By: Sarah Lokenberg
Yemen’s largest secessionist movement, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), declared amidst the protracted political, humanitarian, and developmental crisis secession in April 2020 from the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, North Yemen). With this declaration, the STC aims to reclaim its sovereign rights and self-determination of the former territory of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, South Yemen). However, no state has recognised the claim, and the United Nations (UN) has expressed great concern since it might lead to greater instability and fractures within Yemen.
Before unification in 1990, Yemen consisted of the Yemen Arabic Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). In 1990, the two states unified and Ali Abdullah Saleh, leader of the former YAR became president, whereas Ali Salim al-Beidh, leader of the former PDRY became vice-president. However, shortly after the unification, President Saleh was accused of corruption and mistreatment of the power-sharing agreement. This eventually resulted in the first unsuccessful secessionist attempt in 1994 of southern independence movements.
The STC has its roots in these southern independence movements. Since the unification of Yemen, various movements in South Yemen emerged advocating for either more autonomy or complete secession. However, due to the disarray within these movements, no significant policies were advanced beyond the call for separation. By 2017, the STC emerged by Aidarus Qassem al-Zubaydi and became the dominant movement advocating for complete secession and proliferated itself as the legitimate representative of the southern community by providing political leadership. A significant reason accounting for STC’s hegemonic position in the south was due to the support of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who not only financially but also military backed the STC’s Security Forces.
The main objective of the STC pertain to complete independence for the territory of the former PDRY and hence to secede from the territory of the former YAR. In short, the STC wants to reclaim its land, sovereign rights, and self-determination. Moreover, the STC claims to promote security by fighting terrorism, religious extremism, and ending Iranian expansionism.
Secession and legitimacy
Since the primary political objective of secessionist movements pertains to the creation of an independent state, secessionist movements have a strong incentive to acquire international recognition. Hence, international legitimacy is imperative for recognition and the political success of secessionist movements.
In an attempt to build its international profile, the STC has established a Human Rights Department which regularly publishes reports regarding human rights abuses perpetrated by the Houthi insurgents and government forces. In addition, this department organised workshops by which Southern Security Forces were briefed on the legislative principles created for the protection of human rights. However, despite these efforts, the STC has committed crimes against humanity such as sexual and gender-based violence, detention without trial, forced disappearances, and torture.
The exertion of excessive force (e.g. crimes against humanity) diminishes perceived legitimacy and hence, impedes the process of acquiring international recognition. Therefore, to further their political agenda or values, armed actors need to justify (violent) actions. Armed actors can construct statements which draw upon mechanisms that are crucial for justificatory arguments and discourses. These justificatory statements are frequently based on a myth-symbol complex, popular belief systems, ideologies, traditions and the portrayal of a threat or enemy.
Justification of violence by the STC
The STC has constructed statements which referred to perceived economic and political marginalisation, relative deprivation, and exclusion by the incumbent government. The sense of injustice and inequality dates back to the unification of Yemen in 1990. President Saleh received accusations of corruption and mishandling of the power-sharing agreement.
While Aden was appointed as economic capital, all economic investments were nonetheless channelled towards Sana’a and other northern cities, thereby neglecting southern institutions. In addition, southern residents were forced to go early with retirement, by which subsequently available vacancies were taken by northern residents. Furthermore, the default to pay salaries, as well as the deterioration of public services also contributed to the perception of injustice.
The STC proclaimed to provide not only security but also public services to the southern community. By referring their statements to a sense of injustice, the STC raised issues of inequality and connected the current struggle for independence to the grievances which began after the unification of Yemen. By promising the southern community more security and services, STCs statements about injustice are entrenched in a myth-symbol complex which enabled the STC to justify their present actions. Violent resistance against the injustices perceived by the STC was used as an argument to justify the resort to violence.
By amplifying southern grievances, the STC became the hegemonic representative, which allowed them to act on behalf of the southern population. Whereas grievances increased in scope as well as in intensity, the government presided by both Saleh and his successor Hadi did not undertake action to tackle perceived feelings of injustice. Eventually, these forced pensioners that had not received a salary for years began to assemble and organise small protests to demand better rights and end the political and economic marginalisation. Initially, STC’s protests were peaceful sit-ins, but faced heavy repression by government forces. This, in turn, heightened popular support for the STC and renewed calls for secession. In addition, this repressive behaviour was used to justify the resort to violence and the deployment of Southern Security Forces because it was considered a necessary means to defend the southern community against Hadi’s repressive government.
By portraying the southern community as victims, the STC placed an accent on the government’s repressive behaviour. Since the STC managed to be the hegemonic secessionist movement in South Yemen, it was able to present the deployment of the Southern Security Forces as essential to defend the southern population.
The portrayal of an enemy
Furthermore, the STC has identified multiple capable agents for their grievances, which subsequently are used for justificatory arguments for their violent behaviour.
The first agent is the Yemeni government which initially led by Saleh until 2012, and subsequently by Hadi from 2012 onwards. While both were held accountable for the deterioration of public service provision, Saleh’s government was primarily accused of mistreating the power-sharing agreement which resulted in corruption and marginalisation whereas Hadi’s government was identified as responsible for the violent repressions of STC’s protests. In addition, STC holds the Yemeni government fully accountable for upholding terrorist organisations.
The second identified opponent are the Houthi insurgents who emerged in Northern Yemen but expanded quickly and seized the capital Sana’a. Due to the fact that the Houthis are backed militarily and financially by Iran, the STC holds the Houthis accountable for Iranian expansionism in Yemen. The STC feels endangered and has expressed its concern that South Yemen is still under threat from the Houthis and ousted Saleh loyalists, who according to STC may have attempted to overthrow STC’s secessionist objectives.
Lastly, Yemen’s major Sunni Islamist Party, al-Islah, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, is the third culpable agent and is held accountable for STC’s political exclusion. The STC perceived al-Islah as a ‘wicked’ party that attempts to seize Yemen’s resources and expand its sphere of influence. In short, the STC believes that Hadi’s government is gradually penetrated by al-Islah and hence by the Muslim Brotherhood which is a threat to southern security.
In sum, the STC has identified the government presided by both Saleh and Hadi, the Houthi insurgents and al-Islah party as culpable agents responsible for security, economic, and political grievances. Consequently, the identification of an opponent has allowed the STC to present violence as an essential means to not only protect and defend but also to liberate the southern population from its opponents.
The international community, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have been important addressees for the STC. The STC has stressed their deep relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of their shared objective to conquer Iranian expansionism.
By addressing the international community, the STC has employed a counterterrorism frame to justify the resort to violence by promising to assist Western counterterrorism policy, by proliferating itself as an actor that fights against terrorism and religious extremism (e.g. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood). In addition, the STC ensures maritime security by stressing the need to secure territorial waters and sea navigation routes against infiltration of terrorist organisations, by which they mainly refer to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Furthermore, the provocative actions of the Yemeni government are often criticised. Nonetheless, the STC has repeatedly stated its belief that “peace is the right path to resolve the differences” and manifested its willingness to the UN to participate in peaceful negotiations with the government.
Although no state has recognised its secessionist claim, the STC has managed to gain international legitimacy to a certain extent. While the UN has condemned the violence perpetrated by the STC, it did formally acknowledge that the STC is an accepted partner for dialogue and negotiation upon signing the Riyadh Agreement. The Riyadh Agreement ratifies that power is evenly distributed in the post-war Yemeni government. Being externally acknowledged as a political actor might consolidate and reinforce claims of legitimacy.
While at first the major objectives of the Riyadh Agreement remained mainly unimplemented, the STC ultimately agreed to join Yemen’s new governing council, based on equal representation of southerners and northerners.
In addition, there has been a breakthrough in peace efforts in April 2022, when the Yemeni governing council announced a nationwide ceasefire which also included the Houthis. While it has been violated, there is an agreement to continue negotiations toward a long-term agreement.
However, instability in South Yemen impedes UN efforts to broker a long-lasting ceasefire. Since the STC has a significant position in the political future of Yemen, the inclusion of STC representatives in upcoming negotiations is both recommended and required since a peace agreement without STC’s attendance would be short-lived.