Government urged to tackle human rights concerns

The United Nations Human Rights Committee took issue with Yemen on Friday for not implementing many of the recommendations it had made during its last review of civil and political rights in the country in 2002.

The committee, which monitors adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by those states that have signed up to it, appreciated the creation of a Ministry of Human Rights in Yemen in May 2003, as well as the declared commitment of the state to creating a culture of human rights.

However, it noted with concern that the recommendations made after Yemen’s last report three years ago had not been fully taken into consideration.

Introducing the country's latest report in Geneva earlier in July, Director-General of External Relations and International Criminal Police, Abdulkader Kahtan, said Yemen had made “considerable strides” on human rights.

The Yemeni government had justified its lack of progress on some important issues, the committee said, on the basis that the recommendations were not in line with religious principles in the country. A system of Shari'ah or Islamic law operates in Yemen.

The Human Rights Committee rejected the government’s argument that it was not possible “to abide at the same time by religious principles and some obligations under the Covenant" on Civil and Political Rights.

In doing so, it urged Sana to ensure that its desire to abide by religious principles did not cause it to civil and political rights in the country under the Covenant, “which it had accepted without any reservations”.

Yemen is one of 154 state parties to the Covenant.

The committee received Yemen’s progress report under the treaty earlier this month and, after oral hearings with country’s delegation and written supplementary questions, released its formal conclusions and recommendations on Friday.

The independence of the judiciary, discrimination suffered by women, domestic violence, so-called ‘honour killings’, the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and alleged grave rights violations in the name of combating terrorism were among the matters that most concerned committee experts.

Other concerns included the high rate of illiteracy, child labour, and the trafficking of women and children.

Yemen, the committee said, should ensure that the judiciary was free of any interference, in particular from the executive; should work towards establishing a national human rights institution; and review its laws in order to ensure full equality between men and women in matters of personal status.

The state should also “increase its efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation", enact a law prohibiting such practices, and "abolish legislation providing for lower sentences in case of ‘honour killings’,” the committee said.

Yemeni government officials in Sana declined to comment on the committee’s findings at this stage, saying that the government was still reviewing the matter.

Eiz Eddin al-Asbahi, director of the Human Rights Information and Training Centre, the most active human rights NGO in Yemen, said it shared the committee’s concerns.

“We fully agree with the committee that the recommendations made in the 2002 report have not been addressed by the government,” he said.

Al-Asbahi said that NGOs were unable to be active in the development of human rights in Yemen, and that there was no neutral report issued by the NGOs detailing the human rights status in the country.

“The NGOs are not able to pinpoint the human rights record and the areas of backsliding that the committee observed with regards to torture, discrimination, child trafficking - which is very dangerous - as well as the good progress achieved in other areas,” he said.

One reason for the government not having implemented the 2002 recommendations was the lack of public pressure on it to do so, he added.

"These recommendations were not highlighted by the media, so the public does not know about them and pressure the government to take action to address the shortcomings,” al-Asbahi said.

“Most of the NGOs did not know about them and therefore, we do call that these observations should be published.”

In introducing the report, Yemeni government delegate Abdulkader Kahtan said the country had adopted “new political, social, economic and cultural principles” in defense of human rights since the unification of the country and adoption of democracy in 1990.

The government had assured “a large measure of congruence between Yemen’s national legislation and the contents of those instruments”, he said, and had made “considerable strides” in meeting human rights obligations under international covenants and agreements.

In June of this year, the Committee on the Rights of the Child considered Yemen’s progress under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. While acknowledging the timely submission of the report and that some progress had been made, it also expressed some serious reservations.

In particular, it drew attention to the definition and legal status of childhood, discriminatory attitudes towards girls, the use of corporal punishment against children, trafficking of children (notably to Saudi Arabia) and “the high prevalence of abuse, including sexual abuse, and neglect of children.”

The committee called for special efforts to be made to improve the treatment of girls in Yemeni society, not least in relation to early marriage (sometimes as early as 12 years of age), support in education and harmful traditional practices, including FGM.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour noted on Friday that the implementation of human rights agreements on the ground remained a key challenge for everyone in the international community.

In recent years, she said, the greater need in human rights work has shifted from establishing the international international norms and instruments “to a mission of implementing the norms that we have that are very well understood, virtually universally accepted, but extremely poorly implemented".