As part of its Distinguished Speakers Events, the Brookings Doha Center hosted Tawakkol Karman, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who discussed the conflict in Yemen and ways to move forward. The event took place on November 6, 2018. Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work in non-violent struggle, human rights, freedom of expression, and her commitment to peace-building in Yemen. The discussion was followed by a Q&A, moderated by Folly Bah Thibault, principal presenter at Al Jazeera English. The lecture focused on the following questions: What steps need to be taken to alleviate the crisis in Yemen, to end the violent conflict, and to help Yemen get back on its own feet? What would a negotiated, political resolution look like? The event was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities.
Folly Bah Thibault introduced the distinguished speaker with a brief summary about the crisis in Yemen. She presented the following queries: which actors should be held accountable for the famine and human rights abuses that are currently plaguing the country? What needs to happen to find a political solution to the problem and to advance with peace talks? And, finally, what tangible steps can be taken to move toward a peaceful resolution at this time? In its fourth year, the war in Yemen rages on causing what the U.N. has described as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Images of children suffering from malnutrition, civilians killed by airstrikes, and scenes of massive devastation circulate widely in the international media. The U.N. has recently warned that the country is on the brink of the worst famine in living memory. Meanwhile, a growing global outcry for an end to the violent war, which intensified in recent months, is not closer to bringing an end to the humanitarian disaster.
Tawakkol Karman began by discussing Yemen’s image as a failed state and the dire situation in the country. She emphasized that Yemen’s 2011 revolution was necessary and the aims of the uprising were clear: rule of law, freedom, and peaceful revolution. She argued that the key factor behind Yemen’s crisis relates to the desire of external powers to punish Yemenis for their revolution. She mentioned the example of Gulf countries that have attempted to set up obstacles to revolutions in their own countries, and others. She argued that states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates actually aim to undermine a transition toward a peaceful, justice-centered state. They actively undercut any hopes for a peaceful political transition. She made the point that the Houthis were active before the coup, but they existed as a group that attempted and failed to control the state. They only began to obtain real power through the acquisition of weapons and funding from Ali Abdullah Saleh and Iran.
She argued that this resulted in a strategy to destroy and control Yemen and to sabotage the legitimacy behind the peaceful revolution. She believes that the coalition-led war is fragmenting the Yemeni state through famine and violence. This keeps the people of Yemen disunified and disenfranchised. She described how both the Houthis and the coalition forces are guilty of crimes against humanity. On top of these war crimes, the humanitarian situation remains bleak. People are in urgent need of health care services, clean water, and food. More than eight million people are suffering from malnutrition, and this number continues to grow every day. The effect is especially acute for children. She remarked that “Children are falling like the leaves of autumn under the bombardments of the Saudi-led coalition.”
To begin to alleviate this level of suffering, Karman observed that Yemen needs a clear decision from the international community to stop this war. For her, arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE need to be stopped, and Iran needs to be prevented from sending weapons to the Houthis. For peace to happen, Yemen must be an independent, unified, sovereign state. Any political solution to the crisis requires the halting of foreign arms sales in the country. Only the state should have a monopoly of arms. She does not believe that the idea of creating autonomous zones for the Houthis will lead to peace because it will entrench permanent, sectarian divisions. The constitution that was drafted during the revolution envisioned regional autonomy within the country because this would enable groups like the Houthis and others to achieve political representation within the framework of a unified country. Yemenis want to build a state of justice, freedom, and democracy. This requires a national government that is technocratic and includes the various components of society. Regional and national elections need to take place, and efforts to compensate victims and rebuild the country need to be made.
The Q & A session shed light on specific issues related to Karman’s lecture. She expanded on various questions about the peaceful revolution, activism and civil society, how to end the war, the role of external states, and leadership in Yemen. She stated that the best result of the peaceful uprisings was the ousting of Ali Abdullah Salah, who was destabilizing the country and the region. This was one phase of the revolution, but she admits that the revolutionary forces in the country did not predict the extent of the counterrevolution and the way in which external powers would intervene. She reemphasized that the international community must play a pivotal role in pushing for peace.
She observed that the international community has finally realized the urgency of the humanitarian disaster in Yemen. This has coincided with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and heightened pressure on Saudi Arabia. She posits that the relationship between the West and Saudi Arabia has changed because of Khashoggi’s death, and she hopes that the perpetrators will be held accountable. If no one is held accountable, that will send a dangerous message to authoritarian regimes throughout the region.
Finally, on the subject of political leadership, she concluded that Yemenis should unite and decide this democratically. When she describes crises of legitimacy, she is not only referring to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, but also to the importance of agreeing on a national government, unlike the one previously appointed by the Saudis. For her, “the first step to liberating Yemen is liberating the Yemeni people’s political decisions.”
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