Yemeni detainees’ plight and the political will for peace

English translation of Dr Amatassalam Al-Hajj article published on Arabia: https://ara.tv/pxg8u

By Dr Amatassalam Al-Hajj *

Finally, nearly 14 months after signing Stockholm agreement, the prisoners’ exchange committee, that consists of representatives of the Yemeni government and the Houthis, agreed on a detailed plan last month, to complete the first official large-scale for exchanging prisoners. The UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths reflected on this progress at his UNSC briefing saying: “This is a firm commitment from the parties to the families that they will be reunited with their loved ones…. We all look forward to the implementation of those releases agreed as soon as possible.”

We have heard similar statements and promises for the last 14 months and today, particularly a month later from this last announcement, we still haven’t seen any progress in releasing detainees, which is an even more of a priority given the Corona outbreak.

The Stockholm agreement had initially inspired hope among us all working in mediation in Yemen, especially us in the Abductees’ Mothers Association working on one of the most crucial aspects of mediation: civilian-abductees release. Yet, unfortunately, we have documented continued detention and prosecution of civilians. Since the Stockholm agreement, the Association documented 24 cases of civilian abductees who were killed due to torture and deprivation from urgent medical care, and 134 deaths caused by the Arab Coalition air strikes on their detention areas under the Houthi control. Since 2015, the Association documented more than 3000 cases of abducted civilians including journalists and activists currently held in the Houthi prisons, or those of the Legitimate Government in Marib and the Security Belt in Aden.

As someone who has been illegally detained twice and interrogated at Sana’a Airport several times by the Houthis because of my political activism since 2015, this issue is very dear to my heart. I was part of the Detainees Defense Committee comprising of a number of activists and lawyers. We lobbied against the arbitrary arrest of civilians by the Houthis and worked on their release. However, as the clampdown on freedoms got worse, several of my colleagues themselves were arrested, and I found myself standing at prison gates with their mothers and wives demanding their release. That is when it occurred to me that we as mothers and wives may have a sort of cultural protection, for no one would object to a mother plea for the release of her children.

Therefore, I established and headed the Abductees’ Mothers Association in April 2016 alongside a number of abductees’ mothers and supporters. Today the Association includes 60 female activists from various geographic and political backgrounds aided by hundreds of supporters. We work all over the country for the defense and release of civilian abductees regardless of their backgrounds and those of the perpetrators. We also document cases after verifying information received throughout offices across the country, social media and hotline. Since our establishment we organized 220 protest and successfully managed to release 654 abductees from the Houthi prisons, 90 abductees from the security entities in Aden and three from the government prisons in Marib, as well as identify the whereabouts of eight missing persons. Moreover, the Association works on rehabilitation of those released to assist their re-integration into the society, whether through psychological support for them and their families, or connecting them with sources of income.

We realized that with persistence and passion we can achieve much even if we a small number of volunteers working with limited resources, while the UN-led process so far didn’t contribute to releasing any prisoner.. I do not mean to belittle the efforts by those working in the peace process or question their motives. My concern is that they lack important knowledge and critical insight of the local structures and practices, which if they acknowledge, could take them a long way in freeing many civilian detainees.

The fact is that civil society organizations such as ours have been excluded from the various peace talks, especially the Stockholm process, and this complicated the detainees’ situation. For example, since the negotiations were limited to two warring parties, we had to raise the lists of civilian abductees to the official negotiating delegates hoping for the civilian abductees names to be included in the exchange. A better way would have been to include neutral representatives from civil society and create an independent list and process for the civilian abductees and not include their names among those involved in the armed conflict from both sides. Additionally, this process forced us to include innocent detained civilians to be listed among fighters. These civilians should have been release unconditionally as a trust building measure, as they did not have any stake in the armed conflict.

This shortsightedness set our efforts, which were successful in the past, way back as our local mediations after Stockholm peace process were rejected by the Houthis who insisted that the names of civilians we provided were already part of the political negotiation package and hence are tied to a “far-fetched” political settlement. The exclusion of civil society’s efforts and insights turned the matter of civilian abductees’ release from a humanitarian issue into a political one and a bargaining chip.

Our experiences in this field have taught us many valuable lessons and gave us crucial insights in the release of abductees’ negotiation process. To start with, civilian abductees continue to be listed alongside armed combatants in the prisoner exchange lists, which is unfair. These are civilians who were taken from their homes or the streets without any involvement in the armed conflict and should have been released instantly and unconditionally.

We also had concerns that once detainees are released, they are forced to leave their cities and go to live in areas controlled by the other side, leaving their homes and uprooting themselves to a new place without any support for them or their families for resettlement of any kind.

Also, we had concerns for the lack of a mechanism for protecting witnesses and those reporting abduction, and there was no mention whatsoever of the rehabilitation of the released abductees so that they constructively re-integrate into the society and not become involved in violent acts due to resentment, desperation or even feelings of revenge. We had also recommended the release of old age civilian abductees, the sick and those below 18 years of age as a first step instead of the chosen process of “all in return for all” approach.

My personal experience has taught me that the local mediation efforts using the socio-cultural practices yield better results than the international efforts. For one, the local efforts are solely focused on the release of abductees as the first and only priority, while international efforts have a package of complicated items and intertwined demands. Second, the local mediators are familiar with the local context and cultural norms used in tribal and traditional contexts and hence, they start with an already agreed foundation of principles. It would have been useful to take advantage of local mediation practices and language in such situations, something the international mediation teams, who are usually not in the ground, are oblivious of. The local mediators are also known and trusted figures in the community, and therefore, trust building measure are already established as these mediators have established them during their decades of community work. Finally, we at the Abductees’ Mothers Association use the emotional argument and bring the focus to the humanitarian issue regarding our demands for the release of our innocent sons and husbands, and this is stronger than any political or diplomatic talk.

Ignoring the local solutions and existing mediation expertise especially that of Yemeni women, who have proved over the centuries their effectiveness in peacebuilding and mediation, complicates and prolongs the war.

Think about it; how can Yemeni women, many of whom are illiterate mothers, achieve much more than established politicians and international experts? The answer is that for us, the release of our innocent sons is the most urgent priority and not a side note to be included — or not — in the general political negotiations for power.

Yemeni women have the expertise, abilities and passion to create change for the better and successfully achieve peace in a fair and sustainable manner. It is a shame how the various peace processes under the patronage of the international community continue to exclude civil society, especially that of women. The male dominated out-of-touch with reality attitude continues to lead us nowhere closer to peace than when the war started.

What all these international and political negotiation teams fail to realize, is that peace starts from the hearts of mothers. Our unwavering belief in our just cause to release all the civilian abductees from all the prisons remains our only priority. We will not rest until all civilian abductees either receive a fair trial or return safely to their homes.

* Dr Amatasslam Al-Hajj is a Yemeni activist and the founder of the Mothers of Abductees Alliance. She is considered one of the pioneer advocates for women’s rights and civil freedoms. Dr Al-Hajj is member of the Science and Technology University’s teaching faculty and an instructor in the Ministry of Education. She took part in the Independent Institutions working group in the National Dialogue Conference. Dr Al-Hajj is member of the Women Solidarity Network and is a recipient of the Peace Track Initiative Feminist Peace Fellowship.

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Peace Track Initiative

The Peace Track Initiative (PTI) was founded by Yemeni women inside and outside Yemen who came together in 2015 to support the peace process in Yemen.