Story in Focus: interview with Radhya Almutawakel from Mwatana Organization for Human Rights
Q1. What is the mandate of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, why it was established and what motivates you to continue amidst the difficult and dangerous circumstances of investigating crimes in Yemen?
Mwatana was Established in 2007 by myself and Abdulrasheed Alfaqih. However, we were initially refused permission by the ministry of social affairs due to our human rights work, which made it impossible for us to receive funds and build a team. We initially started working as individuals until 2013, when we finally got the official authorization. Now we are 70 persons, and half of them are women. I was fortunate to be one of the first women to address the UN Security Council on the Situation in Yemen.
One of our main focuses is investigating human rights violations on the ground. We have field researchers across 20 governorates.
We think that information is power and the first step towards advocacy and accountability.
Our second focus is on securing accountability through advocacy and engagement. We also provide legal support to victims and have lawyers across seven different governates who have already succeeded in helping release many people arbitrarily detained.
Human rights is a long process and it does not always have direct effects, but we still believe in it strongly, even if we cannot touch its effects immediately.
We decided to work in this field because even if it is a hard work, we still can play an important role and stand beside the civilians and victims of Yemen.
Q2. We know some of the dangers you and your investigators face, as a woman do you feel you are more vulnerable to threats and reprisals in Yemen?
I think that all of us in Mwatana (women and men) are vulnerable and strong at the same time. We protect ourselves the best that we can, by being an independent and neutral organization. But you can imagine what it means to be neutral in such circumstances. All parties campaign against us. What helps in the broader framework is that we are respected because of our neutrality. Still, many of our team have been detained and targeted in different ways. Luckily, until now we are still able to work, and that is what is important.
Q3. You yourself were detained by the Saudi Led-Coalition (‘SLC’) in 2018, can you tell us more about that incident?
Last June my colleague and husband and I were detained at Sayon airport by orders from Saudi Arabia. The first thing the security did was to seize our phones. We were informed that we are not allowed to travel and were under arrest by the SLC. That is when we realized it was going to be serious. We were released after 12 hours thanks to significant pressure from civil society, internationally and internally, but we have remained in exile since June 2018.
Q4. What impact do you think the Jamal Khashoggi murder has had in increasing the pressure on the SLC to consider a ceasefire?
I think if Saudi Arabia was not given the green light to commit violations in Yemen, maybe the Khashoggi case would have not happened. They feel entitled to commit widespread violations and are sure that they will never be held accountable.
What happened to Khashoggi was what triggered the attention on our country. Finally, parties to the conflict came to the table in Sweden to discuss peace building measures as a first step. What is scary is that the peace process is happening only because of that pressure. If pressure goes down, then the peace talks will collapse.
Q5. There are increasing reports about the numbers of those starving in Yemen – a famine declaration was made in December 2018 by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, with around 65,000 in phase 5 (Famine), and around 5 million in Phase 4 (Emergency). Please can you explain the situation as you see it on the ground?
What we see on the ground is every kind of violation from all parties to the conflict (such as strikes, indiscriminate shelling, and arbitrary detentions) and these have affected thousands of Yemenis. In addition to this we have starvation.
We have to make the distinction: people are not starving, they are being starved, it is a man-made famine. We see it all over the country.
But for us it is very difficult to document this crime since there are many factors causing it. We can see this violation but we are facing challenges in how to document it.
Q6. GRC and Mwatana have been talking about starvation and the crimes occurring in Yemen since early 2017 and we are aware of some of the difficulties you face in terms of documenting starvation – can you highlight some of the difficulties in documenting?
We feel that we need some expertise in developing the forms we currently use for victim interviews and documentation, along with the legal expertise to know how to prosecute starvation.
GRC is one of the organizations that can offer very important workshops on how to document starvation. In our country this kind of documentation is still at a very initial stage.
We want to follow high legal standards to document all violations in order to use such proof in court proceedings, not only in the case of starvation, but for all violations happening on the ground. Mwatana has partnered with many international partners. This has helped us develop our knowledge and we are lucky to have had this chance to benefit from this experience.
Q7. Please can you explain some the causes of this starvation as you see them in Yemen?
We often talk about the blocking of humanitarian aid and blockades, but this is not all. We have the big problem of salaries, so we need a comprehensive approach which looks at the economic situation in Yemen and how all parties are contributing to this crisis. The whole country has collapsed entirely and no one wants to be responsible for trying to rebuild it. The government’s decision to move the central bank to Aden, resulted in salaries being stopped. Salaries have not been paid to citizens under the Houthi control and our currency has crashed. Only when we look at these issues comprehensively can we discuss accountability for starvation and other violations.
Q8. What do you Yemeni’s want in terms of accountability?
People are depressed because it’s been years since the war started and still nothing has happened in terms of accountability. But when we collect documents, we receive positive responses, this is a sign that there is still the will for accountability. We know currently that we do not have many possibilities in terms of the availability of accountability mechanisms.
We feel that the world is designed in a way to allow perpetrators impunity – this should be changed. I think it is the role of the international community to show that there is a need for accountability for the crimes occurring in Yemen and to consider avenues to make it possible.
When we go to courts, the target should not just be on advocacy but also to ensure real accountability.
We cannot raise the expectations of victims if we do not have a way to pursue accountability. As first responders, we need to prepare the case under the lens of future accountability not only under the lens of advocacy efforts.