In October 2011 a group of Yemeni activists – young, and all committed to the anti-government protests taking place in Sana’a, Taiz, Aden and elsewhere – met with a group of officials from foreign ministries and international organisations in Cairo. This workshop formed part of Chatham House’s Yemen Forum project, and was organised in partnership with Resonate! Yemen and Saferworld.
While peaceful protests mostly initiated and driven by young political activists in Yemen have attracted admiration across the Western world and acclamation in the media, this new generation of leaders has had little opportunity to communicate directly with decision-makers. The Cairo workshop thus aimed to open a channel of communication between foreign policymakers and the revolutionaries, and to further mutual understanding with regards to each other’s agenda for the transition period in Yemen.
The text below is a summary of the findings, with key recommendations for furthering the meeting’s aim of finding a place for the youth voice in Yemeni politics.
Yemeni activists perceive the role of the international community in Yemen negatively, seeing Western and Gulf states as acting in their own self-interest, prioritising the security dimension and failing to actively address the acute concerns of Yemeni citizens around human rights violations and the need for root and branch political change.
Within international policy circles there remains a perception that the Yemeni youth movement is divided and lacks clear priorities for transition.
Steps can be taken by both sides to improve communication and mutual understanding, including increased outreach and transparency on the part of the international community and more tailored advocacy strategies by Yemeni activists in order to ‘speak to the interests’ of policymakers.
The widespread and acute effects of the current conflict and economic crisis on the Yemeni population impede the work of civil society activists towards establishing a new political future for Yemen. Activists struggle to focus on long-term strategic goals while bringing an end to the violence is the overwhelming priority.
However, there is a unifying vision for the movement in the desire for democracy, equality, citizenship, protection for human rights and the ultimate goal of a civil state.
Yemeni activists largely agree on the most urgent priorities: the removal of the regime; stopping the current conflict and stopping attacks on protesters; addressing the humanitarian situation; and addressing the ‘southern question’.
International actors have diverse interests at stake in Yemen including counter-terrorism, long-term stability and poverty reduction, and these elements sometimes work at cross-purposes. This apparent lack of clarity on priorities increases Yemenis’ negative perceptions of the international community’s role.
Youth activists need to nominate leaders and agree on representation; improve their advocacy and communications strategies; tailor their messages and ‘speak to the interests’ of policymakers, in particular security concerns; and improve their documentation of human rights abuses.
Policymakers need to build diverse networks and invest in relationships; improve their own outreach and transparency; and engage more directly with Yemenis’ concerns about human rights violations and military aid to factions of the Yemeni security services.
The following points for international policymakers and Yemeni activists are short-term actions for advancing the long-term goal of reshaping Yemeni politics to be more democratic, inclusive and accountable.
- Increase frequency of meetings between Yemeni civil society activists and international representatives and ensure diversity of participation;
- Design consultative processes during the transition period to prioritise inclusivity;
- Training and support for Yemeni NGOs in documenting human rights abuses, developing advocacy strategies and speaking to the media;
- Develop a central resource where people can access manifestos of the youth movement and clear, accessible information explaining the role of international organisations in Yemen.
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