Tawakkol Karman Speaks on Human Rights

| Dec. 19, 2016

Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni activist and recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, served as a Fisher Family Fellow with Harvard’s Future of Diplomacy Project. During her two weeks in residence, Ms. Karman taught two study groups for Kennedy School degree students, and shared her experience as an activist and contributor to the United Nations’ 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.  In addition, she worked with faculty and fellows on political advocacy, leadership in crisis and non-violent strategies toward conflict prevention. An outspoken and passionate advocate for human rights, she was critical of the inaction of international institutions and developed nations in response to rights violations in the Middle East.

In a public seminar on November 9 that focused on the enduring civil war in Yemen, Karman denounced the repressive regimes of former Yemeni dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Egyptian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but also sharply criticized the U.S. response in each country.

Years of press censorship and governmental corruption under President Abdullah Saleh led her to speak out, first as a journalist and later as the leader of the peaceful protests that forced Saleh from power, she said.  The movement collapsed into violence when Saleh and the opposition parties could not reach an agreement after multiple negotiations brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Whether Abdullah Saleh would be able to return to the country with immunity from prosecution and with his $70 billion fortune intact was at the center of the negotiation. Yemeni people were unwilling to accept this proposal. “There is no peace without justice,” she warned, stating that it had to be in the interest of the entire international community to curb the power of “a repressive and corrupt leader” in nations lacking a functioning democratic system. She argued that the international community in general, and especially the U.S., should have provided greater support to the Yemeni people during the 2011 peaceful revolution.

Where a functional democratic system exists,  as in Egypt in 2011, the national polity should be empowered to enact political change independently of outside involvement, she said.  In its support of the 2013 military coup, which removed democratically-elected President Morsi from power, the U.S. had overreached. While she denounced Morsi’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies in the months leading up to the coup, she said that the Egyptian electorate should have had the chance to vote out the president and achieve a peaceful democratic transition without heavy-handed U.S. intervention. After all, in her view, the country had achieved the establishment of a relatively functional democratic system since the Arab Spring protests in the country in 2011.

“The power is with the people, always,” she said. Grass-roots activism could create necessary change and it “is imperative that nations in the Middle East be given the chance to establish democratic regimes.” The international community should abandon policies that support repressive leaders in the hope that such regimes will manage extremist influence in the region, she said. Karman described nondemocratic regimes and violent extremist groups as “two sides of the same coin,” and said that the dominance of either would impede the establishment of lasting peace in Middle Eastern states. Instead, she urged the international community to focus on humanitarian aid and peaceful democracy-building efforts in conflict-ridden nations like Yemen and Syria.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Future of Diplomacy Project
For Academic Citation: Harrington, Liliana. “Tawakkol Karman Speaks on Human Rights .” News, , December 19, 2016.