A Yemeni man recently phoned me about two relatives who have been secretly detained for more than a year in southern Yemen. He hoped that international attention—notably in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United States—could help him find out where his loved ones were being held and why.
When we met in the port city of Aden, the man revealed that he, too, had been detained by UAE-backed Yemeni forces. He said he was imprisoned for several months without knowing why he was being held. His captors beat him repeatedly and gave him electric shocks. His focus now was split between worry for his missing relatives and for the men and boys who had been detained with him.
Over the last six months, my organization, Human Rights Watch, has documented dozens of cases of abuse in informal detention facilities and secret prisons in parts of Yemen controlled by the internationally recognized government. These include prolonged arbitrary detention, torture, and forced disappearances, the vast majority carried out by UAE-backed Yemeni forces, purportedly in the name of countering terror.
One man who had taken part in protests over the disappearances in his region explained to me the fear many families felt after their brothers, sons or fathers were taken away in the middle of the night, families who often then sought and failed to find answers as to where their relatives were being held, why or if they would be released. At one protest, he told me: “There were small kids saying, ‘Release our dads.’ We were writing on the posters that we are against terrorism, but terrorism is also taking people in this way.”
On June 22, Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, took a tentative step toward providing Yemenis whose loved ones have been forcibly disappeared or arbitrarily detained the answers and accountability they seek. He issued Decree No. 115, which establishes a committee to investigate reports of abuse, make recommendations, and develop means to address similar issues in the future.
Yemen has been engulfed by a devastating war for more than two years. In late 2014, the Houthi armed group and forces loyal to former longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh took over the capital, Sanaa. President Hadi eventually fled to Saudi Arabia.
In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition that included the UAE, and is militarily supported by the United States, began an aerial and ground campaign in support of President Hadi. The coalition has carried out scores of unlawful airstrikes, hitting schools, markets, homes, and hospitals, often with U.S.-made weapons.
The war has driven Yemen, already the poorest nation in the Middle East, toward humanitarian catastrophe, with both parties impeding aid delivery. Millions of people are on the brink of famine and an unprecedented cholera outbreak is ravaging the country.
Civilians in these areas have been subjected to a parade of horrors including disappearances and torture. We have documented such abuses by Houthi-Saleh forces, which control large parts of Yemen’s north. The UAE, which leads coalition efforts in southern and eastern Yemen, along with UAE-backed forces and forces aligned with the Hadi government, has disappeared dozens, used secret prisons, and abused people including children in areas they control.
The United States has closely supported the UAE’s military. According to a recent report by the Associated Press, it has interrogated UAE-held prisoners in Yemen, shared questions with UAE officials, and read transcripts from their interrogations. As UAE’s ally, the United States should have immediately called upon it to cooperate with the new Yemeni committee and grant access to all detention facilities.
The Yemeni committee could be an important starting point for curbing rampant abuses by UAE and UAE-backed forces, as well as forces aligned with the Hadi government, during security operations. It could also be an important sign from the Hadi government that it is beginning to take allegations of abuse against its own citizens seriously—even when those abuses are committed by its own forces or by its allies in the Saudi-led coalition.
Unfortunately, the Hadi government has given the committee a 15-day deadline and failed to include representatives of local organizations among the committee’s members. The government has not made clear whether the committee will be given the space to operate independently, to access formal and informal detention facilities, or to recommend prosecutions against the people responsible for abuses.
Bottom line: The committee will only be able to provide helpful answers to worried Yemeni families if the UAE and the United States cooperatively investigate alleged abuses.
Over and over, we heard that UAE officials ordered the continued detention of people despite release orders from parts of the country’s justice system that still functions; ran detention facilities where former detainees were allegedly tortured; provided intel, including lists of names of people to arrest, to Yemeni forces involved in abuses; and allegedly moved high-profile detainees out of the country.
U.S. officials, including Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, have billed the UAE as a “model” counterterrorism partner. Since evidence of UAE abuses and potential U.S. complicity came to light, the Trump Administration has not indicated whether it will investigate the role of U.S. personnel or press the UAE and its allies to desist from torture.
The ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee—Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island—have written Defense Secretary James Mattis calling for an “immediate review of the facts.” Lawmakers should also work to exercise more effective oversight over U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict—by holding investigatory hearings, for example. This is, after all, only the latest revelation regarding possible U.S. complicity in war crimes in Yemen.
Compelling governments to help investigate their own abuses is a hard sell. But the Yemeni committee can at least begin the long process of holding abusers responsible, and demanding concrete action to provide freedom, compensation, and justice for the many Yemenis mistreated in detention. Disappearing dozens of people, ripping families apart, and torturing detainees is neither a lawful nor an effective way to counter an armed opposition.