Yemen drone strikes: An obstacle to democracy

The killing of innocent civilians show a flagrant disregard for the rule of law by Yemeni and US leaders.

Yemen was hit by three drone strikes in the week after Yemeni President Hadi's meeting with Obama [AFP]

One year ago last week, two Yemeni civilians were killed by a US drone strike. One was a preacher who had given a sermon denouncing al-Qaeda just days before; the other was a young local policeman. Amid the long list of innocents killed by the CIA’s secretive drone campaign, there are few clearer examples of how it undermines the rule of law and kills the very people whom the US should be seeking to support.

The anniversary of the deaths of anti-al-Qaeda preacher Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber and his nephew, policeman Waleed Abdullah bin Ali Jaber, comes about a month after Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi met Barack Obama at the White House. On August 1, the very day the two presidents sat talking, another drone strike in Yemen killed four more of Hadi’s fellow citizens in Hadhramout – the same Yemeni province where Salem and Waleed met their deaths.

In fact, in the week following President Hadi’s visit to the US, Yemen was hit by three more drone strikes. Whatever else was on Hadi’s agenda for his Washington jaunt, his people’s right to life was apparently not. Indeed, just last Thursday, Hadi gave a speech at the Police Academy in Sanaa defending the use of drones in his country and claimed that civilian deaths were exaggerated.

How can we convince our citizens to support democracy and the rule of law when they see those very same principles abandoned and disregarded by Obama and Hadi?

Yemeni and US officials claim that drone strikes are vital tools in the murky, borderless “War on Terror”, and Hadi has claimed they have killed some 40 “terrorists”. Yet it appears that the August 1 strike missed its intended targets. Reports quickly surfaced that the attack, in the al-Qatn area of Hadhramout province, killed civilians. One of the victims was 21-year-old Saleh Saed bin Ishaq, who was survived by his wife and a young daughter. He was in the city of Seiyun on the evening of July 31, buying clothes for his family for the Eid holiday. The car taking him home was hit in the early hours of the morning.

Drone strikes in Yemen might seem like an appealing, quick-fix option for Obama. But with every death, the number in al-Qaeda’s ranks increase. Although Hadi likes to assure the US that he gives the green light to these strikes, the reality is that he has no mandate to do so.

In fact, Yemen’s people overwhelmingly oppose the strikes. Last month, Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference – a body formed from across the political spectrum to draft Yemen’s new constitution and to solve its current challenges – decided by a 90 percent supermajority that the use of drones in Yemen should be banned. The main reason behind the broad support for such a law is that National Dialogue members know that the current policy in fighting al-Qaeda is totally counter-productive.

Yemeni civil society has been struggling for the past two years to build a foundation for the rule of law – a process that Obama claims to support – yet each drone strike is a stab in the back and undermines its efforts. Yemen needs the US to respect the will of the Yemeni people and the principles it has been advocating for decades.

But with Hadi and Obama signing the death warrants of innocent Yemenis, it will prove extremely difficult to have a proper democratic transition in Yemen. What does having elections in the coming year mean for a Yemeni living in Hadhramout who saw three neighbours burned to death? How can we convince our citizens to support democracy and the rule of law when they see those very same principles abandoned and disregarded by Obama and Hadi?

President Obama once joked about killing the Jonas Brothers with Predator drones. For children in my country, the drone is not a joke but a daily threat. And for the daughter of Saleh Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, that threat became a tragic reality when her father was killed, while the president meant to protect him sat talking with the president who claims to want a safe and secure Yemen.

Obama and Hadi need to think about the ordinary Yemenis still living in fear of these drones, hoping they won’t be the next to suffer the fate of Saleh, Salem, Waleed and so many others. The undeclared air war on Yemen is self-defeating. Yemenis have overwhelmingly rejected it – and until political leaders in the US and Yemen respect this fact, they will find their goals rejected too.

Baraa Shiban is a member of the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference and Reprieve’s project coordinator in Yemen.