Sanaa, Yemen – When protests erupted against Yemen’s longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in early 2011, Hooria Mashhour was among many prominent figures who called on Saleh to step down and face prosecution for allegedly killing protesters.
Now acting as Yemen’s human rights minister, Mashhour has continued to speak out against contested subjects, including the United States’ use of drone strikes in Yemen and child marriage.
Al Jazeera spoke with Mashhour about her work, and the challenges facing Yemen.
Al Jazeera English: How should your government handle the presence of al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Yemen?
Hooria Mashhour: Al-Qaeda’s file is complicated and controversial. When al-Qaeda controlled some areas in the south in 2011, many questions were raised about the parties that aided them with weapons and facilitated their control.
A year ago, the Yemeni government approved the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism [NSCT]. The military and intelligence solutions are part of the strategy. The NSCT is based on removing extremism and radicalism from schools’ curricula and disseminating the message of respecting others and human rights.
Also, [the NSCT includes] media and making mosques’ sermons more peace-encouraging. Mosques’ messages are strong and effective as we have more mosques than schools. Many people try to link terrorism with Islam, which is not true. Islam’s message is moderate and peace-loving. The NSCT is also based on equipping people with skills that enable them to engage in the society and find jobs. Fighting poverty in Yemen is another principle of the strategy. Some poor young men agree to join al-Qaeda when they are given an amount of money.
However, the NSCT has not been put into practice as it requires a lot of money to implement. There is no special terrorism law in Yemen and suspected people are suspended and tried based on the Penal Code. A special terrorism law was presented to the parliament in 2008 … this law has not been passed.
AJ: Let’s talk about another hot button issue in Yemen – the US drone programme. Why do you publicly criticise it?
Mashhour: The current government inherited the programme from the previous one. This weak government was in need of any kind of help that would excise al-Qaeda. I am against drone strikes because they affect civilians. The National Dialogue [transitional talks between Yemen’s political and apolitical groups to reach a road map for the country’s future] and the parliament called for the halting of drone strikes, so there is public consensus about the need for putting an end to drone missions.
I visited a victim of a drone strike in Rada’a district who lost his leg and one of his eyes. The man is working as a shepherd. Since he did not receive any reparations from the government, his poor family was forced to borrow money to treat him.
Drone victims must be compensated for damages, like their peers in Afghanistan. For example, this poor man who lost his leg would not be able to feed his wife and five children... All reports that we receive show that no one has compensated the victims.
AJ: What have you done to bring justice to Yemeni drone victims?
AJ: Have you brought up this issue in the cabinet?
Mashhour: This issue is not discussed in the cabinet. It has never been transparent and is only being handled by a close circle of bodies, like the presidency, the National Security agency, and other intelligence apparatus.
AJ: Why does your government criticise Iran for allegedly meddling into Yemen’s internal affairs, while at the same time accepting the involvement of other countries in Yemen, like the US, European Union and Gulf countries?
Mashhour: There is both positive and negative involvement in Yemen. First, the United Nations is strongly involved in the situation in Yemen. There is a peace initiative brokered by the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries and backed by the UN that settled differences between Yemeni rivals. This kind of intervention is welcomed by Yemenis when they … could not find solutions to their problems. This intervention meets international conventions and charters.
The other kind of involvement is by a certain country supporting an outlawed group that acts like a state.
AJ: Are you referring to the Iranian support for the Houthi fighters?
Mashhour: President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and former Foreign Affairs Minister [Abu Bakr Al Qirbi] have many times condemned the Iranian government meddling into Yemen’s affairs. They support a group [Houthis] that took part in the National Dialogue Conference. People sympathised with the Houthis when the state launched six wars against them.
But then they turned into an armed group that seeks to carve up part of the country. The Houthis must hand over their weapons to the state and honour the public consensus and the recommendations of the National Dialogue Conference.
AJ: The federal system that will divide the country into six semi-autonomous regions has been widely touted as a solution to Yemen’s problems. How do you see the future of the federal system in Yemen?
Mashhour: Despite being a complicated system, federalism has become a necessity and was embraced by the people as it would make justice, equal citizenship and development prevail. We will need a long time [to see the result of this system] and we must be ready with funds and human resources. We must train and hone young people’s skills in executive management. The new constitution will determine the relationship between the regions, administratively and economically.
AJ: The southerners have long complained that they have been marginalised in power and wealth by the northerners since 1994. What have you done to assuage pro-succession sentiments in the south?
Mashhour: The southern cause has been strongly present since 2011. The southerners are going through a restitution period. Half of the cabinet members and the National Dialogue delegates are from the south; the president and the prime minister are from the south, after being completely marginalised and excluded in the past.
The federal system has met the demands of the southerners. The federal system has divided the south into two regions, and that will give the southerners a big margin of self-government. I think that these [pro-succession] calls will fade away when there is economic recovery and the existing problems are settled.
AJ: Lastly, the issue of child marriage in Yemen has made international headlines, after stories surfaced about girls as young as 10 being wed. Have you done anything to stop child marriage in Yemen?
Mashhour: We have worked for many years to fix a legal marriage age, but were confronted by a handful of MPs and influential figures. Frankly, this issue has a political dimension. The former president’s party [the General People’s Congress], which has most of the seats in the parliament, has been unenthusiastic to pass the law, in order to embarrass the opposition and try to paint them as supporting child marriage.
We are now discussing in the cabinet another law called the Child Rights Law, which includes … fixing a minimum age for marriage at 18.