Summary: Huda al Sarari, a courageous Yemeni lawyer, is the winner of the 2020 Martin Ennals Award.
Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about political, social and economic issues. She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October 2017.
The list of potential war crimes and breaches of international humanitarian law in the Yemeni war is endless. On all sides, mainly in Sana’a [against the Houthis] and in Aden [against the Saudi-led coalition], thousands of people, mostly women, regularly come out into the streets to demand information and release of their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers who have been ‘disappeared,’ or detained without justification in official and unofficial prisons. They all demonstrate enormous courage and determination in the face of unconscionable repression by the militias and ‘authorities’ who control the different parts of the country. Daily, they risk their lives and liberty. Women, in a very conservative society which severely punishes any public breaches of the morality code are further subjected to public insults and defamation campaigns which can lead to ostracism and exclusion from their families and social circles.
The secret prisons and torture centres run by United Arab Emirates forces and the Yemeni groups answering to them qualify among the most outrageous attacks on human rights. To retain what was left of their positive public image in the world, UAE authorities have done their best to keep these activities secret while continuing to detain and torture. In this context a woman lawyer who systematically takes cases of disappeared individuals demonstrates extraordinary strength and determination. The risks she takes on a daily basis are enormous. Such a woman is Huda al-Sarari who has just received international recognition, winning the 2020 Martin Ennals Award, a major international human rights honour. The Adeni lawyer was a significant, if not fundamental, source for the 2017 Human Rights Watch, Associated Press, and Amnesty International reports revealing the existence of UAE secret prisons in Yemen and of the ill treatment and torture suffered by detainees. Al-Sarari has investigated and documented more than 250 cases of abuse in these detention centres. Her work has been a major contributor to publicising these disgraceful actions: as she said, of the UAE “I am a mother who lost her child and has seen the Emirates in action. This is not a country you want to stain your name with.” (Her 17 year old son Mohsen was shot and killed in Aden last year while participating in a human rights protest.)
In addition to her direct involvement as a lawyer, she helped to set up the Union of Mothers of Abductees in Aden, which is a parallel organisation to a similarly named one in Sana’a. Her exposure of these cases and her systematic and determined support for the women demonstrating daily for the liberation of their relatives have earned her the hostility of powerful local agents of the UAE and of UAE officials themselves. Her work helped to achieve the release of 260 men, though thousands are still held.
The Martin Ennals Award, one of the world’s most prestigious human rights prizes, recognises her bravery and the impact of her work and is an important encouragement for others. Hans Thoolen, Chair of the Martin Ennals Award Jury, in bestowing the award said: “We commend Huda for the work that she conducted, not only against the backdrop of the ongoing Yemeni civil war, but also, in a country where women still struggle to express their political and civil rights. Huda’s legacy is crucial as her thorough investigations and search for accountability will serve to bring justice for human rights violations that occurred during the conflict.”
Such explicit and public recognition also provides an element of protection for those who try to uphold human rights in the face of endless abuse. Unsurprisingly, while this award was not publicised in coalition related media, it featured on the Houthi controlled television news, which is not the case for women [or indeed men] who publicise the abuses carried out in Houthi areas. Indeed the news item did not mention her strong condemnations of the same sorts of atrocities carried out by the Houthis.
In accepting the award, Ms al-Sarari said “Western governments should know that this collaboration with the United Arab Emirates comes at a heavy cost – and does not protect us from terrorism. I am confident that the public in Europe and the US would like to know that their leaders are promoting and protecting human rights abroad and are not complicit in torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention.”