Stacey Philbrick Yadav: Yemen in the Shadow of Transition: Pursuing Justice Amid War28.04.2023
Stacey Philbrick Yadav provides a comprehensive guide to understanding Yemen's conflict history from the perspective of civil actors, writes reviewer Nahla El-Menshawy. Yadav highlights the efforts of civil actors to pursue justice at the local level, shedding light on their everyday realities in the context of an ongoing war. The book offers a distinctive perspective on transitional justice and encourages readers to think critically about "international peacebuilding". It promotes a grassroots approach to justice and illustrates the importance of historical legacies.
A review by Nahla El-Menshawy
Stacey Philbrick Yadav’s book “Yemen in the Shadow of Transition” is the ultimate guide for scholars and practitioners who are interested in Yemen’s history of contention and mobilization from the perspective of civil actors. It is a valuable contribution not only to the literature on transitional justice, but also to the field of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. In five chapters, Yadav traces back “justice demands” made through formal and informal channels, from the unification of North and South Yemen to the ongoing war. The systematic narration of Yemen’s recent history from the perspective of civil actors offers a rare insight into their everyday reality of navigating through the challenging political and security context. The book also encourages readers to think critically about “international peacebuilding work” in Yemen (13) and highlights the incredible work done by ordinary individuals. It promotes a grassroots approach by acknowledging and recognizing local justice work that can transcend the confines of a liberal paradigm and can thus facilitate decolonial approaches to justice. The book also draws attention to the importance of political activism that operates beyond the institutional frameworks of the state, shedding light on the diverse and often marginalized expressions of civic engagement that exist within Arab societies.
Her minimalist definition of justice as an “ethical horizon” to “set something right” (39) allows her to distinguish between different modes of engagement with justice, which she maps across different historical periods in Yemen. The central premise of the book is that decision-makers would benefit from adopting the model of "substantive engagement," exemplified by the justice work of civil actors in Yemen's local communities (2). Yadav illustrates how civil actors are actively involved in implementing justice projects at the local level, rather than “waiting for a national settlement” to be imposed from above or by external mediators (2).
While transitional justice often takes place in the aftermath of a conflict, Yadav chose to focus on justice work that began before the conflict and has continued throughout. Emphasizing the ongoing efforts of civil actors to pursue justice in the context of an ongoing war offers a distinctive perspective on transitional justice and highlights the resilience of different communities. Yadav stresses the importance of historical legacies by showing how prior engagements with justice shape current strategies and imaginaries of a just future.
Theoretical foundations, Key Actors and the Transitional Period
The book commences with a theoretical chapter that critically examines the liberal foundations of transitional justice. Chapter 2 explores how the opportunities for civil actors to express their grievances and engage in contentious activities through established (formal) institutions have gradually diminished under the authoritarian rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. While Saleh relied on electoral institutions to consolidate his authoritarian power, Yemenis turned to “extra partisan forms of mobilization” (72) as a means of pursuing justice.
Chapter 3 sheds light on two such movements: the Houthi movement in the north and the Hiraki movement in south both of which have emerged in response to exclusionary state building processes and “unaddressed justice demands” (75). Yadav's nuanced understanding of the societal changes in the north and their links to the development of the Houthi movement, reveals the intimate knowledge that she gained during several field visits conducted in the 2000s. Drawing on her own earlier field notes, in which she critically examines the sectarian lenses imposed on the Houthi insurgency, she guides the reader through her own reflections and incorporates theoretical debates into the text. Her analysis provides a comprehensive understanding of the marginalization of the Zaydi Shia community, which she argues is “grounded in a series of challenges to the status of North Yemen’s hereditary elite” (76), rather than the Houthi family alone. By comparison, her elaborations on the roots of the Southern Movement are shorter, but rigorous in getting to the heart of the matter.
The heart of the book is Chapter 4, which provides a detailed study of the transitional period from 2011 to 2014, which the author describes as the “greatest substantive gains by Yemeni civil actors pursuing justice” (18). The chapter focuses on the profound impact of collective action on a new generation of Yemeni civil actors. The 2011 uprising and its aftermath served as a catalyst for these actors to forge a constructive relationship with both the state and the society. This “revolutionary movement” experienced by activists gave them “opportunities to interact across social boundaries” (113), “altered the political identities” (ibid.) and shaped their understanding of collective action, which in turn cultivated solidarity (ibid.). This “transformative effect” (108) of the transitional period “casts a long shadow” and thus serves as a point of reference for many actors working in post-conflict justice today. Yadav also outlines the shortcomings and positive outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), highlighting how the recommendations produced by NDC groups were “developed through a sustained and inclusive dialogue process that was more representative than any other institution in Yemen at the time or since then” (136). Yet she also points out the disruptive events of the transitional period, such as the new injustices created during this period by the immunity provision for Saleh, which made it more difficult to “build a new Yemen” (120).
A Critique of Securitization and Humanitarianization of Peacebuilding
The last two chapters of the book focus on the changing trajectory of civil action as activists redirect their attention from transitional efforts to peacebuilding. After a brief synopsis of the ongoing war and the formal peace track and ceasefire efforts brokered by the UN, Yadav critically examines existing approaches to knowledge production and peacebuilding and their failure to address the underlying causes of conflict and injustice in Yemen. She stresses how the “repeated denial of or strategic engagement with justice demands over 30 years […] remains a core driver of conflict” (p.197) and problematizes the marginalization of Yemeni civil actors whose concerns “are ignored at the expense of the priorities of conflict actors” (155). This is particularly evident in what Yadav calls the “securitization of peacebuilding” where proxy narratives have sidelined demands for justice and “direct attention away from important forms of Yemeni agency” (172). Indeed, Yadav has accurately described the dangers and shortcomings of knowledge-production that centers around regional conflict dynamics and disregards Yemen’s domestic dynamics, thus not only aggravating the peace process, but also leaving many structural injustices unaddressed.
The fragmentation of the country as well as the polarization of the Yemeni society have made it more difficult for civil actors to conduct justice work, but despite the obstacles, they continue their justice work of documenting harm (182). The “humanitarianization of peacebuilding work”, where civil actors are being pushed by donor organizations into “humanitarian service provision”, has limited the scope of peacebuilding objectives that address the drivers of the conflict and deprived civil actors of the opportunity to use their skills (177). The author concludes the analysis on an empowering note reminding the reader that “Yemeni civil actors are simply not waiting” for peace agreements but continue their justice work “in the shadow of decades of unresolved injustice, in the shadow of a failed transitional process, and now, in the shadow of war” (p.198) and encouraging policymakers to strengthen the agency of these civil actors.
A Fresh Perspective on Participatory Approaches to Transitional Justice
By foregrounding the voices and experiences of Yemeni civil society actors, Yadav's book offers a unique and valuable perspective on the challenges facing Yemen in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the ongoing conflict. Yadav comprehensively analyses rich qualitative data collected over two decades. The use of multiple research methods, including in-depth interviews, focus group discussions with a diverse set of actors, and the analysis of Yemeni newspapers, provides a robust foundation for addressing the complex issues of justice demands. By immersing herself in the community, she was able to identify key issues and trends in Yemeni society while also reflecting on her own positionality as an American scholar. Moreover, Yadav's commendable consideration of fieldwork ethics and the responsible use of data are demonstrated in the introduction and only serve as a testament to Yadav's level of compassion and prudence regarding the research topic (p.12).
The book is organized around historical events, providing a comprehensive and chronological understanding of Yemen's social and political situation. However, readers unfamiliar with Yemen may find it challenging to follow at times due to the complexity of the subject matter. Nevertheless, the book remains an excellent resource for students interested in Yemen's modern history from the perspective of civil actors.
Yadav skillfully combines her academic expertise with her practical work as a consultant on peacebuilding research projects. Her collaboration with various Yemeni organizations and civil actors has provided her with a deep understanding of the intricate dynamics of the political landscape, as well as an appreciation of the pivotal role that civil society plays in the pursuit of justice. The integration of theoretical insights and practical experience undoubtedly enables Yadav to produce an exceptionally well-researched and insightful book that offers a fresh perspective on the importance of participatory approaches to transitional justice.