What Yemen's Donors Need to Know

On September 24, following a weekend of heavy fighting in Sanaa between the government and Houthi forces, the Friends of Yemen meet in New York. This group of 39 countries and 8 international organizations, created in 2010 to help address the political and economic problems that made Yemen fertile ground for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has now to grapple with the implementation of a peace deal, signed September 21, that requires the formation of a new government within a month and a range of other measures, including the restoration of recently cut fuel subsidies and increases in civil service pay.

When they last met in February, the Friends of Yemen agreed to reorganize their support for Yemen in line with the priorities established by Yemenis in a year-long National Dialogue Conference. The Friends created working groups to focus specifically on economic, political, and security issues -- all of which have vital implications for human rights. But they paid scant attention to the need for justice for the serious and widespread human rights abuses of the former regime and addressing continuing human rights violations. That is a deficiency the Friends urgently need to remedy.

Following the 2011 uprising that led to the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a new government led by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi has improved respect for rights in line with a key demand of the thousands of protesters who precipitated the transition, but efforts are lagging. The Friends need to restate the same priority and help the process along.

One major obstacle to accountability for past abuses is the grant of immunity given to former President Saleh and his top officials in January 2012. President Hadi created on paper an independent commission of inquiry in September 2012 to investigate alleged rights abuses committed during the 2011 uprising, recommend measures to hold those responsible accountable, and provide redress to victims. But two years on, Hadi has yet to nominate the commissioners.

The National Dialogue Conference, from March 2013 to January 2014, was a cornerstone of the transition. It brought together 565 representatives of political parties and activist groups - including women's and youth organizations -- to agree on recommendations for legal reform and the process for drafting a new constitution. One of its nine working groups focused exclusively on "rights and freedoms" and another on "transitional justice." The final document contained hundreds of recommendations from the working groups. The September 21 peace deal requires the new government to have a mandate to ensure the implementation of these recommendations.

The national dialogue's recommendations for accountability, truth-telling, and compensation for the victims of past government violations led Yemen's ministers of social affairs and labour, and of legal affairs, to submit a draft transitional justice law to the cabinet in June 2014, but the cabinet has yet to send it to parliament.

As Hadi's government hesitates, there has been a sharp rise in rights abuses. The Freedom Foundation, a Yemeni organization that monitors press freedom, recorded 148 attacks on journalists and other media workers in the first six months of 2014, including unlawful detention, politically motivated prosecutions, verbal harassment and threats, confiscation or destruction of equipment and other property, looting, and one killing. The group attributed nearly half of the cases to the government and its agents.

Both before and during the 2011 uprising, Human Rights Watch documented incidents in which government security forces used excessive and unnecessary lethal force against demonstrators. Such incidents have decreased significantly since the Hadi government came to power, but there have been new cases of deaths and injuries at protests, Earlier this month, during two days of protests by the Houthis security forces used live fire against unarmed protesters, killing 9 people and injuring at least 33 others. Reports of civilians killed in the weekend fighting need to be promptly investigated.

There also has been little progress to protect the rights of women and children, two of Yemen's most vulnerable groups. A draft Child Rights Law submitted to the cabinet in April is still stuck there. It would set the minimum age for marriage at 18, criminalize the practice of female genital mutilation, prohibit the use or recruitment of child soldiers, and prohibit child labor in line with international legal standards. The draft is held up while the cabinet wrestles with whether banning child marriage and female genital mutilation are compatible with Sharia, the body of Islamic law on which Yemen's national legal system is based.

Under Yemen's transitional arrangements, Hadi has legal powers to take action unilaterally if the government cannot reach consensus, but as far as Human Rights Watch can determine he has not exercised this power to enact legislation.

The Friends of Yemen are in a position to wield significant influence, given their crucial financial support for Yemen's failing economy, but they aren't doing enough to address the human rights abuses that lie at the core of Yemen's problems. They need to be much more forthright in pushing forward the accountability agenda and supporting local initiatives to ensure greater respect in law for the rights of women and children. They shouldn't miss this opportunity to get these efforts moving.

Belkis Wille is the Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, based in Sanaa.