Yemenis won’t let Saudis & Iran decide their future – Yemeni activist, Nobel Peace Prize laureate

With former Yemeni President Saleh killed by his former allies, the civil war takes an unexpected turn – that’s while a Saudi-imposed blockade threatens hundreds of thousands with starvation. What does the future hold for Yemen? We ask Tawakkol Karman, a famous Yemeni political activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni journalist and activist, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, welcome to the show. It’s really great to have you with us. Yemen’s former president Saleh has been killed by his former allies, the Houthis. The alliance between them which fought the Saudi-led coalition is no more. Is Saleh’s death good for Yemen or is it only going to make the situation worse?

Tawakkol Karman: Thank you for having me. It’s a really tragic end for President Ali Saleh and we didn’t wish him this. We made a great peaceful revolution, forced him to leave peacefully, we gave him immunity, we allowed him to have the money - billions of dollars that he stored up during his 33 years in power. Unfortunately, he chose to make an alliance with the militia of al-Houthi. And like he always did, he was dancing with the snakes and now the snakes have killed him. Now the question is - what is next after Ali Saleh’s death? This is a very important thing. Will the situation in Yemen deteriorate? Will this coup continue? Will the war continue? These questions should be answered by the Yemeni people. The Yemeni people should now be the ones working out a solution, stopping the war and the coup.

SS: We will talk about this in detail. Now that president Saleh is dead, his loyalists have no leader any more. Do you think they will start turning against each other fighting for power?

TW: We are at the internal and the regional war, you know. The war is going on inside Yemen. Nothing is worse than what’s happening now. How can we stop this war? How can we stop this fighting between Yemenis, between the Saudis, the Arab Emirates and Iran? A lot of things needed. Let’s not speak about the past, let’s talk about the future. How can we prevent any escalation of this conflict?

SS: For example, one scenario is what President Hadi is proposing right now. He is backed by the Saudis and he has said that he will declare amnesty for anyone who stops fighting him – do you think this promise could end the war?

TW: Of course, not. I’m calling on President Hadi, who’s our legitimate president, to open the dialogue, to start negotiating with the militia of al-Houthi, with all parties in Yemen. They have to find a solution. They have to stop the war. We are now at the next stage after the death of Ali Saleh. There are now a lot of opportunities to make peace in Yemen. President Hadi and the legitimate government should start a dialogue with the Houthis. But also the Houthis now have to declare that they are ready to hand the weapons over to the legitimate government.

SS: Former president Saleh reached out to the Saudis calling on them to lift the blockade on Yemen - with Saleh’s death, is there no more hope for the end of the blockade?

TW: This is the duty of the Arab coalition. Now, the Saudis and UAE claimed that they are helping the legitimate president in restoring his authority in Yemen. They claimed that and they say that they stand by the legitimate president Hadi. But, unfortunately, in reality they are occupying Yemen. They are occupying the most important parts of 70% of the liberated provinces: the ports, the island and the airports. They are also creating other militia, loyal to them, to the Emirates in particular.  

SS: The Arab coalition has had Yemen under blockade for 2 years already, and the Saudis say it is aimed at preventing arms smuggling to the Houthi rebels. The UN is saying it is creating an imminent catastrophe, with cities running out of fuel, clean water and 400-thousand children starving. Why are the Saudis more afraid of arms smuggling than causing this huge despicable humanitarian tragedy?

TW: This is true, Yemen is now suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis because of the war, the coup and the blockade. This is a real catastrophe for the Yemeni people. They are now suffering from disease, famine, lack of electricity and access to clean water, lack of education… Yes, we’re suffering from all these things and this suffering should be stopped. This blockade should be lifted.

SS: But then there’s another thing. Let’s imagine the blockade is lifted. The aid will hopefully start flowing in to those who need it. But what if that also floods Yemen with even more weapons?

TW: So, what is the solution that we’re calling for: if the Saudis and the Emirates really want Yemen to solve its problems and get over the coup, if they support the legitimate president they should allow him to return to Yemen and rule in those 70% of liberated areas. President Hadi and the army together can control the weapons that are there. How? As I said, we need a dialogue with the Houthis and other groups. The most important thing now is to disarm the militia. So we, Yemenis, should help ourselves. We should solve our problems and we can do it.

SS: But how can you solve your problems if you are under a blockade? You’re calling for the blockade to be lifted. Other public figures are calling for an end of this blockade. Why, do you think, the Saudis will listen to you if they didn’t listen to the numerous humanitarian organisations and even the UN? What dialogue are you talking about?

TW: Unfortunately there is not enough pressure. The international community should do that, they should ask the Saudis why they do what they do. Until now these were just statements. And, by the way, you’re asking me about the blockade imposed by the Saudis and the Emirates. But you don’t ask me about the blockade led by the Houthis and backed by Iran. Since 2014 they besiege the city of Taiz. And now Yemeni people are suffering from two blockades! And these blockades should be lifted now! Why is our president under house arrest in Riyadh?! Why didn’t he return to Aden?! Why is UAE occupying the most important areas in the south?! Why do they create militia?! Now I call for the Arab coalition, led by the Saudis and the Emirates, to let our president return to Aden and rule Yemen from there.

SS: Now you are a Nobel Peace Prize laureate - you got the prize for your role in the 2011 revolution in Yemen. Five years on, and the revolution hasn’t brought about peace, your country is being devastated by war and a power struggle which started back then. So was it worth it?

TW: It was absolutely worth it. The Yemeni people started a great peaceful revolution in 2011. Millions of people left their weapons (more than 70 million pieces) at home and took to the streets with roses in front of Ali Saleh’s forces. So, Yemeni people did a great job on establishing a new country, based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We did a great job during the transitional period. We gathered all the parties, even the militia of al-Houthi and Ali Saleh’s alliance at one table and we did a great national dialogue. We wrote a great draft of the constitution. We were just steps before putting this constitution to a referendum, but the coup happened. The coup, the chaos and the war are not the result of the peaceful revolution, but the counterrevolution and the regional conflict. So it’s not our fault. But we are still in our revolution, we will not give up on our dream for change and we will win. Absolutely.   

SS: Now, you’ve blamed the Houthis for this crisis, who are fighting for one side in the Yemen conflict. But you’re also speaking out against the Saudis who are fighting the Houthis for the sake of president Hadi. Is there anyone inside Yemen you would want to work with?

TW: Do you think Yemen is divided by the groups backed by Iran and by the Saudis and the Emirates? No! Yemeni people have their own path, their own strategy and vision for sovereignty, democracy, peace and development of our country. So we’re not facing the choice of being with this or that part.

SS: You’ve been exiled from the Houthi-occupied part of the country, but what’s stopping you from going back to those areas not controlled by them? After all you’ve just said that Yemen is not divided into one part backed by Iran and another one backed by the Saudis… So why don’t you go back?

TW: As I told you, 70% of the areas liberated from the Houthis and Ali Saleh’s forces are controlled by the Saudis and the Emirates. And I am against them. They are creating militias in these provinces. And I am sure they are no better than the militia of al-Houthi. They don’t want my country to be democratic, they don’t want our peaceful revolution to succeed. There are other provinces, not controlled by the Houthis, the Saudis or Iran, like Marib. But, unfortunately, I will not be able to go there because there’s no plan that would guarantee my freedom of movement so that I could tell the world [about the situation in Yemen].

SS: I’ve seen you give many speeches and receive honorary doctorates in the West, so it’s good to see the Western audience informed about the situation, but how exactly are you helping the Yemenis themselves? Do you have contacts on the ground through whom you can do something for the people?

TW: Yes, of course. I’m in exile now, but I am in Yemen at the same time. There are a lot of people inside Yemen, in different parts of it, I’m working with. These are peaceful people and those who are against the occupation of Yemen by the Saudis and by the Emirates, and also those who are against the coup, the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. I am with these people inside and outside Yemen. And the most important thing is that I carry the hope for the peace in my country.

SS: Back in 2011, you spoke out against Riyadh for interfering in Yemen’s affairs. But according to a cable leak released by WikiLeaks you secretly arranged meetings with a Saudi representative in the UN back then and asked for help. Is that true?

TW: Of course, it is true. Although WikiLeaks didn’t mention that I also visited the Russian, the American, the British, the French, the Qatari, the Kuwaiti, the Omani and all other embassies in the UN Security Council in New York to make them look into the situation in Yemen, learn about the peaceful revolution and help the Yemeni people fight against the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh and listen to our voice.

SS: You’ve also said that the leaders of the Saudi coalition will be prosecuted for the crimes they committed in Yemen. How do you imagine that happening when the coalition is backed by Arab states and their Western allies? Who will prosecute the Saudis?

TW: I call for all the perpetrators of crimes against human rights to be brought to justice all over the world. I’m calling on the International Criminal Court to do its work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do its duty to those who suffer from dictators and massacres not only in Yemen, but in Syria, Myanmar, all over the world.

SS: As one coalition is fighting a rebellion, and the rebellion itself is fighting its own allies at the same time, al-Qaeda has been given an opportunity to take advantage of the chaos. Does Yemen risk falling to the jihadists, while it’s busy fighting?

TW: If you want to fight Al-Qaeda and any other terrorist group, it’s not all about the security solution. There’s other solution than weapons. The other solution is supporting democracy, peaceful movements, development and justice. That is very important. People in Yemen were face to face with extremism during Ali Saleh’s period. Remember, Sophie, two years after our peaceful revolution in 2011 Al-Qaeda was not to be heard of. We gave an alternative and that was peaceful struggle. Hatred and extremism were shut up by the voices of peaceful people and their chanting.

SS: Do you think there should be a military intervention in your country? Can a UN peacekeeping mission save the day?

TW: Of course, not. I’m calling on all Yemeni people to start solving their issues by themselves. The Yemenis can stop this war. And the Arab coalition, the Saudis and the Emirates should stop their occupation of Yemen. They have to let our president return to Yemen and help the Yemenis build their country without any military intervention.

SS: Tawakkol, thank you so much for this emotional interview. I wish you all the best of luck in all your future endeavors. And above all I wish peace for your beloved country. We were talking to Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni political activist, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, discussing the tragedy unfolding in Yemen and the future of the country.