Monday, September 25, 2017

Yemen at the UN Human Rights Council

Looking back on a day of interviews last week, reporting and co-speaking at the UN Geneva's Human Rights Council's ongoing 36th session, where the battle for human rights groups demanding establishing UN Yemen inquiry goes on.

My dispatch from the council titled, "Yemen needs united nations, not the United Nations" via Middle East Eye.

In details, I explain,"The Unfolding UN Failure in the Yemen War," for the Atlantic Council,

With Yemeni human rights defender, Ishraq al-Maqtary (Left) and journalist Shatha al-Harazi (right). 

With journalist, Nabil al-Osidi. 

With Human Rights lawyer, Huda al-Sarari who I wrote about in a lengthy feature here

With Yemeni diplomat, Mustafa Naji. 

In the Yemen side-session, I co-spoke on gender-based Human rights violations. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

'Sana'a Review' e-magazine is here!

After lots of hurdles, along with a group of great Yemeni writers/friends, we launched 'Sana'a Review' online magazine on 22nd September and I'm the editor-in-chief.

The love & support my blog has gotten over the years is beyond what I ever imagined & I want to Give Back! I want to amplify other great Yemeni voices. I want to pass on the spotlight to the great (& emerging) Yemeni writers/journalists/artists/talents. True, Yemen is in a reck & journalists particularly are at most bleak conditions but that's exactly why we need to record what's happening to us now so there will be a time when peace prevail & we can reflect & try to heal & commemorate our history. We need to not mourn, rather organize. Each with whatever capacity they have, we need to resist & persist (like Suheir Hamdan once said).

The magazine is in Arabic because 1. I need to get in good terms with my identity crisis with the Arabic language as I believe I spoke Arabic & Amharic (Ethiopia's official language) at the same time when I first spoke as a kid. Then English became a buffer zone. Anyhow, I write more about that in the magazine in an article titled (Yemenia from Addis Ababa). *i like the title* #wink

2. Because our focus is the Yemeni audience. Sana'a Review's team believes that it's very important to combat the expansion of local propagandist media outlets & also play a role as an independent media outlet bridging people in Yemen with the growing Yemeni diaspora.

Sana'a Review hopes to have an English version in the near future so anyone anywhere can enjoy our content. You may know more details about the mission of the magazine at my Sana'a Review opening article. Also, here are our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram accounts.

Ever since I joined journalism in end 2008, I dreamt of founding a magazine. Every time I pitch to my editors & my emails convincing them of my idea tend to be longer than the final published article itself, I dreamt of founding a magazine so I can easily get published. Every time I watch Anna Wintour of Vogue magazine, I dream of being better than Anna herself & create a meaningful magazine, with all respect to the fashionistas in the world. Every time,,, enough. It's here. It's happeninnnnnng (with Oprah Winfrey voice at the back) 💥❤️💓

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Unfolding UN Failure in the Yemen War

My latest on the Atlantic Council organization's #MENASource blog:

Despite the two previous unsuccessful attempts to pass a draft resolution to establish a UN independent international investigation commission into possible Yemen war crimes, sixty-seven Human Rights groups recently initiated another call demanding the establishment of the inquiry commission. The call for a commission is unlikely to be successful, but if it is formed it runs the risk of being hijacked by state interests and failing to hold accountable certain actors, particularly members of the Saudi-led coalition who wield influence at the United Nations.

Around 10,000 civilians have been killed in Yemen’s war—what the United Nations called the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Oddly, different UN bodies report different numbers. Last year a UN OCHA official stated that 10,000 civilians have been killed in Yemen since March 2015 (OCHA confirmed to MENASource that the number referred to civilians since some sources simply stated “people”). However, a September 2017 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report claimed that only 5,000 civilians have been killed since March 2015. Interpreting the changing number is difficult. OCHA gathers its data from health facilities, but OHCHR did not report its methodology. If, for example, they are conducting site visits, then being denied access to certain areas, a practice both sides in the war have used, would limit their ability to gather accurate data.

The United Nations’ track record on Yemen’s civil war shows that it has often dodged key issues, leading critics to say it is beholden to state interests. Several reports by international Human Rights groups show that all belligerent parties have committed atrocities that could amount to war crimes. Nonetheless, these reports have made remarkably little difference at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) or other top UN bodies. In 2015, the UNHCR adopted what Human Rights Watch called a “deeply flawed resolution,” abandoning a Dutch-led draft resolution to create an independent commission, due to pressure from Saudi and “insufficient support” from permanent Security Council members the United States and United Kingdom. The resolution that was passed created an inquiry body led by Saudi Arabia and Riyadh-based Yemeni government—allies in the war against rebels—that has not produced any significant reports. In 2016, the UK blocked another call to establish an independent international inquiry. This futile battle for a more rights-based approach reflects what powerful UN state members want influences the future of any accountability process in Yemen war.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Yemeni woman activist refuses to give up following death threats

A demonstration in Aden demanding "Justice for the prisoners and justice for the innocent"
with pictures of those detained held up (Image courtesy of Huda al-Sarari)

*Human rights lawyer Huda al-Sarari says she fears for her life after denouncing torture in secret prisons in Aden.

Huda al-Sarari was called a liar, a mercenary and even a “whore” on social media, during a vicious online campaign against the Yemeni human rights lawyer. Her ordeal began in June after she spoke out against torture in secret prisons allegedly run by the United Arab Emirates in Aden.

Sarari, who documented the abuses during an investigation and spoke about it to the media, said that her phone was stolen from her home, her car was attacked and she received death threats following the campaign. “I was afraid to leave my house or speak to media for more than a month,” Sarari told Middle East Eye. “But now, I want the word out, at least, about the dreadful experience [human rights activists have to] bear."

The defamation campaign against Sarari started in June on social media, after Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press published two separate investigations accusing the UAE of running secret prisons in Yemen, where many people were reportedly tortured and abused. She is one of the rights lawyers who documented the testimonies of torture victims held in the secret prisons and delivered them to HRW. She also gave interviews regarding her findings on several prominent media outlets after the reports came out.

HRW documented the cases of 49 people, including four children, who were arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared in the Aden and Hadramawt governates over the last year. At least 38 appear to have been arrested or detained by UAE-backed security forces. Multiple sources, including Yemeni government officials, have reported the existence of a number of informal detention centers and prisons in Aden and Hadramawt, including at least two run by the UAE and others run by UAE-backed Yemeni security forces.

The UAE Foreign Ministry denied running any secret prisons in Yemen and called the accusations "an attempt to sully the reputation of the alliance that had intervened to save the Yemeni people". The UAE is a key member of the Saudi-led and US-backed military campaign to support Yemen’s toppled government against Shia Houthi rebels, which was launched in March 2015. 

A protest in Aden demanding rights for prisoners (courtesy of Huda al-Sarari)

According to a draft United Nations report seen by Reuters on Thursday, the Saudi-led military coalition was responsible for an "unacceptably high" 51 percent of child deaths and injuries in Yemen last year. In January, the UN said that since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015, the death toll has risen to at least 10,000 civilians.

One of the posts attacking Sarari stated that “the so-called Huda al-Sarari works in disguise with human rights groups, while she actually reports to political and security foreign parties, jeopardising [the] South’s interests and its goal for liberation." The Emergency Committee for Civil Society Organisations in Aden condemned the acts of defamation against Sarari and her family in a statement which spread on social media following the smear campaign. “The objective of this [campaign] is to reduce any efforts to defend human rights,” the statement said.

One day after the online attacks started on 23 June, Sarari and her family said they began to receive death threats. Sarari said that her phone was stolen from inside her home in Aden. Nothing else was taken from her house. The same day, her car windows were smashed. She added that her internet connection at home was deliberately cut off by an unknown person. Shortly after that, an acquaintance paid her a visit at her office to deliver her a "message" telling her that she should "be careful of your coming steps, otherwise you will risk your life", according to Sarari.

Family targeted

Sarari graduated in Sharia and Law from Aden University in 2011. She also holds a master's degree in Women's Studies and Development from the Women's Centre at Aden University.

She has been working in human rights activism for almost 10 years, gaining experience at numerous local organisations such as the Yemeni Women's Union, the Adala Foundation for Rights and Freedoms and the National Committee to Investigate Allegations of Human Rights Violations. She has also volunteered to work with Amnesty International and HRW.

With this experience, Sarari is accustomed to criticism. But this latest attack was something she has never experienced before. Sarari was disturbed by the posts, which she said were very personal and attacked her husband and children while identifying where they lived and even the car she drove. Her family was terrified when the social media campaign gained momentum. Huda’s mother, who preferred not to disclose her name, told MEE that, “if Huda is not fearful for her life, she must be fearful for the safety of her children," she said. "And because Huda is a woman, they go after her honour and this is unacceptable in our society.”

Sarari agrees that the worst part of the campaign launched against her is the libel and slander, which could bring shame to her whole family in the conservative society of Yemen. “As you may know, Yemen is a conservative society, in which women’s honour is perceived as sacred,” Sarari said. “Calling me degrading words like a whore has a stronger negative impact on me than it does if it were directed against a male activist.”

But others have also come to her defence. One Facebook post stated: "She said a word of truth against injustice, while you cheer for injustice, you who defame her honour should get whipped as a punishment according to our Sharia - that’s if there is any sharia in our land."

Human rights lawyer Huda al-Sarari working at the headquarters of the Yemeni Women's
Union in Aden (Photo courtesy of Huda al-Sarari)

"Quit your activism"

According to the HRW report, the court system in Aden is largely not functioning because of the war. Although the prosecutor’s office continues to issue release orders for people, these orders are ignored by security forces controlling the area. As a result, Sarari has found it futile to report threats against her to the prosecution and seek protection. "There is no chance to report threats today to the attorney general like we used to before, as it has been out of commission, impacted by the general instability," she said.

Aden is under the control of the Security Belt, a southern force taking part in the war. According to the HRW report issued in June, the "Security Belt" forces, are backed by the UAE. They have been accused of many abuses including excessive force during arrests and raids, detaining children, causing forcible disappearances and detaining family members of wanted suspects to pressure them to “voluntarily” turn themselves in, according to HRW. Sarari avoided approaching the "Security Belt" forces, given their links to the UAE. Instead, she contacted influential Yemeni political leaders.

"They couldn’t promise me much protection,” Sarari laughs and continues: “One [political leader] literally told me, 'how about you quit your activism and avoid facing risks?'”  For now, Sarari is taking basic safety measures such as limiting her movement, especially at night.

Kristine Beckerle, Yemen and UAE researcher at HRW told MEE: “Female activists like Huda al-Sarari are fighting every day for more rights protections, yet instead of addressing the important issues these [activists] are rising, many instead have faced smear campaigns, death threats, or a myriad of other challenges." "This is not only incredibly unfair to, and often very dangerous for, the women and men who have dedicated their lives to pushing for a more justice-oriented Yemen, but damaging to any future hope for a stable, rights-respecting state," she added.

According to local reports, there have been other instances where female activists have been subjected to similar online campaigns, like Radhya al-Mutawakel, who heads Mwatana, a human rights group based in Sanaa. In March, she was one of the speakers who addressed human rights violations in Yemen at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington. She said that all parties in Yemen were committing human rights violations including the Houthi rebel group and the Saudi-led coalition.

The Yemeni embassy in Washington sent a letter trying to discourage congressional aides from attending the briefing in Washington. The embassy accused local speakers, including al-Mutawakel, of having a political “agenda” tied to Houthi rebels fighting against the government of President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. The claim was denied by the event's organisers. Sarari said it was up to the main parties in the war, including the Yemeni government and the UAE, to restrain the armed groups and protect rights workers, especially women.

“I wish I had better advice for women activists in terms of how to protect themselves or could give clear answers on what human rights organisations could do to protect them," said Beckerle , "but, it really comes down to the authorities - to the Yemeni government and other actors like the UAE exercising influence over armed groups and fighting forces in Aden to be doing far more to ensure that there is space for men and women to speak out, advocate and do the work crucial to Yemen’s future."

'They depend on me'
Even though Sarari admits to being scared, she is determined to continue her work and has never considered quitting. Although it has been a difficult time for them, her family and husband offer their unconditional support and simply ask that she is careful. Part of Sarari’s many commitments are her assignments within the legal team of the Yemeni Women's Union. Its work includes offering legal protection for women in personal status cases and protecting the rights of female prisoners.

“Working with these women is like a driving force for me,” Sarari concluded. “Many abused women’s cases depend on me, so I have to ignore the threats and get up again and continue working.”

*My latest article published at Middle East Eye, on 21st of August.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Satirical Shows Lighten the Mood Amid Yemen's War

My latest on Aljazeera English.

Satirists use their platform not only to entertain the Yemeni public but also to subvert rival media narratives.

As the war grinds on, satire 'embodies the only fulfilling means of venting', says Yemeni TV host Mohammed al-Rabaa [Photo courtesy of Mohammed al-Rabaa]

Satire has become an oasis for war-fatigued Yemenis - a temporary escape from the gruelling realities of life in a combat zone. "I think things have been so suffocating in Yemen that satire today embodies the only fulfilling means of venting," Yemeni TV host Mohammed al-Rabaa told Al Jazeera.

Rabaa is one of the most popular political satirists in Yemen, having made his breakthrough during Yemen's 2011 uprising with an amateur video (see below) satirising a local politician. He attributes the popularity of satire to "its ability to speak far more to the Yemeni audience than traditional news media".

Even though the uprising presented new opportunities for political satire in Yemen, the genre is not new in the country. In the 1950s, Abdullah Abdulwahab Noman launched the al-Fudhool satirical newspaper in the port city of Aden, providing a platform for satirical takes on current events. Issued every two weeks, the paper tackled everything from corruption to food insecurity, including a piece featuring a starving TV presenter who almost fainted while asking viewers to donate food.

In the 1950s, Abdullah Abdulwahab Noman launched the al-Fudhool satirical newspaper.

In the ensuing years, satirists continued to parody their political leaders via song and on radio shows. The 1980s saw the launch of the famous satirical radio show Basmah (A Smile) on Sanaa State Radio. Established by the late Yemeni journalist Mohammed al-Mahbshi and journalist Ali al-Sayani, it airs each Ramadan and is re-run at other times throughout the year, satirising issues of corruption in the country.

Under former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Basmah satirised the lack of democratic elections in Yemen; today, it takes aim at the Saudi-led coalition and the government of Yemen's president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The station on which it airs was taken over by Houthi rebels in September 2014.

"Since its creation in 1982, Basmah broke the mould and was certainly one of a kind," Suad al-Wisy, a host at Sanaa State Radio, told Al Jazeera. "Today, it reflects the concerns and frustrations many feel in Sanaa, regardless of which authority carries the radio. However, I think the show doesn't enjoy the same listenership it used to have, as there is a rise of many other radio channels attracting our audience."

Yemen's satirical landscape is heavily infused with partisan and sectarian overtones. Satirists use their platform not only to entertain but also to subvert rival media narratives.

Bahashwan, who began as a social satirist, shifted his focus to political satire as the Houthis began their armed fight in Aden in early 2015.

Aden-born Karam Bahashwan, who began his career as a satirist via YouTube in 2013 in Aden, today hosts a weekly show called Wala Nakhs (Shut Up) that is broadcast into Yemen from Istanbul, Turkey, on the Belqees television channel, well known for its anti-Houthi/anti-Saleh reporting.

Bahashwan, who began as a social satirist, shifted his focus to political satire as the Houthis began their armed fight in Aden in early 2015. "In that violent and intense political situation, one can't help but shift to politics. I realised that the main source of all of Yemen's problems was political," Bahashwan told Al Jazeera, noting that he hopes his show can bring laughter to the public, while also raising their political awareness.

Satirising Hadi's government and the Saudi-led coalition is a primary focus for Abdel Hafez Moujab, who hosts a daily programme on al-Sahat TV channel, presenting a counter-narrative to pro-Hadi shows. His programme, Maa al-Akhbar (With the News) airs from Lebanon

Satire is 'a useful way to expose lies, especially in light of the Yemen war and the media misinformation', says Abdel Hafez Moujab [Photo courtesy of Abdel Hafez Moujab]

"After many years in journalism, I chose political satire eventually. I found it a useful way to expose lies, especially in light of the Yemen war and the media misinformation," Moujab told Al Jazeera. "I aspire to offer a more truthful depiction through my simplicity and cynicism in analysing the news. I think my political humour brings the viewer closer to current events, and it grabs their attention more than the traditional media."

With Yemen ranked one of the most dangerous places for media groups to operate, many such shows are being hosted outside the country. "Media groups can't work inside the country freely, while there are increasing attacks against the press," Ahmed al-Zurqa, an Istanbul-based Yemeni journalist, told Al Jazeera, noting that various media outlets within Yemen have come under the control of different armed groups. "It's an extremely hostile situation for media."

Meanwhile, anti-Houthi satirist Mohammed al-Athroui - regarded by many Yemenis as a pioneer in the country's political satire scene, having sung satirical songs on television since the 1990s, such as Toz (Whatever) and Ham Shaab (A Nation's Concern) - has continued his work throughout the war. His show Ghagha (Cacophony), which airs long-prepared episodes every Ramadan on the Islamist Party Islah's television channel, is broadcast from Saudi Arabia, as the channel's official offices were looted by the Houthis in 2015.

Ghagha includes sketches and songs that heavily mock Shia scholars (watch below), prompting fierce criticism from pro-Houthi media outlets. "I respect our religion and all sects, and I don't aim to insult anyone, but [rather] to uncover some of the Houthis' fictitious tales," Athroui told Al Jazeera. The dangers of his work are clear: A pro-Houthi judge in Sanaa recently issued a statement on Facebook advocating Athroui's death "for his deliberate and repeated insults" against prominent Shia religious figures. "I am not scared; in fact, I am certain now that my show is very influential," Athroui maintained.

Rabaa says he has also received death threats because of his work; in one instance, his home was hit by bullets. "Over the course of Yemen's war, Houthi supporters have tried to abduct my sister, attacked my brother and confiscated my house in Amran," he said.

After more than two years of war, Yemen is now in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis threatening millions of lives. Despite the appalling outlook, satirical shows have found a way to lighten the mood - taking aim at everything from political oppression, to the crisis of unpaid civil-servant salaries (watch below), to the Houthis' hijacking of military institutions. Rabaa says he remains determined to forge ahead.

"Yemenis are reminded of famine, disease and devastation all the time, but they have forgotten how to smile, and that's what we try to remind them of," Rabaa said. "We don't mock our misery, but we mock those who led us to the misery."