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Some Yemeni Ideas About Human Rights

Sheila Carapico

Yemeni intellectuals voiced human rights concerns throughout the twentieth century. Of course, as elsewhere, the early incarnations of a human rights movement in this most populous corner of Arabia did not use the term huquq al-insan (human rights), popularized only in the 1990s. Moreover, the emphasis was consistently on limiting arbitrary governance and justice. Still, Yemenis tackled issues such as social equality, popular participation, judicial autonomy, due process, prison conditions, and intellectual freedom, among others. This chapter explores how a fragmented yet tenacious intellectual movement grounded in indigenous political culture produced writings intended to breach authoritarianism for over half a century. Contemporary Yemeni human rights activism draws on Arab and/or Islamic precedents and texts to articulate many of the principles expressed in international covenants. Concepts of human rights surfaced as intellectuals, jurists, and other political elites challenged tyranny and oppression, often in ways affected by Yemen’s geographic position at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and the Arab world, but always with reference to indigenous religious and societal values. Far from being some sort of alien Western construct superimposed on a Muslim Arab context, values now referred to collectively as human rights are deeply woven into Yemeni political culture and scholarship.

Rights are claims individuals or groups make on states. It is useful to distinguish positive from negative rights, as in ‘‘freedom to’’ and “protection against.’’ Political and civil rights, also known as citizen rights, first-generation rights, or bourgeois liberties, are often distinguished from the so-called second-generation or social and economic rights. The

evolution of rights in Europe began when an emerging bourgeoisie

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asserted privileges previously enjoyed only by the aristocracy. Eventually citizen rights became a cornerstone of the ‘‘social contract’’ between governments and the people they ruled, and complex codes evolved to guarantee freedoms of expression, participation, association, and the like, as well as protections against arbitrary justice or cruel treatment. These rights, then, are firmly entrenched in Euro-American political philosophy, and were the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued after World War II and the covenants affirming socioeconomic and collective rights of workers, women, and other social groups brought before the world in the 1960s and 1970s by socialist and Third World governments. These themes found their way into Yemeni writing and activism about the same time.

Even before the infamous Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal, many Arabs rightly pointed to a double standard applied by Westerners to human rights abuses in the Middle East. European colonial sermons about human dignity and nonviolence masked sometimes ruthless practices. During the cold war era, officials, media, and independent groups in the United States and other NATO countries lambasted human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Republic of (South) Yemen, and other states of socialist orientation, often simultaneously overlooking egregious offenses committed by friends and allies of the West. Yet all the while intellectuals and activists in Africa, Asia, Central Europe, and Latin America clamored for legal protections, political freedoms, and other rights. Apparent victories by rights activists from Moscow to Manila and from Berlin to Buenos Aires in the late 1980s and early 1990s emboldened journalists, attorneys, teachers, and others around the world. In the last decade of the twentieth century, there was a deepening and widening of the international consensus on the universality of moral claims to basic protections and freedoms even as neoconservatives in the Arab world triumphed over a discredited Arab socialism. As we will see, in vociferous debates on good governance, Yemenis teased anticolonial, socialist, and liberal internationalist messages from the Arabic classics in which they were trained even as their own national history—British colonialism followed by Marxist revolution in the South and very gradual modernization in the North, culminating in unification in 1990—echoed world politics.

Perhaps the most salient fin-de-siecle challenge to the universalization of human rights came from some Islamic leaders and thinkers who rejected international norms as another form of Occidental political and cultural interference.1 Variously known as jihadi or salafi, these Muslim scholars that claimed human rights as understood in the West is antithetical to Islam. Such ‘‘rejectionists,’’ as a prominent Yemeni human

rights advocate calls them,2 falsely claim to speak for all Muslims. Both

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Western cultural essentialists and Islamist rejectionists typically frame the disjuncture in terms of a sort of universal Islamic law discerned from selected passages in the Qur’an, the Hadith, and various fatwa on shari'a, with such particular emphasis on dissonant matters of corporal punishment and family law that larger commonalities in ideas of justice and fairness are obscured. Less attention is given to Arab Muslim scholars, jurists, journalists, and others whose works have defined, debated, and asserted legal and moral rights throughout the twentieth century. Some observers both in the Arab world and abroad automatically assume that human rights considerations are a product of Western influence. This chapter traces some of the high points in the development of a human rights consciousness in a corner of the Arabian Peninsula relatively insulated from Western influence since the British left Aden. My focus is on the exposition of human rights concepts and reasoning in some well-known Arabic documents and manuscripts by prominent Yemeni scholars, jurists, and politicians. The articulation of human rights concepts does not translate automatically into implementation, of course, but is nonetheless probably an important prerequisite.

Although the Ottomans established a few schools in North Yemen and the British trained some Adenis (of Indian or Somali as well as Yemeni parentage) for colonial administration, European educational influence was minimal in southwest Arabia. There were no Christian or colonial colleges, universities, or schools, so the intellectual elite were trained in classical Arabic and Islamic law, literature, and sciences. Even late in the twentieth century, only a fraction of professors, jurists, and writers were Western educated, others having studied in Cairo, Baghdad, Khartoum, Moscow, Prague, Bombay, or Singapore. At Sana’a and Aden Universities and in Yemeni schools, Egyptian, Iraqi, Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Sudanese influences were far more salient in most fields than European or American models. Overall, then, the intellectual conversations were framed in Arabic, with reference to Yemeni, Muslim, Arab legal traditions, informed by perspectives that were international without being Western. These conversations were grounded in the two main Yemeni sectarian traditions, Zaydi Shi’ism (technically, the Hadawi school), based in the large high plateau region around Sana’a, and the Shafi'i (Sunni) sect predominant along the Red Sea and Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean coasts. Many writers referred explicitly or implicitly to the great seventeenth century Yemeni jurist Muhammad ‘Ali al-Shawkani, whose political writings sought the common jurisprudential ground between Shafa’i and Zaydi precepts.3 I take up this conversation in the early twentieth century as Yemeni writers and activists criticized many traditional practices and advanced a series of proposals for ‘‘sacred’’ or ‘‘national’’

charters guaranteeing citizen rights and limiting the powers of govern-

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ments. Although writings and even constitutional declarations were not translated into actual practice, there is evidence of widening and deepening popular support for such a social contract to protect people from government.

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