Starving for autonomy: Tawakkol Karman on the current crisis in Yemen

A woman holds her malnourished boy after he was weighed at a hospital malnutrition intensive care unit in Sanaa, Yemen September 27, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah   TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY    SEARCH "FAMINE YEMEN" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - S1BEUFAVEVAA

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Editor's note:

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman discusses the ongoing war in Yemen with Communications Coordinator Sumaya Attia and talks about the future of the country outside of foreign intervention. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length purposes.

Sumaya Attia (SA): After almost four years without any progress in sight, why do you think the Saudi-led coalition still believes that the solution to the war in Yemen is a military solution?

Tawakkol Karman (TK): ‏First, it is very important to know that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) don’t want this war to end, whether militarily or politically. This war has brought them benefits they didn’t expect since their states came into existence, such as occupation, hegemony and guardianship over Yemen, and destabilizing the Republic of Yemen, which was on the threshold of a fully-fledged federal democratic state.

It is also very important to know that the September 2014 coup d’état led by the deposed President Ali Abdallah Saleh in alliance with the Houthi militia was exploited by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to destabilize the Yemeni state and its legitimacy, which was recognized by the U.N. resolutions and in consensus of the Yemeni people.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE used this coup to justify their military interference in Yemen, and (under the pretext of restoring Yemeni legitimacy) have led a coalition consisting of several Arab countries with American and international support ostensibly to restore the Yemeni government’s legitimacy, regain control over Yemen, return to national consensus, and resume the transition period from where it stopped before, based on the National Dialogue outcomes agreed upon by different Yemeni entities, including the Houthi and Saleh party before the coup.

The Houthis, Ali Abdallah Saleh, or anyone else would not have stood up to this strong coalition and its global support for a few months if the declared goals of supporting the legitimacy were really the main motive behind the Saudi and UAE military intervention in Yemen. However, the truth is that both countries have a hidden agenda to undermine Yemen demographically and geographically through blockade, starvation, airstrikes, ‘militarization,’ and the fragmentation of the country.

Today, about 80 percent of Yemen is outside the control of the Houthis. While the Yemeni legitimate government was supposed to take over the liberated areas, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have prevented the legitimate authority from returning to Aden, the temporary capital, or any other liberated provinces. They have occupied islands, ports, coasts, and government buildings. Furthermore, they have established and empowered new militias that reject the legitimacy of the Yemeni government. As a result, the Yemeni government’s loyalty lies only with the new occupiers: Saudi Arabia and the UAE. For me, I figured it out early and named them ‘the occupying states,’ and their coalition ‘the coalition of betrayal and treachery’, and their war ‘the war of dismembering Yemen and taking it over.’

(SA): What are the challenges facing the international community in delivering aid to Yemen?

(TK): Above all else, there must be an end to the war and the blockade on Yemen. Airports and ports should be reopened and freed from the control of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There must also be an end to Saudi Arabia’s policies that exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, such as starvation and expulsions of Yemeni expatriate workers, as well as preventing the legitimate government from benefiting from oil and gas resources and preventing it from returning to the country and not handing over ports and airports to receive humanitarian assistance and aid. The Houthi de-facto authority which controls aid in the North, makes it difficult for those in need to access humanitarian aid because the Houthis misuse them for political gains or to subjugate and control local communities. The international community is called upon to carry out its duty. According to the U.N., about 20 million Yemenis need urgent relief. They suffer from famine, poverty, epidemics, and a series of implications, encapsulated in a humanitarian crisis, unparalleled in modern history. It’s the world’s most tragic humanitarian crisis.

(SA): What are the steps toward national reconciliation within Yemen? Do you believe the different parties within Yemen are ready to reconcile?

(TK): Of course, Yemenis are ready and yearn for peace and national reconciliation. Throughout history, they have become involved in many wars and conflicts but, in the end, they have always reconciled.

If the foreign intervention is stopped (the Saudi-Emirati, as well as the Iranian intervention in Yemen) we will not only make peace, but we will also establish a free democratic state, a state of justice and rule of law, and be a strategic partner in maintaining the world’s security and stability.

The steps to achieve national reconciliation need to begin with stopping the war, lifting the siege, and ensuring the Saudi-Emirati withdrawal from the country. Secondly, it is important to form a U.N.-brokered military commission entrusted with removing weapons from all militias so that only the state has the exclusive right to use weapons and build the army. This will help ensure the security and territorial integrity of the country.

It is also essential to resume the political process thwarted by the coup and the war: this includes forming a national government that includes various components of society or a technocratic government under the auspices of the U.N. This government should be charged with organizing a referendum on the draft constitution and holding local, regional, and presidential elections. They should also oversee reconstruction and oblige Saudi Arabia and UAE to compensate Yemen for the war.

It should be noted that [since 2011] there are nine Security Council resolutions on Yemen and the transitional process. The international community has pledged to the Yemenis to sponsor the transition process. Hence, the international community must fulfill its commitments and play its role in helping Yemen.

(SA): What is your reaction to James Mattis’s speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain, and his take on Yemen? (in which he essentially applied most of the blame on Iran).

(TK): I applaud the U.S. Department of State and the Pentagon for calling to stop the war. Nevertheless, Yemen is not lacking in words but in actions. We are about to enter the fifth year of the war that tears the country apart and kills its people.

As for Mattis’s proposals, I would like to clarify two important points. The first is that the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference and the new draft constitution stipulate that the next republic of Yemen is a multi-regional federal state based on a federal system of government where each region is autonomous. This will enable the Houthis and others to express themselves within a unified state that respects their specific interests. I also would like to emphasize that Yemen does not have indigenous and non-indigenous people, but rather one people with multiple political and religious orientations. The issue now is how to manage these orientations in a civilized and legal manner.

Secretary Mattis pointed out that Yemen should be free of weapons, but I cannot understand how a state can be without weapons. Yemen is a country with a complex topography, a strategic geopolitical location, hundreds of islands and long coasts, overlooking Africa, the Red Sea and the Arabian sea, and controls one of the most important sea lanes: the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

What Secretary Mattis and other U.S. officials should understand is that Yemen is threatened by terrorism, insurgency, and regional ambitions. This calls for a strong army that secures and preserves its independence and stability and contributes to the protection of regional and international security. It is impractical to talk about a demilitarized Yemeni state because it carries the risk of Yemen falling into the hands of terrorist or insurgent groups, or into the trap of some neighboring countries driven by greedy ambitions. The idea of disarmament in Yemen largely coincides with Saudi Arabia’s insatiable desire to keep Yemen under its control.

(SA): What is Iran’s role in prolonging the conflict in Yemen?

(TK): Iran has played a poor role in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It has significantly contributed to the undermining and ‘militarization’ of these countries. As for Yemen, Tehran has supported the Houthi militia and provided it with weapons since before the coup.

Of course, I do not underestimate the Iranian role in Yemen, but I say that this role was not a major one. In other words, had it not been for the Saudi-Emirati collusion and conspiracy against Yemen, the Houthis would not have succeeded in bringing down the capital, and Iran would not have benefited.

(SA): Do you think the murder of Jamal Khashoggi triggered the United States to press for peace talks in Yemen? If so, how?

(TK): Undoubtedlythe murder of Jamal Khashoggi triggered the United States and the world to press for peace talks in Yemen. Waking up to Khashoggi’s murder in such a hideous way, the world fully remembered the war in Yemen and its devastating effects, especially since the culprit is the same.

Our people are being subjected to genocide, destruction, siege, starvation and relentless bombardment that are no less awful than what has happened to Jamal Khashoggi who was tortured and cut into pieces.

(SA): Do you think a ceasefire is likely? What needs to happen for a ceasefire to take effect and for it to remain in effect?

(TK): The UAE and Saudi Arabia will try to undermine any ceasefire unless the international community has real determination and enforces this agreement. The Houthis will also do their best to undermine any agreement of such a kind if there is not full U.N. sponsorship.

(SA): Once the conflict subsides, do you believe Yemen should go back to the National Dialogue Conference process? If not, what would an appropriate national process look like? Who should lead it?

(TK): Yemenis have no choice but to return to the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, which serves as a road map for them to rebuild their future. Following the enforcement of a ceasefire, the international community will have the task of supporting Yemenis to form a national partnership government, entrusted with disarming non-governmental actors, preparing the referendum on the draft constitution, and conducting various elections in accordance with the new constitution. All this must be done under international supervision, not to allow the militias and warlords to continue the war nor to allow Saudi Arabia and the UAE to impose trusteeship and occupation on Yemen. They cannot be allowed to buy the silence of the world for the purpose of fragmenting and taking over Yemen.