Go back

Rule of law, justice and accountability

Perceptions of the Quality of the Rule of Law

In addition to asking about current and future priorities, the surveys focused on a range of inter-connected issues: the meaning of reconciliation; questions of compensation, accountability and justice; the state of the rule of law; and key state institutions. 

Perhaps the least surprising finding in all but one governorate was in response to the question about the quality of the rule of law in the respondent’s area: more than 40 per cent gave the lowest grade possible (poor) and in none of these governorates did more than 25 per cent indicate any degree of approval of or satisfaction with the quality of the rule of law (Figure 2). In Aden, Shabwah, Hajjah and Al-Dhale’e, approximately 60 per cent gave the lowest grade. The crisis of confidence in the quality of the rule of law in these governorates is profound. The findings in Ma’rib contrasted starkly with the other eight governorates: over 70 per cent assessed the quality of the rule of law as good, very good or excellent. Still, at least 50 per cent of survey respondents across seven of the governorates, including 67 per cent in Shabwah and 66 per cent in Al-Dhale’e, perceive the judiciary as the best vehicle for achieving justice. In Sana’a, only 38 per cent of respondents displayed the same level of trust in the judiciary.

The lack of rule of law has had a knock-on effect on other facets of Yemenis’ lives. This was strongly reflected in the survey results related to political and/or economic marginalisation. Survey respondents in all nine governorates felt there was political and/or economic marginalisation on a regional basis. In seven governorates, over three-quarters of respondents shared this option; in Aden and Al-Dhale’e it was as high as 88 per cent. Somewhat lower numbers were reported in Al-Hodeidah (68 per cent) and Ma’rib (59 per cent). According to the survey respondents, strengthening the rule of law would be the primary means of addressing political and economic marginalisation across all nine governorates. In Sana’a, the majority of respondents considered this the preferred means. 

Figure 4. Ways to Address Political or Economic Marginalisation, Top Three Answers per Governorate

Focus group participants from Al-Dhale’e also highlighted the problems of marginalisation, exclusion, corruption and regionalism, which they said are the main root causes for the tragedies and injustices experienced by the South in general and Al-Dhale’e in particular since the 1990 unification and 1994 war that followed.

During the interviews, focus group discussions and community dialogues, study participants were able to convey in more depth how the poor quality of the rule of law had affected their governorates. In Aden, for instance, focus group participants shed light on serious issues pertaining to land and property looting within the governorate. Participants in a community dialogue conference in Al-Hodeidah maintained that law enforcement is key to ensuring equal opportunities for leadership positions, jobs and distribution of wealth amongst the different factions there. Focus group participants from Sana’a suggested concentrating on citizens’ rights and needs as a first step towards achieving peace. Enhancing law enforcement and the overall quality of the rule of law in Yemen, as well as reducing corruption, were thus seen as factors that would immensely help improve overall conditions across all governorates. 

Justice and Accountability

In countries emerging from war, there is often a strong demand for justice among those who have suffered directly. There is also often a chasm between the demand for justice and the perceptions among those demanding it about the quality of the rule of law and the state’s judicial institutions. One way of understanding this gap is that the pressing and urgent demand for justice does not mean that people expect it will happen.  This seems to be part of the picture that emerges on views about accountability.

Although tribal traditions remain strong in some parts of Yemen, there is little or no support across all nine governorates for the idea that human rights violations should be addressed through traditional customs and traditions, even in governorates with a historically strong tribal tradition and presence such as Al-Maharah and Ma’rib. Participants in the focus groups in Ma’rib, however, highlighted that it is possible to benefit from tribal customs and the assistance of sheikhs to support the achievement of reconciliation and justice, but that priority should be given to building and reinforcing state institutions and the judiciary to achieve accountability in an impartial and depoliticised manner. 

In all governorates, respondents considered the judiciary to be the primary avenue to achieve justice. In Shabwah, Aden, Al-Maharah and Al-Dhale’e over 60 per cent of participants indicated that normal criminal courts should handle any violations. The role of the criminal justice system in Taiz, Al-Hodeidah, Ma’rib and Hajjah was viewed with slightly less enthusiasm, however; around 50 per cent endorsed this option. In Sana’a only 38 per cent of respondents consider the judiciary the preferred vehicle for justice; community accountability was a close second with the support of 32 per cent of respondents. 

The idea of community (rather than traditional tribal) accountability processes attracted significant interest in five other governorates besides Sana’a (Shabwah, Al-Maharah, Aden, Al-Hodeidah and Ma’rib); in Al-Hodeidah, almost 30 per cent indicated that this was the most appropriate way to address violations. In Al-Maharah, Aden and Ma’rib around 20 per cent of respondents favoured this idea. Overall, there was relatively little appetite for the idea of establishing special committees to address serious violations. Only in Al-Hodeidah did more than a quarter of survey respondents demonstrate significant interest in this idea. Establishing special committees was the second-most preferred option in Taiz (19 per cent) and Al-Dhale’e (13 per cent) with quite low levels of support. 

On the one hand, a large portion of interviewees in Shabwah, Al-Maharah and Aden supported holding violators accountable for their actions, but did not believe Yemen’s current judicial system is capable of doing so. Sana’a focus group participants highlighted that the judiciary is being used as a political tool in the current conflict. They called for fair and transparent trials, as well as the release of all detainees, abductees and prisoners. On the other hand, some focus group participants from Shabwah and interviewees from Aden seemed to fear that holding the violators accountable might prolong the war and complicate the reconciliation process. There was no consensus among interview, focus group and community dialogue participants across the different governorates on what type of institution or body should address the violations. 

Interview, focus group and community dialogue participants across governorates expressed an interest in transitional justice, specifying the need for context-specific mechanisms. Focus group participants from Al-Dhale’e, for instance, believed Yemen requires transitional justice to move from a state of war to peace, but emphasised that its shape and design should be agreed upon after consulting with all Yemeni factions, and that its success requires international supervision of its implementation. In Taiz, interviewees perceived transitional justice as a prerequisite for reconciliation and a tool to prevent future violations. Focus group and community dialogue participants in Aden even pointed out that a failure to implement transitional justice mechanisms in previous conflicts, especially in the South, has led to the current lack of sustainable peace and failed reconciliation. According to focus group participants from Ma’rib, implementing transitional justice mechanisms will be necessary in order for any proposed political peace agreement and initiatives to be accepted by the broader society, especially among citizens affected by the war.

Focus group participants in Al-Maharah believed there was a long way to go before any transitional justice mechanisms can be implemented. Focus group participants from Aden similarly noted that it would be necessary to reform state institutions to create a suitable environment for their implementation. There was a wide variety of understandings and suggestions in discussions of what transitional justice could entail. In both the focus groups in Taiz and the community dialogues in Al-Maharah, participants suggested that those who are convicted of violations should be barred from holding public office. Community dialogue participants in Aden and focus group participants in Ma’rib and Sana’a suggested creating special and independent committees to investigate the facts. Community dialogue participants in Aden also highlighted the need for advocacy on human rights issues, and supported the creation of national mechanisms offering redress for victims of the war and reparations for those affected. In Sana’a and Hajjah, community dialogue participants stipulated that transitional justice is only possible after trust in the rule of law has been established.

Identifying those Responsible for Violations

Respondents clearly hold the Houthis responsible for rights violations during the conflict in seven out of nine governorates (Ma’rib, Al-Dhale’e, Shabwah, Al-Hodeidah, Al-Maharah, Taiz and Aden). In Sana’a and Hajjah, the Saudi-led coalition was identified as the lead, followed by the Houthis (Table 5). 

Table 5. Responsible Parties for Violations, by Governorate

GovernorateHouthisSTCSaudi-led coalitionUnidentified militiasTerrorist organisationsGovernment forcesOther

During the consultations, Houthi assaults on Ma’rib intensified; in this governorate, the highest number of respondents (60 per cent) identified the Houthis as the primary perpetrators. Also in Ma’rib, the STC ranked second (22 per cent) and was named more often than in any other governorate. The surveys revealed that the lowest rate at which the Houthis were seen as perpetrators was in Sana’a (22 per cent). In Al-Hodeidah, almost 48 per cent identified the Houthis as responsible; the Saudi-led coalition followed with a significant 32 per cent. Al-Hodeidah stands out from the other governorates in this regard as a conflict ostensibly between these two sides. 

The Saudi-led coalition was also seen as a significant contributor to rights violations, in second place (21 per cent) after the Houthis (39 per cent) in Al-Maharah; significant but much less attribution was spread among a number of other actors including unidentified militias, terrorist groups, and the STC. This is interesting, as the Houthis never reached Al-Maharah, and the governorate generally has not witnessed large-scale battles, but it seems the war has impacted local residents and influenced perceptions of which party could be the main perpetrator of human rights violations.

While the Houthis were identified as the leading offender in seven governorates by plurality, the issue is not simple. Although the respondents named individual groups of perpetrators, many of these are/were to varying degrees part of the same alliance and/or in the same political and military camp. For instance, although the Houthis were fought off and expelled from Shabwah, over 27 per cent of the participants surveyed from the governorate attributed responsibility for violations to government forces and the Saudi-led coalition – slightly less than those identifying the Houthis as responsible. In Taiz, Aden and Al-Dhale’e, the additional actors named besides the Houthis were the STC, government forces, the Saudi-led coalition, terrorist organisations and militias. In all three governorates, the combined numbers for those four groups were greater than the total attributing responsibility to the Houthis. In short, while it may seem logical to expect people to name a single actor as the main perpetrator in certain areas, many people believe several different actors are responsible for violations and atrocities. 

It is a complex picture, and one in which people seek to make clear allegations about who is responsible, and for what. The responses of the interviewees from Hajjah, for instance, on who they believe is responsible for violations seemed to vary according to their affiliation and bias towards various parties to the conflict. IRGY supporters held the Houthis responsible for certain violations, while those belonging to the Houthi group held the Saudi-led coalition and IRGY who launched an ‘aggression’ in the governorate responsible for the same violations. 

Across governorates, people held unidentified militias and armed groups responsible for some violations. This is a consequence of the splintering effect of the war, whereby the absence of a central government has led to largely ungoverned spaces that provide a perfect ecosystem for the proliferation of armed groups and militias in addition to the main conflict parties.

Approximately half of the participants in the surveys administered in Al-Dhale’e, Ma’rib and Sana’a responded that they, members of their family, or people they know were subjected to human rights violations, with even higher rates in Hajjah (68.5 per cent) and Taiz (58.1 per cent). These governorates were hit hard by the conflict and continue to experience varying degrees of active fighting. 

A significant number of survey respondents across governorates (72–86 per cent) did not report human rights violations. In Taiz, interviewees cited the frequency of such violations, which they said were committed by all parties to the conflict (not just the Houthis), as one of the reasons why they did not report them. In Shabwah, interviewees specifically cited mistrust of institutions as the reason for not reporting violations. In Sana’a, Hajjah and Al-Dhale’e many interviewees mentioned that they were content with documenting and sharing information through (social) media. Despite the lack of reporting, however, most interviewees across the nine governorates agreed that it is important to document such violations in order to prevent their recurrence and help enhance the prospects for peace and reconciliation. Yet some interviewees, in Aden for instance, cautioned that documenting violations would hamper peace efforts and prevent Yemenis from ‘turning a page on the past’. Several interviewees in Ma’rib and Al-Dhale’e suggested the contrary. Again, this reveals a complex picture that depends on the local context.