Confidence Not Complacency Regarding the Human Rights Challenges in Yemen and the UAE
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Confidence Not Complacency Regarding the Human Rights Challenges in Yemen and the UAE

The ends should not justify the means when it comes to the protection of basic human rights in Yemen and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Severe challenges to the peace and stability of these regions along with overarching transnational terrorism threats have incentivized the erosion of human rights by the respective governments. These challenges are well-documented in press reporting, and in the lived experiences of two participants in my recent discussions at the American Society of International Law.

Matthew Hedges, a 31-year-old Durham University PhD student, was held in solitary confinement for seven months in the UAE after being accused of spying for the U.K. government. These accusations were based on nothing more than mere supposition and space would not permit full recitation of his suffering. Dr. Lauren Minsky, Professor at NYU-Abu Dhabi, also experienced similar maltreatment. Instead of enjoying the academic and intellectual freedom guaranteed as a term of her employment, Dr. Minsky instead suffered intimidation and censorship under the UAE auspices. Instances of maltreatment like that suffered by Dr. Minsky are not uncommon in these regions.

Domestic laws ostensibly designed to protect the public that simultaneously provide valid reasons for the abuse of basic human rights and the degradation of human dignity cannot be ignored. Harnessing domestic judicial systems to empower such violations represents the sine quibus non of systematic human rights violations. This pattern of abuse is far too common in the region, representing the capstone of a coordinated suppression of fundamental human rights.

Sovereign nations have the absolute right to enact and enforce laws that are the best-suited to protect their citizens and defend legitimate interests. All nations enjoy these prerogatives. This legitimate duty of the state to protect the common good operates in healthy friction with the concurrent obligations to uphold human rights and the dignity of persons within the ambit of state power.

The UAE has ignored this friction in pursuit of domestic counter-terrorism efforts during the conflict in Yemen. The Saudi and the UAE-led coalition has isolated and degraded Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while sharply curtailing the extent of Houthi/Iranian influence in Yemen. These salutary ends do not always justify the means. Documented reports of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, erosion of basic human rights and the subversion of rights under Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions tell that sad tale.

These issues represent a thicket of complex legal concerns. The actions of the UAE security and proxy forces are diagnostic in documenting human rights violations. Routine denials by the UAE officials do not dispel these difficult truisms. Though various violations have been misreported, the majority of these reports are legitimate and cannot be readily discounted. As former Secretary Mattis noted in his November 2018 comments regarding the Yemen conflict, we must not become complacent in confronting evil in the region. By extension, the coalition and human rights organizations must remain diligent in dissecting and in documenting reported human rights violations.

The difficulty lies in the complex connection between various intersecting bodies of laws. While the laws and customs of war do precisely overlap with the laws of state responsibility, less overlap exists with the prevailing juridical approaches to the protections of basic human rights. The ends do not justify the means, yet experts and policymakers must work together to disaggregate these competing legal strands. This is the crux of a new effort underway by the Proxy War Project of the American Bar Association.

We need to reconcile the gap between these legal regimes, human rights obligations and the experiences of people on the ground. The lived experience of citizens is often the best measure in an otherwise esoteric – maybe even quixotic quest for human rights. There is some incremental progress being made, but more must be done. In particular, allies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE must remain diligent in both reporting and reviewing human rights investigations. Credible and good faith work must be reinvigorated in order to ensure “allegations” remain undocumented and unaddressed.

States should also re-examine the overlapping statutory and treaty-based frameworks for counter-terrorism, as well as the rights of collective self-defense. Gaps in understanding and application of domestic laws should not be misinterpreted to justify human rights violations.

Finally, policymakers and attorneys should admit to the recurring nature of these tensions. The Lomé Peace Agreement comes to mind. The best practices and accumulated wisdom should be torqued to provide a fulcrum to facilitate a fragile peace in Yemen. Many talking heads and external “experts” will seek to address the issues in Yemen in a sanitized vacuum. Human rights abuses at home bleed over into similar abuses abroad. The two cannot and should not be divorced. As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, we must do what we know to be right because we will be “criticized anyway.” Respect for human rights and the worth of every UAE citizen will be the cornerstone in reinforcing the quest for a sustainable peace settlement in Yemen.


Michael Newton is a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School. He is an expert on terrorism, accountability, transnational justice, and conduct of hostilities issues. His research interests include International humanitarian law, international criminal law, special tribunals, terrorism/counterterrorism, national security law, and human rights.

Suggested citation: Michael Newton, Confidence Not Complacency Regarding the Human Rights Challenges in Yemen and the UAE, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Jan. 28, 2019,

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