Seeking peaceful means to conflict resolution

At Yemen’s first ever celebration of the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, delegates discussed ways to prevent small arms violence through outreach programmes and dialogue.

“We hope in future the citizens of Yemen will stop going around with arms, but rather go around armed with the knowledge that their human rights are protected,” said Flavia Pansieri, UN Resident Coordinator in Yemen, at the peace event in Sana’a Cultural Centre.

The International Day of Peace - established by a UN resolution in 1981 to mark individual and collective progress toward building cultures of peace - is actually on 21 September, but Yemen celebrated it early because of national and local elections occurring on the preceding day.

Yemen is one of the world’s “most heavily armed societies”, according to a report in 2003 by Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research project.

Estimates of small arms in Yemen vary wildly – from 6 million to 60 million, for a population of 21 million. Two thousand Yemenis die every year in ethnic conflicts, according to government figures, and gun-related crime keeps growing.

Yemen has also gained international notoriety for its clusters of violent extremists and kidnappers.

However, Yemen is also home to some unique forms of dealing with conflict, some of which are being revived.

Senior judge Hamoud Abdulhameed Al Hitar is head of the Intellectual Dialogue Committee, a government-sponsored project to rehabilitate imprisoned Islamic militants through Quran-based dialogue.

It was formed by President Saleh after the 2001 9/11 attacks in New York when hundreds of Yemenis were imprisoned for suspected affiliation with Al Qaeda, including many who had returned from fighting in Afghanistan.

Rather than leave these young men to become more radical in jail, the government chose dialogue. “You don’t know what these men are like. They are strong. Jail means nothing to them. They are totally convinced of their beliefs,” said Judge Al Hitar.

The Committee analysed sections of the Quran and Sunna (recorded deeds of the Prophet Mohammad) dealing with war and peace, discussed them in detail with the prisoners, and eventually persuaded them of the error of their violent ideology.

The project has seen the release of more than 400 prisoners since 2002.

Along with release from jail, the Committee provides other incentives to reject violence, such as jobs and grants.

Yemen’s conflicts

Yemen’s conflicts come in many forms, said Sonja Al Amry, program director for humanitarian NGO ADRA. Al Amry says the most significant causes of conflict in Yemen are between the state and tribes, and between tribes themselves, usually over resources such as land and water.

Other causes of conflict are the relationship between the former north and south of the country, with southerners feeling politically marginalised; and friction between traditional and modern behaviours and codes.

ADRA is developing a USAID-funded conflict resolution program for Yemen’s troubled provinces of Al Jawf and Sadaa. “The best results will come from people respecting their own rules,” Al Amry said of the embryonic project.

“We want to encourage the use of traditional concepts like hijra [refuge] - the idea of there being conflict-free zones in the community. And wajh [honour], which discourages dirty fighting like shooting someone from behind,” she added.

The project will be grassroots and will include training and development by tribal leaders of a ‘tribal conflict resolution manual’.

Tribal culture and relationships permeate all levels of government. “Don’t forget that tribal dynamics come into play in the military too,” said Al Amry, adding that two thirds of the military are tribal people.

Weak justice system

A weak and confusing justice system is often blamed by analysts for eruption of conflicts into violence.

Yemen’s Chambers of Commerce is doing innovative work to provide out-of-court solutions to conflicts, with assistance from German development agency GTZ.

“Arbitration was already happening, so the project builds on existing skills,” said Gabrielle Hermann, GTZ’s advisor to the Chamber of Commerce in Taiz. “The difference is that in the past the Chambers were not really using a structured approach, and there was no coordination between Chambers.”

The project, working with Chambers of Commerce in 12 of Yemen’s 21 governorates, focuses on training. Lead arbitrators – sheikhs, business people and others – learn from German and Arab experts about ‘low conflict behaviour’.

“Most of the cases are about land,” Hermann said. “There isn’t a proper land registry in Yemen, so people have conflicting land titles. There are a lot of disputes about rent. There is often not a contract, so people can invent anything.”

Conflicts are resolved faster through the arbitration system than in court, decreasing the risk of disputants resorting to violence, said Hermann.

“An alternative dispute settlement system is valuable in a situation where there’s no law enforcement. If you can’t get your rights through the courts, this is more easily applied,” she added.

As Yemen goes to the polls in presidential and local elections on 20 September, hopes are high that violent election-related incidents in the run-up are not repeated.

“What we’d dearly love to see is free, fair and peaceful elections,” said Pansieri at the peace day celebration. “Yemen has chosen the democratic route, to discuss differences in peace and find peaceful solutions.”

vj/ed