian aid in Yemen remains a mystery. It is mainly delivered to the Houthi militia and the ousted president, who in turn sell it on the black market.
Yemen needs extensive humanitarian assistance, which must be provided without delay. For example, Taiz, the most densely populated city in Yemen, has been suffering from a cruel siege, and from the random shelling of its neighbourhoods by the Houthi militia and the forces of the ousted president. They have prevented not only food and medical aid but even drinking water from getting in… They want to break the city, which symbolises civilisation and cultural awareness.
Who is at fault for this war that refuses to end? Are the Saudis, the Iranians, the West and the opposing sides equally responsible?
There are defaulters and criminals. Defaulters are those who have made political mistakes by facilitating the coup; they are the president himself, the government, political parties and the international community. Those, however, who have committed capital crimes, are the ousted president Ali Saleh and the Houthis who have forced war on Yemenis, and carried out a coup against both the revolution and the republic.
We absolutely condemn the targeting of civilians. We also denounce each crime at the time when it is committed, and consider such accidents as crimes against humanity, and call for a transparent inquiry into them.
The region is experiencing a frantic conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and what is happening in Yemen is not far from this conflict. Hence, the end of the war depends totally on the compliance of Houthi militia and the ousted president with UN Resolution 2216. The Resolution’s non-implementation means the war will continue.
Could improving international relations with Iran help to bring a political solution?
I hope Iran can once again be in the international family as a state believing in peace, not in undermining stability of neighbouring countries such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and other places where there are destructive Iranian-supported movements.
But it seems Iran won’t change its policy of expansion in the region. There are fears that Iran’s mullahs [Islamic clerics] will exploit the openness towards the West and the lifting of economic sanctions to commit more follies. Iran supports militias and armed groups outside the existing legal framework of Arab states. It knows how to start a fire, but not to extinguish it.
Supporters of the Saudi air strikes see the war in Yemen as a key fight against the advance of extremism in the region. Do you agree?
Arab coalition-led airstrikes in Yemen sometimes miss targets and hit innocent civilians. Great numbers of Yemenis, however, are all in favour of the airstrikes because they, to their eyes, have hindered a coup.
Those who support the Arab coalition consider it a necessity to stop the influence of Iran, which does not enjoy popular acceptance. But support for airstrikes does not mean that the alliance is authorised to do whatever it wants. Personally, I call on the coalition to conduct a serious investigation into some of the operations that have killed innocent people.
How can international pressure on all sides help to find a political solution?
In the end, there must be a political solution based on UN Security Council resolutions and the transitional process in Yemen. I call on the international community to put pressure on all parties to return to the political process based on the implementation of Security Council resolutions, what has already been agreed upon in the National Dialogue Conference and the Gulf Co-Operation Council Initiative.
Those measures emphasise that only the state has the exclusive right to have weapons, to practice sovereignty and to control all national territory. They call for the militia’s withdrawal from the cities and territories it has taken over, as well as the hand-over of weapons. Then all parties should participate in a referendum on the constitution based on the National Dialogue’s outcomes. After that, various elections should be held according to the new constitution. This is the basis of a political solution in Yemen. And this should be done in sync with economic support and a reconstruction process.
Yemen needs major international support to get rid of the trouble of war, chaos, despotism and corruption; otherwise, Yemen’s problem will not remain a local one. It will be a problem that threatens the whole world.