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New Leaders in Yemen, Same Old System

WASHINGTON, Apr 6 2012 (IPS) - A new report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) Friday contends that the dearth of meaningful reform in the protection of human rights and the rule of law in Yemen threatens political stability as the fledgling transitional government copes with a deteriorating economy and continued violence.

“While Yemen’s new government has taken several promising steps, the repressive security apparatus of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains largely intact,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, after observers met for two weeks in Sanaa.

“Civilian leaders reiterated that they cannot move forward on accountability and reform of the security services so long as Saleh continues to play a hand in directing various security forces there,” Whitson added.

Since last December, when Saleh and his political supporters were granted legal immunity in exchange for a new government under President Abu Rabu Mansur Hadi, the progress made thus far is insufficient, according to the report.

Some of the reforms in Yemen, the poorest member country in the Arab League, include a draft law that would open investigations into last year’s government abuses and the authorisation for a new office of the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the country.

But after a number of interviews with senior government officials, civil society leaders and other witnesses, HRW found that large gaps remain in government accountability, arbitrary detentions, children forced into the military, and judicial and legal reforms.

No government or security officials have been charged with crimes that left hundreds of Yemeni citizens dead during last year’s anti- government protests.

“Events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya show that removing an authoritarian leader is only the first of many difficult steps…The best way for Hadi to gain the support of all Yemenis is to ensure their grievances are addressed,” Whitson went on to say.

Regional experts have suggested that Saleh has retained a strong influence in Yemeni politics, which has only exacerbated the violent rivalries between different factions vying for power.

“So far, all signs point to Saleh’s unwillingness to give up his influence, especially as long as his political rivals remain active and in a position to dominate Yemen… Their continued presence represents a threat to the emergence of a stable political order in the country,” Princeton Professor Bernard Haykel wrote for last week.

With extremely high levels of unemployment, food shortages, dwindling foreign exchange reserves, and an economy almost entirely dependent on neighbouring Saudi Arabia for food and oil subsidies, Yemen’s stagnant economy is just as worrying for some analysts as the growing political instability.

On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved 93.75 million dollars in assistance to Yemen to “address its urgent balance of payments needs”. Other governments and international organisations such as the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations are in the process of securing additional funds in economic and humanitarian assistance to Yemen.

“The Fund-supported program will help the authorities tackle pressing economic challenges while giving them time to formulate their medium- term strategy to address structural issues,” Nemat Shafik, chair of the IMF’s executive board, said on Wednesday.

“The role of donors is crucial. Financing needs are likely to remain large as the political crisis has worsened poverty and unemployment conditions and severely impacted tax revenues,” Shafik added.

Some experts argue, however, that without an end to Yemen’s political instability, the economic situation is unlikely to improve.

In a report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday, regional specialist Dr. Charles Schmitz emphasised that structural economic reforms such as a revised tax system, more investment in human capital programmes, an enhanced partnership between the government and private business, and proper management of Yemen’s non-hydrocarbon natural resources will all work to promote economic growth.

“Yemen’s economic problems are real, but they are not caused by an absolute, irreparable shortage of resources. Rather it is Yemen’s contentious politics and its lack of institutional development that constitutes the main obstacle to surmounting economic difficulties,” the Schmitz wrote.

“Ultimately, long-term success depends on the Yemeni state, not on outside help from the U.S. or the Gulf countries – though they can play a critical role in helping to stabilise the Yemeni economy in the short term,” the report goes on to say.

While the U.S. commended the negotiated political transition brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last year, U.S. policy remains focused on its support for counterterrorism operations in the country and, in what U.S. officials have begun to emphasise more frequently, countering Iran’s alleged influence in Yemen.

Speaking at a GCC forum in Saudi Arabia last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted that Iran has been undermining “regional security” with “interference” in both Yemen and Syria.

One substantial component of the U.S.’s campaign against organisations affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Yemen is an increasing number of drone attacks.

According to a study published last week by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the number of U.S. drone strikes, cruise missile attacks and naval bombardments in Yemen now rivals the intensity of a similar covert campaign against militants in Pakistan, with up to 35 attacks since May 2011 that have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 55-105 Yemeni civilians.

After suspending 150 million dollars in military aid to Yemen during the uprisings last year, U.S. officials have stated that they plan to seek authorisation for nearly 75 million in military aid to resume this year. Yemen has received nearly 316 million dollars in civilian aid since 2007.

“The U.S. government has no business resuming aid, overt or covert, to security forces that are implicated in murdering Yemen’s citizens and refuse to accept accountability for these abuses…Direct military aid to these forces could undermine the government’s ability to ensure accountability and bring peace and security to the country,” HRW’s Whitson said.

“The U.S remains focused on supporting a peaceful political transition in Yemen, and will continue to address the needs of the Yemeni people by delivering humanitarian and economic aid and providing security assistance as requested by the National Consensus Government,” the State Department said in a press release on Monday, after a senior level delegation, which included U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ambassador Jeffery Feltman, returned from Yemen last week.

“We want to help the people of Yemen. They are in great need of development assistance and other forms of help so that they can begin to realise the benefits of a new government that wishes to try to help them,” Clinton said last week during her trip to Riyadh.

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