The other side of Yemen

The other side of Yemen 18 February 2015

Yemen has been in the news a lot recently: Shiite (Houthi) rebels assumed power over the country, demonstrations against them are suppressed, car bombs explode regularly in Sana’a, the former President is virtually under house arrest, and there is a clear connection between the Charlie Hebdo attacks and Yemen.

We have a different view on Yemen. Radicalization is a complex phenomenon for which there are no easy explanations; however, there can be no denying that ingrained feelings of injustice are in the mix of ingredients that make it happen. A Houthi representative explains the growth of his own movement: “The experience of suffering and injustice has made many people sympathetic to Ansar Allah (military wing of the Shiite Houthi Movement)." There is evidence to back this up.

A large justice needs survey conducted by HiiL in 2014 tells us that the people of Yemen have a lot of justice needs but obtain very little fairness. Ninety four percent of the respondents report a significant problem that required a justice process in the past four years. That is enormously high by all standards. Interestingly, the Yemeni women, despite the general perception of their lower social status, report as many problems as men. Most Yemenis report relatively common problems - quarrels with neighbours, petty crimes, disputes over land, housing, and consumer problems. Prevalence of all these problems is, however, very high.

What stands out from the data is that effective justice processes are difficult to find. Very few Yemenis go to courts - the slow, expensive and unpredictable processes force the people to look for justice elsewhere. Sheikhs are present in every community and are regarded as alternative authorities in many situations that require a decision based on fairness and neutrality; however, some sheikhs are more trusted than others. Some are seen as fair while others are perceived as mainly self-interested. In this environment many Yemenis seek resolution to their legal problems within family and other close community structures. Still, many reportedly abandon their justice problems altogether and accept that there is no fairness and justice.

The face-to-face interviews with a small sample of the Yemeni people from our survey confirm this overall picture. Raw power is hardly mitigated through justice processes, and it seems that for Yemen, ‘might is right’ rings true. This means that a lot of people simply have to put up with an absence of justice. These feelings accumulate and spread like cancerous cells across the social tissue. It is not difficult to see how young people (60% of the population is under 25 years old), especially many of the young men, who face daily unfairness, scanty work opportunities and general lack of meaning in life, embrace radical causes.

When drones and military operations come to deal with radicals, a vicious cycle of unfairness and injustice repeats itself that ultimately results in more violence. What Yemen clearly needs – perhaps even more so than a perfect democracy – is more justice and less people who feel oppressed and marginalized. Enough data has been collected to know where the problems are. The international community, however, must realise by now that it is difficult to achieve justice with the old and tried approaches. What is needed are smart justice innovation processes: processes that help Yemenis develop justice procedures that are perceived as neutral, affordable, and produce a fair outcome. Yemen is just like any other country in that respect.