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Yemen’s “Schoolhouse Rock” vs. the “War on Terror”: A Conversation With Baraa Shiban

Robert Naiman meets with Baraa Shiban, who works for the British human rights group Reprieve, who discusses a proposal to prohibit drone strikes in the country that is now in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference.

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From June 9 to June 18, I visited Yemen as part of a peace delegation organized by Code Pink, seeking to learn about the impact of U.S. drone strike policy in Yemen. We met with Baraa Shiban, who works for the British human rights group Reprieve, and who told us about a proposal in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference – Yemen’s Constitutional Convention, as it were – to prohibit drone strikes in the country. This proposal may be voted on in the next few days. Baraa says he is confident that it will be approved. On Tuesday, June 25, I conducted the following interview with Baraa via Skype. I have edited the interview very slightly for readability.

Robert Naiman: What is Reprieve doing in Yemen?

Baraa Shiban: Reprieve has been working in Yemen for a couple of years now, we started by getting clients especially from some of the families of the some of the Guantanamo detainees – Yemeni detainees inside Guantanamo – and we had a number of clients. A number of them have been released and now we have three Yemeni clients whom Reprieve is representing. The other work Reprieve is working on advocating against the drones policy that has been going on in Yemen especially in the past two years. We try to educate the Yemeni people here, we try to advocate against it, we try to litigate particular cases.

RN: What are your expectations overall for the National Dialogue Conference?

Baraa Shiban: The first thing that everybody is expecting from the National Dialogue is drafting the new constitution and coming out with the main outcomes of what the Yemeni people want for the future. The other thing is facing the main challenges waiting ahead for Yemen. The main thing is bringing all the policymakers, all the political parties together, along with the youth, women and civil society, in order to shape what do they want for the future of Yemen, what is the new political system will be what kind of electoral system are we going to follow and what is the shape of the state, and also what are the polices and what are the new laws that we want to see in the new Yemen.

RN: How did you become a delegate to the National Dialogue Conference?

Baraa Shiban: There were 40 seats for the youth revolution inside the national dialogue. This was the first time where they gave some seats for the youth, the women activists and the civil society, 40 seats for each one. The seats were distributed among all the governorates of the country. I was selected to represent the town I originally come from, Haja, which is northern Sanaa.

RN: Within the conference you participate in the transitional justice committee. That committee has brought forward a proposal that would prohibit drone strikes – prohibit extrajudicial killings in Yemen, including drone strikes. What is this proposal, how did it come about, what do you hope it will achieve?

Baraa Shiban: The proposal specifically states that – criminalizing the killing outside of law, including drone strikes and targeted missiles … We are drafting the new future for the Yemeni people. And it’s very important to see, what are the main demands, what do the Yemeni people want. And it’s very clear that, all the Yemeni people would agree that they don’t want to see drones hovering over their towns and killing people – many of those incidents actually targeted innocent civilians.

We had a meeting with a group of security officials inside the country, including the National Security Bureau. And they very explicitly said, we approve those drones, we also approve the path of those drones, and each strike is getting the approval of the President and the National Security. So this was a very clear statement coming from the National Security inside Yemen, and when we voted about it inside the National Dialogue, it was very clear that all the delegates of the National Dialogue don’t want to see that happening. So we made a very specific law saying we criminalize the use of drones or targeted missiles for killing outside of law by all means or even having illegal detentions for very long time without any trial. So if there is any criminal act or any terrorism act inside the country, they have to follow the law and order. Every person has the right to a free trial, and have a judge and have a lawyer, and if he is convicted then he is punished by law, not droning them without any conviction, without any prosecution, without any trial.

RN: What has happened so far with this proposal in terms of the internal process of the National Dialogue? There are different levels of approval, criteria for approval.

Baraa Shiban: In order for a law to be approved by the National Dialogue, there are stages. First of all the subcommittee which is very specifically discussing this issue should all agree on issuing such a law. The second level is that members of the transitional justice team, which consists of eighty members, should also agree on that law. And when I say that we reach an agreement, I mean that we have to reach an agreement, not less than 90% of the votes. And we managed to get that.

The third level is to get it approved by the general assembly, which consists of 565 delegates. Very specifically this law didn’t get any rejection from the delegates. And it was very clear that we managed to get an agreement on issuing such a law, so the only thing we will be waiting (for) will be that the coming week, the law will be submitted for all the delegates, and to get a final approval, and if we manage to get that then it will be a law by the end of the national dialogue, which is the 18th of September.

RN: When do you expect that vote to take place?

Baraa Shiban: According to the schedule that was announced today [Tuesday, June 25 –RN] by the National Dialogue presidency we’re supposed to have voting Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the coming week [July 1-3]. And I’m very confident that this law will pass.

RN: I understand that after the National Dialogue Conference has completed its proposal another committee of experts is supposed to turn your document into legal language, preparing a draft constitution.

Baraa Shiban: The laws that faced some rejections or comments inside the general assembly are the laws we’re supposed to change before the voting. But it was very clear in presenting the report of the Transitional Justice [committee] that this specific law got quite a consensus inside the general assembly, and almost everybody agreed. I’m very confident that it will pass, because everyone, even all of the political parties, regardless of their political affiliation, would disagree on many things, but they were very clearly agreeing on this specific subject.

RN: In particular, my sense was that even delegates to the National Dialogue Conference from the ruling party, from the President’s party, are supporting this provision.

Baraa Shiban: Yeah, exactly.

RN: The day I visited the National Dialogue Conference there was a speech from a parliamentarian from the ruling party who denounced the drone strike policy very harshly.

Baraa Shiban: Of course. That’s what we’re actually counting on. In many other topics all the political parties would disagree and would have their conflicts. And we would have to reach into some sort of a dialogue before drafting any decision. But I can very clearly tell you that this specific law didn’t get almost any rejection from any delegate – most of them supported that this law should pass ASAP.

RN: So what happens on September 18?

Baraa Shiban: September 18 is the last day of the National Dialogue. So we expect the laws to be implemented, or technically that’s the day when all the laws would be on the ground level.

RN: So is it your understanding that all of these proposals will be implemented by September 18? Or is it the case that – I spoke with a senior political advisor to the UN representative to the conference. He was saying that things agreed by the national dialogue conference would be – first of all this draft constitution would have a process of approval, there will be a referendum, but also that the things decided by the National Dialogue would be implemented by the next government, not this current “transitional” government.

Baraa Shiban: Yeah, of course, it’s exactly I think as the advisor told you. So by September 18, they start saying that these are the laws that came out of the National Dialogue. Those are the policies, the laws, the constitutional amendments that the delegates agreed upon inside the National Dialogue. And the government should start working on them. Then we will have a referendum, of course. And after the referendum would be parliamentary elections.

I don’t expect that somehow, magically, drones will stop hovering by just issuing such a law. But it is important even if it’s by papers, it is very important that the Yemeni people would say we are against the use of drones and killing outside of the law.

RN: And when do you expect the referendum to be and when do you expect parliamentary elections to be?

Baraa Shiban: Well, this is a matter of things that are not quite clear. According to the GCC Initiative, the parliamentary elections should be by February 2014, although I’m not sure that we have enough time to finish all the work until 2014. And before that should be a referendum. I’m personally expecting that there will be an extension for the transitional period. There will be appointing new dates for both the referendum and the parliamentary elections.

RN: So we don’t know exactly when this will take place but is it a reasonable guess that even if this is delayed it will be a matter of months? We’re not talking about elections happening in 2015?

Baraa Shiban: That’s actually still not clear. Will they just say delay for a few months? Or will they say let’s delay it for one year? We’re still waiting. I cannot now give any clear answer and predict what time exactly will be the coming elections.

RN: So supposing that this proposal passes, becomes part of the constitution, the constitution is approved, so this is a law that the incoming government has to implement. What do you think about the idea of saying that this kind of imposes a timetable on the U.S. government and the Yemeni government to end the drone strikes, to end direct U.S. military action in Yemen, it kind of imposes a horizon after which the new Yemeni government would be completely responsible for security in the country, and whatever the U.S. is doing would be supporting the Yemeni government, not undertaking direct military action?

Part of why I offer this image is that it’s similar to something that Americans are familiar with in another context. We have this war in Afghanistan, and right now there is a timetable, under which the United States is supposed to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan government, and no longer be taking direct military action, and it so happens that that timetable is the end of 2014. And so it would seem that this process is maybe creating something similar in Yemen, that there’s some kind of line beyond which the United States should not be – in fact is not allowed – to take direct military action in Yemen, is only allowed to do things that help the new Yemeni government exercise responsibility for security in the country.

Baraa Shiban: Part of the work of the Transitional Justice team is to set a clear strategy on the methods of countering terrorism and finding other alternatives other than drones in the coming period and start putting a timetable on how and when all the steps of the strategy will be followed. That’s something we still have to work on in the second phase of the National Dialogue. And after that we will have to follow the implementation process by both the President and the new government coming after the elections.

RN: One thing that many people in the United States might not be aware of – many probably never heard of the National Dialogue process, but even those that may have heard of it, may not realize that the United States government is a key partner in this process. Countries like the United States and Saudi Arabia have sponsored this process, there’s a UN Security Council resolution, so arguably it would be politically awkward – hopefully, to say the least – for the United States to try to ignore something that’s coming out of this democratic process that the United States is a guarantor of.

Baraa Shiban: The United States very clearly funds the National Dialogue, and it funds it to the tune of millions of dollars. And this is a process that the United States Administration has been so much supportive of, for the past two years saying that Yemen should be going to a national dialogue. Now the real question is, will the United States respect the outcomes of the National Dialogue and respect the will and desires of the Yemeni people, especially when it’s something very sensitive coming to the counterterrorism methods, or will it say no, we have our own method, and the Yemeni people should adopt it, regardless of what are the needs and what are the realities facing the Yemeni people.

It was very clear in the past few years that the United States support was mainly directed into the Department of Defense inside the country and was overseeing the counterterrorism units and of course the drones policy, where I think they did a pretty good job on bringing [President} Hadi on to their side, to support those drones hovering over the heads of the Yemeni people.

But now it’s different in that the decision came back to the Yemeni people and to the delegates inside the National Dialogue who are representing now all the sectors of the Yemeni society. And the question is will the Yemeni President, Hadi, and the U.S. Administration respect the desires and the decisions made by the Yemeni people.

RN: There’s a perception that the activity of the U.S. government in Yemen now is tremendously focused on military counterterrorism at the expense of what many people – in fact, including, according to rhetoric, the U.S. government – say are the long term solutions to these issues – development, addressing unemployment, poverty, education, governance, democracy, government capacity building.

Baraa Shiban: I would totally agree when we say about what are the counterterrorism methods followed in Yemen in our day – the perfect way to really fight, to face terrorism ideologies inside the country. In fact, in my work in this field for quite some time, I found out that many of the people who would work with Al Qaeda or other militants inside the country don’t really agree with the ideologies of those people. Actually they come from the perspective that the United States is droning us, they’re killing innocent civilians, in many instances those drones have killed women and children. And those militants are the only ones saying very clearly that we’re fighting them. So it’s just an idea of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

The right approach is the development process, in fact this might be the only approach to fight such ideologies inside the country.
With a drone missile striking a village, and killing people there – this one missile costs sixty thousand dollars. And in one strike, you don’t use one missile. You use maybe three to five missiles to kill one suspect. Here we’re talking about three hundred thousand [dollars], and this is a lot of money inside Yemen. You can build a very good level of school education system inside this village. And this is how you’d fight such an ideology. You can have the government build a hospital here. Or a school. Teach the young kids. Not just drone them and kill them and expect that … no one would start challenging those drones and challenging the U.S. Administration policy inside the country.

RN: I wanted to ask you about something that Ambassador Feierstein said to us when we met with him at the beginning of our week in Yemen. He told me that there are no signature drone strikes in Yemen, that’s something that’s happening in Pakistan. But in Yemen we know for sure every single person that we’re hitting, we know who they are.

Baraa Shiban: What about the strike that took place [garbled] it was all civilian villagers who had nothing to do with militants. This was a very clear signature strike. And what are the drones doing hovering and surveying over the villages day and night now inside the village? This is a very clear indication of a signature strike. And in the draft that Obama signed in the beginning of 2012, it clearly states that they’re going to have signature strikes inside the country starting from the beginning of 2012. And that’s why we had so many strikes in 2012. And in fact the number of strikes that took place in 2012 are more than all the strikes that took place since 2002 inside the country. And this is because of the signature strikes, we don’t have that much of targets inside the country.

RN: The Skype connection went bad at the beginning of your last answer, you were speaking about a particular strike.

Baraa Shiban: In August 2012 a strike took place in a very poor village inside Rada governorate. It’s a governorate right in the middle in Yemen. And all the people who were killed were innocent civilians, not even one militant was killed in that strike. And that was a very clear indication of a signature strike, because the drones have been hovering and surveying that area for over a month before, and then the strike took place.

And I was saying that the signature strikes come after a very long period of surveillance. And this is what’s happening now, as we speak, inside the villages of Yemen. Drones are hovering day and night, just taking information for a possible coming signature strike.

RN: We met with a [Western] journalist working in Yemen who was talking about the dynamics in the South, in these villages where Ansar al-Sharia has come in and the relationship with the villagers, and the counter U.S. policy of creating these so-called “popular committees,” if I have the name right, which are kind of like militias. As this journalist described it, these so-called “popular committees” are very controversial because they’re seen by many people as an unaccountable militia – warlords that prey upon the people. And in fact, that in some communities, one of the reasons that Ansar al-Sharia was able to make inroads in the first place with the people was that they perceived them as protectors from warlordism and criminality, and many people perceive that what the U.S. and the Yemeni governments are doing is bringing back the warlords. I said to this reporter, “sounds like Afghanistan,” and she said, “It’s exactly like Afghanistan.”

Baraa Shiban: The “public committees” that were used against what they called Ansar al-Sharia in 2012 – most of those people helped Ansar al-Sharia to get inside those governorates in the first place. After they had a disagreement after the Ansar al-Sharia took over some cities, they found another way to get income from the Yemeni government and the American government. So they can first of all kick Ansar al-Sharia outside of those cities, and then keep on living – they now have a main source of income coming from the government under the name of we are protecting the people here. While in fact what is supposed to happen is that police should enter, the army should enter, and not just leave it to “public committees.”

RN: What’s the path for creating government in these areas of Yemen where government hasn’t existed, including local police?

Baraa Shiban: This is a question we should ask the Minister of Interior and the Ministry of Defense, why there’s still no presence of the government until today. The other thing we should ask the government, when will the government be going to those cities and start providing the basic services? Unfortunately people only see the government when they see military, this is how they would witness and feel like there is a government. But what about the basic services? This is the approach I think the government should start following in those governorates if we want to support the rule of law inside all of Yemen. People should feel the presence of the government by the presence of the demands and the basic services to the people.

RN: When we met with Ambassador Feierstein we asked him about compensating civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes. He said this is happening, but it happens through the Yemeni government, and this is the way that the Yemeni government prefers it. When we were in Aden, and met with –

Baraa Shiban: To be honest I haven’t heard of any procedure compensating those people. In fact, the people who died in al-Madyar in 2009 haven’t been compensated until today. The people who died in Rada, although the government admitted that it was a mistake, haven’t received any compensation until today. So I don’t know what compensation process he’s talking about.

RN: When we were in Aden, and met with the families of drone strike victims, we asked about this, they said, nobody’s compensated us. They said there is some government program which compensates people if their houses are destroyed, gives them money to rebuild the house. But there’s no government program that compensates people if their family members are killed or injured, including the issue of medical care. Has there been any discussion of this issue in the National Dialogue?

Baraa Shiban: I’m part of the committee, the Transitional Justice committee, and part of our work is to work on the compensation process for the people who were affected in the previous conflicts. And part of our work is to start revising if there were any compensation programs that were implemented by the government so we don’t start from scratch. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any compensation programs started by the government. There has been talk about compensating for the people who lost their homes inside Abyan. But also that program is being implemented very, very slowly. A lot of people, until today, although it has been more than a year since the war happened in Abyan, and their homes haven’t been rebuilt until today. So, again, I don’t know what compensation program he’s talking about.

RN: Many people in the United States are hearing about these policies for the first time. What is the most important thing you would want Americans to know about the situation in Yemen now and U.S. government policy there?

Baraa Shiban: What I want the American people to know is that the policies followed by the American administration inside Yemen are not helping the safety and security of the Yemeni people, in fact they’re making it worse.

The drone program, especially what happened in 2012 and 2013, has caused a lot of pain and a lot of frustration and anger towards the American government from the Yemeni people like never before.

It was the first time we feel – we feel the presence of the American government, but unfortunately not by development projects, but by drones hovering and killing innocent people.

We would tell them just imagine if you have a mother or a child, who has been killed by a drone strike, because there is a possible threat that there might be a militant inside your village.

How would that feel?

This is now a continuous life for the Yemeni people, this is something that is happening day and night.

This is actually not helping the Yemeni government nor the American government.

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