Yemen | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2010

2010 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Status Change Explanation: 

Yemen’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 and its status from Partly Free to Not Free due to the two-year postponement of parliamentary elections, the renewal of fighting between central authorities and al-Houthi rebels in the north, and an escalation in violence between the government and opposition groups in the south.

Parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2009 were postponed by two years in February, after opposition parties threatened a boycott to protest anticipated electoral manipulation by the government. In August, government forces and Houthi rebels in the northern province of Saada renewed fighting in a five-year-old civil conflict. The violence escalated in November, when Saudi Arabia began bombing Houthi positions inside Yemen in response to rebel attacks on Saudi military personnel near the border. Also during the year, oppositionists and secessionists in southern Yemen continued public protests against their political marginalization, and dozens of people were killed in clashes between the demonstrators and security forces. Militants associated with Al-Qaeda carried out several attacks in 2009, including assaults on South Korean tourists and officials.

For centuries after the advent of Islam, a series of dynastic imams controlled most of northern Yemen and parts of the south. The Ottoman Empire ruled many of the cities from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, and the British controlled areas in the southern part of the country, including the port of Aden, beginning in the 19th century.
After the reigning imam was ousted in a 1960s civil war and the British left the south in 1967, Yemen remained divided into two countries: the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). The two states ultimately unified in 1990, and northern forces put down a southern attempt to secede in 1994. In the face of widespread poverty and illiteracy, tribal influences that limited the central government’s authority in certain parts of the country, a heavily armed citizenry, and the threat of Islamist terrorism, Yemen took limited steps to improve the status of political rights and civil liberties in the years after unification.
In 2006, Yemen held its second presidential election since unification. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was reelected with 77 percent of the vote, and the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party won by a similar margin in concurrent provincial and local council elections. The 2006 presidential race was the first in which a serious opposition candidate challenged the incumbent. Saleh’s main opponent, Faisal Ben Shamlan, was supported by a coalition of Islamist and other opposition parties and received 22 percent of the vote.
In May 2008, Yemen held its first-ever elections for 20 provincial governors, who had previously been appointed. Opposition groups refused to participate, claiming electoral manipulation by the government. Progovernment candidates were elected in 17 of the 20 provinces that participated, and independents won in the remaining three. One province did not hold elections due to protests by unemployed Yemenis.
Tensions between the government and the opposition escalated in late 2008, and the opposition Joint Meeting Parties—a coalition that includes the Yemeni Socialist Party and Islah, an Islamist party—threatened to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2009. The two sides agreed in February 2009 to postpone the vote by two years pending electoral reforms.
Fighting in the northern province of Saada, part of a five-year-old uprising by some members of Yemen’s large community of Zaidi Shiite Muslims, resumed in August 2009 after a ceasefire that was declared a year earlier. In November, the rebels killed Saudi military personnel near the Yemeni-Saudi border, prompting Saudi forces to carry out bombing raids on rebel positions inside Yemen. The Saudi intervention came amid claims that the rebels—who were led by the family of slain Zaidi cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi—were receiving financial and material support from Iran, though those claims remained unproven. Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict since 2004, and tens of thousands have been displaced.

Yemen also continued to suffer in 2009 from terrorist violence associated with Al-Qaeda. In March, a suicide bombing killed four South Korean tourists in the southeastern town of Shibam. A second attack struck a convoy of South Korean officials sent to investigate the deaths. Also in March, four policemen were killed in a gun battle with Islamist militants in Jaar.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Yemen is not an electoral democracy. The political system is dominated by the ruling GPC party, and there are few limits on the authority of the executive branch. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been serving continuously since 1978, when he became president of North Yemen in a military coup.
The president is elected for seven-year terms, and appoints the 111 members of the largely advisory upper house of parliament, the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council). The 301 members of the lower house, the House of Representatives, are elected to serve six-year terms. Provincial councils and governors are also elected. There is limited competition between the GPC, which took 238 lower house seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2003, and the two main opposition parties—the Islamist party Islah (46 seats) and the Yemeni Socialist Party (8 seats). There is also a handful of smaller factions and independent lawmakers. In February 2009, the GPC and the opposition agreed to postpone parliamentary elections, which had been scheduled for April, by two years; the opposition, demanding electoral reforms, had threatened to boycott the vote. Past elections have been marred by the abuse of state resources, voter registration irregularities, and other flaws.
Corruption is an endemic problem. Despite some recent efforts by the government to fight graft, Yemen lacks most legal safeguards against conflicts of interest. Auditing and investigative bodies are not sufficiently independent of the executive authorities. Yemen was ranked 154 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The state maintains a monopoly over the media that reach the most people—television and radio. Article 103 of the Press and Publications Law outlaws direct personal criticism of the head of state and publication of material that “might spread a spirit of dissent and division among the people” or “leads to the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni Revolution, [is] prejudicial to national unity or [distorts] the image of the Yemeni, Arab, or Islamic heritage.” Access to the internet is not widespread, and the authorities block websites they deem offensive. In May 2009 the government officially suspended or effectively halted the publication of Al-Ayyam, the country’s most popular daily, and seven other periodicals for their reporting on the southern opposition movement. Officials also blocked a number of websites and arrested at least one website owner and blogger.The authorities accused Al-Ayyam of “harming national unity” and stormed its headquarters in Aden later that month in an attempt to break up a protest against its closure; several security guards were killed in the assault.
The constitution states that Islam is the official religion and declares Sharia (Islamic law) to be the source of all legislation. Yemen has few non-Muslim minorities, and their rights are generally respected in practice. The government has imposed some restrictions on religious activity in the context of the rebellion in the northern province of Saada. Mosques’ hours of operation have been limited in the area, and imams suspected of extremism have been removed. Strong politicization of campus life, including tensions between supporters of the ruling GPC and the opposition Islah party, places limits on academic freedom.
Yemenis enjoy some freedom of assembly, with periodic restrictions and sometimes deadly interventions by the government. Opposition political rallies were permitted across the country during the 2006 election season. However, over the past three years, southern Yemenis have mounted growing protests to challenge the GPC’s alleged corruption and abuse of power, the marginalization of southerners in the political system, and the government’s inability to address pressing social and economic concerns. The protest movement has increasingly called for secession by the south. The authorities have responded with mass arrests of organizers and attempts to break up demonstrations by force. Dozens of protesters and security officials were killed in such clashes between April and July 2009.
Yemenis have the right to form associations according to Article 58 of the constitution, and several thousand nongovernmental organizations operate in the country. The law acknowledges workers’ right to form and join trade unions, but some critics claim that the government and ruling party elements have stepped up efforts to control the affairs of these organizations. Virtually all unions belong to a single labor federation, and the government is empowered to veto collective-bargaining agreements.
The judiciary is nominally independent, but in practice it is susceptible to interference from the executive branch. Authorities have a poor record on enforcing judicial rulings, particularly those issued against prominent tribal or political leaders. Lacking an effective court system, citizens often resort to tribal forms of justice or direct appeals to executive authorities.
Arbitrary detention occurs, partly because law enforcement officers lack proper training and senior government officials lack the political will to eliminate the problem. Security forces affiliated with the Political Security Office (PSO) and the Ministry of the Interior torture and abuse detainees, and PSO prisons are not closely monitored.
Yemen is relatively homogeneous ethnically and racially. The Akhdam, a small minority group, live in poverty and face social discrimination.
Thousands of refugees seeking relief from war and poverty in the Horn of Africa are smuggled annually into Yemen, where they are routinely subjected to theft, abuse, and even murder.
Women continue to face pervasive discrimination in several aspects of life. A woman must obtain permission from her husband or father to receive a passport and travel abroad. Unlike men, women do not have the right to confer citizenship on a foreign-born spouse, and they can transfer Yemeni citizenship to their children only in special circumstances. Yemen’s penal code allows lenient sentences for those convicted of “honor crimes”—assaults or killings of women by family members for alleged immoral behavior. In April 2008, the parliament voted down legislation that would have banned female genital mutilation. Women are vastly underrepresented in elected office; there is just one woman in the lower house of parliament. School enrollment and educational attainment rates for girls fall far behind those for boys.