The Southern Transitional Council’s Crackdown on Civic Space

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The Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist political organization in southern Yemen backed by the United Arab Emirates, has been complicit in numerous human rights violations. The STC was officially formed on 11 May 2017, a couple of weeks after Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, the current head of STC, was dismissed by presidential decree due to his closeness to the Emirates.

Given the link between STC and the UAE, its crackdown on civic space unfortunately comes as no surprise. Both Yemen and the UAE are considered closed countries by Civicus, an organization dedicated to citizen action and its monitoring. According to the 2023 report by Civicus, Yemen and the UAE respectively scored 12 and 15 out of 100, both extremely low scores demonstrating the severity of the situation. Furthermore, according to the 2024 Freedom House report, Yemen has an abysmal record of freedom of assembly and does not allow nongovernmental organizations to operate freely.

In the STC’s seven years of power, it has committed multiple actions to restrict the civic space. Unlike the UAE, Yemen has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), meaning that it has certain legal obligations. Articles 19 and 21 of the Covenant respectively state that everyone has the right to express their opinions freely and that there must be the right to freedom of assembly. On the other hand, the 1991 Constitution of Yemen does not accord such protection of rights, given that it does not guarantee the right of peaceful assembly unless first agreed upon with the Ministry of Interior. This dissonance between national and international legislation is very stark, leaving space for the STC to legally, yet unjustly, suppress these rights.

In September 2020, the STC forces that had taken over the Yemeni island of Socotra in June used live fire to suppress protests against their presence in the region. This act not only restricted the freedoms of expression and assembly but also did so violently. Despite the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials stating that “law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force” to disperse non-violent assemblies, Yemen does not have such a principle in its legislation.

In addition to attacks on assemblies, STC has also interfered with the freedom of expression of journalists. In February 2023, STC forces expelled the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate from its Aden headquarters and handed the building to a rival group, the Southern Media and Journalists’ Syndicate. This is an extremely grave matter as it exemplifies the suppression of freedom of speech and attempts to control the media. This interference is in direct violation of Article 19 of the ICCPR and will further the spread of misinformation. As a result, the international community may be kept in the dark about any violations occurring in Southern Yemen.

More recently, on 26 May 2024, the STC and the Southern Women Union unlawfully took over the Yemeni Women Union Center in Aden. During this violent break-in, security cameras were broken, and the locks were changed to obstruct any previous staff and women from entering. The blockage is detrimental to the well-being of women as they no longer have a safe haven. Without the shelter women are at higher risk of gender-based violence, meaning that the STC is breaching Yemen’s commitment to protecting women’s rights under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Amnesty International has rightly called on the STC authorities to withdraw from the space, which ECDHR seconds.

The STC’s violations must not be underestimated as the crackdown on the civic space negatively impacts the protection of human rights in the southern region of Yemen. The political organization must leave both the headquarters of the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate and the Yemeni Women Union Center to ensure it is respecting its duties under ICCPR and CEDAW. Furthermore, it must immediately cease its crackdown on civic space and allow for the freedom of assembly.