Yemen: The first steps towards criminalising drone strikes, Obama take note

Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference decision to criminalise drone strikes is an essential step toward a stable Yemen.

An activist holds up a placard during a protest against the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen outside the U.S. embassy in Sanaa
An activist protests US drone strikes in Yemen outside the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen April 29 [REUTERS]

“America’s actions are legal” claimed President Obama in a speech on drones earlier this year. It was the latest in a string of attempts made by his administration to justify covert strikes carried out by the US overseas – in countries including the Arab peninsula’s poorest nation, Yemen.

But back in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, it appears the country’s civil society disagrees. Members of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) – a US-supported initiative which will map out Yemen’s post-Arab Spring future – overwhelmingly voted to criminalise drone strikes in Yemen. The Yemeni people have spoken. Now Presidents Hadi and Obama must listen – for their own sake, as much as that of Yemen.

While it is clear that no leader may lawfully authorise another sovereign to slaughter his own people, the decision to criminalise drones strikes sends a clear warning message to Hadi – if the current practice is to continue, it may well lead to a criminal prosecution.

But it is not only the threat of a jail cell that should focus the Yemeni President’s mind. Through his unconditional consent to the use of drones in his country, President Hadi has already alienated many of his supporters, especially those, like him, from the south, which bear the brunt of the strikes.

Moreover, Hadi, like his US counterpart, is concerned about his legacy. As Yemen’s first post-revolutionary president, the coming few months will test Hadi’s commitment to a stable Yemen through the NDC. In a meeting this week with John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, Hadi stated that he hoped that the dialogue will lead “Yemen into security and stability”. The members of the NDC are certainly working to achieve this end. Criminalising drone strikes is an essential step towards a stable Yemen.

It is also in the interest of the US to respect the NDC’s decision. Hypocrisy rankles. And hypocrisy is what Yemenis see when the US preaches democracy and funds democratic processes and ignores outcomes it doesn’t like. The US can’t just ditch those NDC decisions it doesn’t like.

Obama has argued that he is acting to safeguard America’s national security interests. Yet the truth of the matter is that drones are counter-productive. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, since its start, the US drones campaign in Yemen has killed a significant number of civilians including children and women. And with every death, the ranks of al-Qaeda swell.

Nothing illustrates the wrong-headedness of the US’ drone programme better than the story of Jaber Salim, a Yemeni scholar known for denouncing al-Qaeda. Jaber’s family always worried he would be targeted by militants, in revenge for his strong denunciations of their actions.  But in the end it was a US drone strike in Hadramout last August which ended his life. Jaber was a natural ally for the US in Yemen – yet as a result of the drone programme, he is instead being used as a recruitment tool for extremists.

Unfortunately, these incidents do not stand alone – scores of remote villages and tiny towns in Yemen have faced similar fates. And what purpose have they served? Well, they certainly helped promote al-Qaeda’s agenda in the region. How many times have we heard of drone victims being used as a propaganda tool for extremists? Plenty.

Obama is now achieving the complete opposite of what he wanted. Some militants may have died through these strikes, but the US is losing the long battle for hearts and minds. The US’s support for the NDC is a renewed means of reassuring the people of Yemen about America’s goodwill. But really, for the process to have any meaningful outcome, its decisions must be respected.

Hadi was right this week when he said that despite the NDC, Yemen is still in need of the international community’s support. He should have, however, made clear that Yemen needs growth, not missiles. The NDC’s decision to criminalise drone strikes is a test for the US’s seriousness in supporting the democratic transitional process in Yemen. Is America going to listen this time?

Ghada Eldemellawy is an investigator at the London-based NGO, Reprieve, which currently represents 15 prisoners in Guantanamo, including three Yemenis.