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The Sana'a Center Editorial The Houthi Crackdown on Yemeni Voices and Civil Society: Silence is Not an Option

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

The arrests of dozens of Yemeni aid and NGO workers in recent weeks on allegations of spying for the United States and Israel is no run-of-the-mill crackdown on civil society, but an unprecedented assault that breaks the social norms of political engagement in Yemeni culture.

Never have the repressive practices of previous regimes stooped to rounding up dozens of employees of local and international aid organizations that had been working with official approval for years, including the UN, World Bank, and foreign embassies. Whole families, including children, are being held. A series of dramatic TV ‘confessions’ have been aired, humiliating Yemenis who have been in incommunicado detention without formal indictments. After years of serving the country diligently for the sake of its development, overnight their work has been deemed an act of high treason.

Life during wartime has brought many abuses for ordinary Yemenis since 2015, not least for those living within Houthi-run territories. But the repression has ramped up over the past year as the authorities clamp down on all manner of people who have apparently fallen foul of regime imperatives, including women, judges, businessmen, social media influencers, journalists, and politicians. Things have only gotten worse since relations with Western governments deteriorated over the Red Sea attacks.

Given the extraordinary nature of this round of repression, mild statements or even silence in the hope of securing a deal to release detainees is not the way to go. It’s understandable that many families have kept quiet, but international organizations who take this approach make a serious mistake.

To its credit, the UN has been open about the detentions and the efforts of its Special Envoy’s office to secure their release. But without a comprehensive, coordinated response to ensure all detainees are released unharmed, the detentions will drag on for at least some, if not all, of those jailed. In reality, silence will put their lives in even more danger. Worse, it could encourage the Houthis to detain even more people as they seek to extract political and financial gain by negotiating terms with each of the organizations separately, or with the international community more broadly. One batch of detainees could be released only to be replaced by a new group. The only way to avert that eventuality is a united stance in which the impacted organizations speak with one voice.

International organizations and diplomatic missions have an extra obligation to their Yemeni employees, who are at greater risk than their foreign coworkers inside and outside Yemen. The risk is hardly reduced if they happen to carry foreign passports since dual nationality only raises their value as a bargaining chip in the eyes of a Houthi regime looking for leverage over Western adversaries. There should be no room for suspicion that the advocacy for these detained workers is any less than it would be were they holders of Western passports.

It should go without saying that these outrageous arrests hardly bode well for the peace process that many still see moving forward once the Gaza crisis ends. But what kind of country does anyone expect to emerge from peace talks when the current power in Sana’a stamps all over social and legal norms in this way? Detention without formal charges, amid forced confessions for some, looks more like enforced disappearance than a judicial process.

Those claiming to fight for a pluralistic political system that allows representation of all the country’s diverse elements need to step up and condemn these actions. The worst outcome is if the demonization of civil society work – which all parties to the conflict have engaged in over the past decade – becomes the new model for Yemeni politics, a template for crushing civil society that appeals to the authoritarian tendencies seen in many parts of the country.

External powers, especially Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, make a catastrophic mistake if they think the roadmap for resolving their Yemen problem can come through normalizing this kind of repression. Indeed, if there had been a more inclusive approach to ending hostilities rather than the rushed process witnessed over the past year, then perhaps we would not even be in this position.

But there’s no point looking back. The important thing now is to be clear that in crossing these red lines, the Houthis risk destroying the last remnants of Yemen’s civic culture. Further, there are reasonable grounds to fear for the safety of the detainees, and that the crackdown could easily be expanded in Sana’a and emulated beyond. For all those reasons, public silence and backroom deals should not be an option.