Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Yemen in the Shadow of Transition: Pursuing Justice Amid War (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Stacey Philbrick Yadav (SPY): Being wrong about something important was a powerful motivation. OK, maybe “wrong” is too strong, but it was the realization that something I felt I understood well was being interpreted quite differently by some of my interlocutors that pushed me forward with the project. In earlier work, I had described the 2012-2014 transitional process in Yemen as fatally flawed in ways that fueled the current conflict. By 2019, though, I was encountering civil actors who described a “return to the National Dialogue Conference outcomes” as a starting point for forward-looking post-conflict justice. I was confused, and I think that can be an important part of the research process. Encountering something puzzling makes you want to better understand. That is what pushed me to try to understand what exactly people meant by this, what they were praising and why, and how their understandings of the transitional period might relate to Yemen’s present conflict and post-conflict future.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SPY: In addition to some of the more predicable literatures on authoritarian stability, contentious politics, and social movements, the book explores features of the transitional justice and liberal peacebuilding literatures, and the concept of civil action. A little over a decade ago, Erica Chenoweth and Adria Lawrence called on scholars to put violence and non-violence in the “same analytic field” in order to both understand and better encourage non-violence. This guided my engagement with the growing literature on civil action. As I explain in the book, civil action does not simply mean “non-violence,” but a particular form of non-violence premised on the non-elimination of one’s adversaries. It can occur within and outside of institutions and at varying levels of formality. Yemen is an excellent context in which to explore civil action, both because there is a great deal of it and because it is constantly occurring alongside considerable—devastating—violence. Exploring civil action in Yemen means trying to better understand both what makes civil action possible and, as importantly, what civil action makes possible in a variegated political field.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SPY: I think I have always been drawn to the work of civil actors, even though I did not use that language until relatively recently. I first started working in Yemen in 2004, shortly after a prominent and very visible assassination and just as the Houthi insurgency was first beginning. I was drawn then to how members of political parties and associational sector activists made sense of violence and its relationship to other forms of political contention. Whether I have been studying parties or protests or, now, peacebuilding, I have consistently wanted to understand what makes people choose non-violent forms of contention, especially when they are proximate to violence.
There are a few ways in which this book departs from earlier work, though. In my earlier work, I was much more interested in partisan ideologies than I find myself now. It is not that I am not interested in ideas or discourse—writing a book about justice demands certainly reflects an interest in the ideas people have about just outcomes and just processes, as well as the opportunities they have to talk about these ideas—but right now, in the current moment, partisan ideology just does not seem to be terrifically relevant. For the most part, parties are not doing a lot of party things—except, of course, insofar as they have a dedicated seat at the negotiating table.
Another big difference between this book and my earlier work is that it advances an explicitly normative argument about what I think should happen. There are a lot of latent normative assumptions in the transitional justice literature and I take these up explicitly in the first chapter. I have set it aside as a chapter that can be read or not, depending on the reader’s reasons for reading the book. The chapter advances what I call a “capabilities approach to transitional justice” or a framework for evaluating post-conflict institutions and practices based on their ability to support what Amartya Sen calls “transpositional scrutiny” on questions of justice. The basic idea, which I have taken from Sen’s work in development economics, is that people do not need to (and probably will not) agree on the substance of justice, but if they have the opportunity to reason together, they may agree on the injustice of a particular state of affairs and be able to address that injustice. I see a lot of potential in this approach, since it can accommodate both liberal and communitarian claims concurrently. I think a capabilities approach to transitional justice addresses some of the critiques of the hegemonic liberalism of transitional justice institutions but is still liberal enough to be recognizable to transitional justice practitioners. On a practical level, I see it already reflected in a lot of the justice work that Yemeni civil actors do through everyday peacebuilding projects. Many of those projects enable or intentionally seek transpositional scrutiny in addressing community needs. I think it is possible to imagine an approach to post-conflict justice built on the same logic. While someone can still learn a lot about Yemen without reading this chapter, I do hope readers will take the time to consider its arguments.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SPY: As much as I am deeply indebted to my Yemeni interlocutors, they will learn very little from this book that they do not already know. I can only hope that the portrait I have presented in this book is recognizable to them. I had two primary audiences in writing this book—policy practitioners whose work involves Yemen, and students, especially those who may aspire to become policy practitioners. My colleagues in political science and international relations sometimes ask for recommended materials to include on Yemen in their classes. I teach at a liberal arts college, and I teach a seminar on Yemen, so I thought I might be able to write a book that could be useful in the classroom and could introduce students to Yemen’s recent history through the lens of its civil actors.
In terms of a policy audience, one of my biggest concerns is that post-war approaches to justice will only or primarily address those injustices produced by the current conflict and that will obscure many of the justice demands that preceded the war. As the book shows, ignoring or suppressing justice demands has been a past driver of conflict in Yemen. I worry that repeating that pattern will prevent any substantive post-conflict reconciliation. My hope is that laying out some of the consequences of past practices and identifying some current successes at the local level will encourage policy practitioners to think of ways to scale up what is working well and to avoid repeating earlier mistakes.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SPY: In the last two chapters of the book, I talk about Yemeni knowledge production as a form of justice work. This is something that I became attuned to when working on collaborative research projects with some Yemeni researchers over the past three years and it is something that I have been exploring in greater detail since I finished the book. In particular, I am interested in the work of narration—how and why people narrate the conflict in the ways that they do, how they relate to different audiences, and how they navigate different genres. There are some really creative projects by Yemeni civil actors that (deliberately) blur the boundaries between different genres of knowledge production. I only start to touch on this at the end of the book, but I am excited to expand on it in the future.
Relatedly, I have also been thinking and writing a bit about research collaboration and the ethical and practical questions that it raises. I would not have been able to write this book without having participated in some collaborative projects myself, so I have experienced the thorniness of it first hand and I think it deserves greater attention in our literature on research methods and ethics. I would like to see that engagement be more interdisciplinary, and I have been enjoying learning more about norms and practices in fields other than my own, as well as in applied, or non-academic, contexts.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction: Pursuing Justice Amid War, pp. 17-20)
Justice and Injustice Over Time
Having laid theoretical ground in Chapter 1, the next section of the book is devoted to tracing the claims and work of civil actors over Yemen’s recent history, marked as it has been by different combinations of disengagement, strategic engagement, and substantive engagement with justice by different actors at different times. It is not organized as a chronological ‘history of Yemen,’ but explores contention that has occurred within and outside of formal institutions to identify how various engagements with justice have shaped conflict and civil action alike.
Chapter 2 focuses predominantly on the ‘institutional story’—the dynamics of the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen, the introduction of an electoral regime to manage dissent, the brief 1994 civil war, and the consolidation of an increasingly narrow authoritarianism in the years that followed. This chapter pays special attention to the role of justice demands in driving the formation of the cross-ideological opposition alliance, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Understanding the motives and limitations of this alliance, and its paradoxical role in closing off institutional avenues of contention by 2009, is central to interpreting the 2011 uprising, developments in the transitional period, and beyond. Moreover, JMP members were powerful beneficiaries of the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative (GCCI) and have enjoyed privileged access to the UN-led diplomatic process as part of Yemen’s internationally recognized government.
The partisan story is matched by an account in Chapter 3 of extrapartisan mobilization by the Houthi movement in the North and the Hirak in the South, tracing the antecedents of both movements to justice demands and regime responses in the 1990s and even earlier. If Chapter 2 shows how the regime adeptly pitted elements of the partisan opposition against each other to largely avoid justice demands, Chapter 3 shows the introduction of some limited and strategic engagements with justice, paired with extensive repression. While the two planes of partisan and extrapartisan analysis intersect in some ways, I address them in separate chapters in part because of the different roles played by parties and movements in Yemen’s post-2011 political and armed conflicts. In both chapters, however, the primary emphasis is on the type of justice claims that movements and parties made and the way their claims were (or were not) engaged prior to the 2011 uprising.
Chapters 2 and 3 jointly introduce several of the core social, political, regional, and economic cleavages in Yemeni society. Drawing on academic literature, interviews, fieldnotes, and other primary materials, the aim of this section is to enable readers to map continuities and discontinuities in the justice claims made by different segments of Yemeni society over time; these not only informed the 2011 uprising and the transitional process but continue to shape justice work in the context of the current war.
Justice Demands and Justice Work
The final section of the book explores the relationship between justice demands and justice work over the decade extending from Yemen’s uprising to 2022. Chapter 4 is the longest chapter and covers the shortest time period (2011–14), mapping the years that demonstrated the greatest substantive gains by Yemeni civil actors pursuing justice. These gains were offset by strategic engagement by transitional elites that undermined civil actors, as well as by armed conflicts that unfolded in several parts of the country as transitional justice mechanisms were being employed at the center. This chapter discusses the role of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) and its Transitional Justice committee as well as parallel mechanisms that operated outside of the context of the NDC and sometimes pulled against it. It ends with a discussion of Houthi military advances in the North and the campaign against Ansar al-Shari’a in the South, showing how these campaigns also mobilized narratives of injustice alongside engagements at the center.
The last chapter asks where civil actors are in the context of the ongoing war. I detail four core interlocking conflict dynamics that are shaping the substantive aims and capacities for action among civil actors: fragmentation, securitization, polarization, and humanitarianization. Amid a formal peace process that has been largely unsuccessful, civil actors are navigating these dynamics without many opportunities to shape negotiations or ensure that their justice priorities are reflected in post-conflict planning. But fragmentation has also enabled the establishment of ‘pieces of peace’ or pockets of stability where justice claims are being pursued.
Both within and outside of such pockets, civil actors are enacting justice projects in real time. Whereas one might make a justice demand, for example, regarding greater gender equality or women’s representation in government, local peacebuilders are working directly with local councils to make this happen where it can, rather than waiting for an agreement from the top. Chapter 5 includes many examples of quotidian local-level peacebuilding that I argue should be read as connected to longstanding justice claims. Peacebuilding research also works as concurrent documentation and enactment of Yemeni agency. As this chapter and the conclusion show, for many Yemeni researchers, research itself has become a form of civil action and justice work insofar as it helps to represent those who might not otherwise be seen or recognized by formal processes.
The challenge remains, however, to connect this work with national or internationally supported efforts to build sustainable peace in Yemen. Civil actors repeatedly stress that they do not have the luxury of waiting for a small number of elites and conflict actors to negotiate an end to the war or initiate a transitional justice program before they begin to address the needs of their communities or repair the legacies of harm. Enacting justice projects in the present is a means of anticipating and contributing to a more just future among those who cannot afford to wait.