On July 13, 2019, Yemen Peace Project executive director Layla Picard participated in a panel discussion on how activists have influenced US policy toward the conflict in Yemen. This panel, part of the Netroots progressive politics conference in Philadelphia, and moderated by Stephen Miles of Win Without War, sought to highlight the importance of Yemeni and American activists’ work because, as Miles put it, “the situation in Yemen is the poster child for everything that’s wrong with US foreign policy.” Picard and the other panelists described their advocacy work, the challenges they’ve faced, and what the future holds for Yemeni-American and progressive anti-war activism.
Jehan Hakim, chair of the Yemeni Alliance Committee and a board member for Just Foreign Policy, spoke on her experience organizing Yemeni Americans and lobbying members of Congress in the San Francisco Bay area. She gave an overview of the history of the war in Yemen, starting with the “democratic spirit” that pulled marginalized communities to peacefully protest the 33-year-long Saleh dictatorship in 2011. Hakim explained the context of the Houthi coup in 2014 and how Saudi-led airstrikes authorized by the Gulf Cooperation Council in 2015 “escalated a civil war into a regional inferno.” As she put it, “Yemen wasn’t a utopia before—there have always been internal factions—but powerful international actors made things much worse.” As a Yemeni American affected by the conflict herself, she underscored the importance of prioritizing Yemeni voices.
Hakim also shared some striking statistics; over 80% of Yemenis are in need of humanitarian aid, 16 million lack access to healthcare and clean water. The country has the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history. At least 90,000 civilians have died as a result of the war. International players have escalated the conflict; a third of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have hit civilian sites. Half of all Yemenis face a man-made famine, while only 50 Yemeni refugees have been resettled in the US since the war began, including only three in the last two years as a result of President Trump’s anti-immigration and asylum policies.
Layla Picard of the Yemen Peace Project described the evolution of the coordinated advocacy effort for peace in Yemen among NGOs and her work’s challenges. The Yemen Peace Project’s earliest focus was spreading awareness about the harm of US counterterrorism efforts in Yemen and supporting the 2011 uprisings. When the war commenced and US support for the Saudi-led coalition began, Picard started lobbying on Capitol Hill and launching constituent action campaigns. Though Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, and several other NGOs contributed to this effort, many prominent organizations were slow in allocating resources to advocacy on Yemen; “there was no concerted effort or coordinated lobby on Yemen in place yet.”
In 2017, the advocacy effort gradually became a “well-oiled machine with a dozen advocacy organizations” and a “high level of coordination and cooperation.” Through their efforts, the organizations and activists involved were able to get legislation on Yemen passed and “literally change the parameters of what members of Congress think is possible in a situation like this.” While Picard spoke to the success of the strong NGO coalition and grassroots movements against US involvement in the war, she grieved the strain YPP’s advocacy put on its relationships with Yemeni-American communities; “the war and propaganda that came with it really polarized the diaspora like nothing before.” Though the campaign to end the war in Yemen has a long way to go, Picard described the movement’s level of attention and success over the last four years as “unprecedented.” Picard also spoke about the need to bring more Yemeni voices into the policy advocacy process, and how the YPP is addressing that gap with its Empower Yemen initiative.
Iram Ali of MoveOn spoke about the challenges of garnering Americans’ attention and mobilizing large political organization to work on the Yemen conflict. Ali was passionate about making the Yemen conflict a core issue of MoveOn because she felt a “moral imperative to not ignore what was happening in Yemen as a progressive organization; it was against our principles.” She believes that “progressive organizations need to inculcate equity” and pick and fight for the right issues. MoveOn paired protest actions with advocacy in order to reach not only members of Congress but also everyday Americans, whom it can be difficult to convince that foreign policy has as important an impact on their lives as domestic issues. She concluded with the hope that this work is laying the groundwork for other progressive foreign policy priorities, especially repealing the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force.
A video of the full panel discussion is available from Win Without War here.