Arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, torture, land grabbing, extortion, rape: these are just a few of the crimes that Yemeni civilians have suffered during nearly a decade of grinding civil war.
Often, the perpetrators of these abuses are members of nonstate armed groups that have proliferated on all sides of the conflict. These groups operate beyond the reach of Yemeni law—the justice system in much of the country is in shambles, anyway. And they often have no clear command structure. It can seem as if Yemen’s armed groups are completely unaccountable and out of control.
But the situation is not entirely hopeless. During years of fieldwork in Yemen, my research has identified some small but significant ways to persuade armed groups to pay more respect to people’s rights. The formula for nudging armed groups toward better governance could prove useful more widely in Yemen, as the country contemplates a longer freeze to its conflict, and perhaps a permanent ceasefire.
A year after a ceasefire that slowed fighting in the country, it is clear that these nonstate armed groups are not going away. They continue to control weapons, economies, infrastructure, and governance in vast swathes of Yemen.
Yet even as permanent peace and a centralized state remain out of reach, international and local organizations have proven that they can influence armed groups to curb their worst behavior.
Like all armed groups, Yemeni nonstate actors respond to incentives. In particular, these groups seek to preserve their reputations and legitimacy, because those reputations help them control territory and access international support. This international support can be direct, such as military support from benefactor states. It can also be indirect, in the form of international aid that is destined for civilians, which aid groups may reroute if they know an armed group is committing abuses.
A Triple Formula
In a new Century International report, I present evidence based on extensive fieldwork in Yemen that shows how civil society groups, human rights advocates, and international organizations are effectively holding armed groups to account, and reducing their rights violations. (The report focuses only on armed groups in areas where I was able to safely conduct research—in other words, those groups affiliated with Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council, which leads the country’s internationally recognized government. The report does not include research on the Houthis.)
For years, these advocates have documented abuses of civilians, raised awareness about civilians’ rights, and pressured armed groups to hold their own members accountable. Yemen’s influential tribes have also often helped pressure for more accountability, and international organizations have implemented programs to improve armed groups’ adherence to norms. Those efforts have begun to bear fruit.
There is no single pressure point to end armed groups’ abuses—and every group has different incentives. But my research identified a kind of triple formula of interventions that has had measurable success.
First, there are Yemen’s formal accountability mechanisms, such as disciplinary councils, the Ministry of Defense’s Legal Department, the military judiciary, the civilian justice system, and national human rights bodies. Fractured as Yemen’s institutions are, these mechanisms still matter. Where the government has power, they can hold fighters directly accountable. And even beyond the government’s reach, the use of the mechanisms sends a message that the country still has a rule of law, setting the tone, at the least, for government-allied nonstate groups.
International and local organizations have proven that they can influence armed groups to curb their worst behavior.
Second, Yemen has a plethora of informal accountability mechanisms. These include civil society organizations, tribes, social media, and “community committees,” which have a mandate in some areas to promote social cohesion. None of these informal mechanisms has anything like complete coverage in the country, and some of their outcomes can be unpredictable. In Yemen as everywhere, social media can stoke divisions and spread false information almost as easily as it can bring attention to abuses. Yet other mechanisms have real power in certain areas—my research shows, for example, how tribes have stopped isolated violence from erupting into broader conflict. Taken together, informal accountability mechanisms make for a powerful constellation of pressure points that can be used in various measures to influence armed groups.
The international community controls the third class of accountability mechanism: international reports and direct engagement with armed groups. As with the other types of mechanisms, these international efforts can do little, all by themselves, to affect armed groups’ actions. But publications that track abuses can cause armed groups to lose legitimacy with their constituents and their foreign sponsors, making them more open to cooperation with other accountability mechanisms. Further, direct engagement with armed groups can provide crucial training on rights—many fighters have no formal military background, and no knowledge of international norms of conduct.
Better Governance Now
The success of these mechanisms in curbing rights abuses has, admittedly, been patchy and inconsistent. Still, there are documented improvements: security and military commanders in both Aden and Taiz, for example, have recognized that they have a problem with command and control and abuses against civilians, and have requested support to help address these problems. Additionally, there has been a noticeable improvement in the communication between armed actors and civil society. Some armed groups have created human rights bodies or other justice structures that parallel Yemen’s official institutions.
The lesson for international policymakers is clear. Training, resources, and advocacy need to be devoted to this effective formula. Yemen’s beleaguered civilians should not have to wait for a lasting peace to improve the conduct of the armed groups that control so much of their lives.