Published 11 July 2019 by Meeri Kim

Fighting for Democracy and Human Rights in Yemen

Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkol Karman inspired the audience with her interview on the final day of #LINO19. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Every year, on the final day of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, the young scientists are treated to a boat trip to Mainau Island. Located in the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg, Mainau lies just off the shores of Lake Constance and is home to several lush gardens, a Baroque palace, and an arboretum.

Amidst these beautiful surroundings, the spirit and energy of #LINO19 continued to rise high during an inspirational public interview with Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkol Karman. She garnered international attention after playing a key role in the 2011 pro-democracy youth uprising in her home country of Yemen, which was under the dictatorial regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at the time. Later that year, Karman became the first Arab woman and second Muslim woman — as well as the youngest recipient at the time, at 32 — to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

In conversation with Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media, Karman discussed her ongoing promotion of democracy and human rights in Yemen, the country’s current humanitarian crisis, and what might be done about it.

“I am really so proud to be with you here, along with these huge scientists…who changed the world, and my great colleagues — and I am so proud to say they are my colleagues — [the other] Nobel Prize winners, and also you as the young people who will be the next Nobel Prize winners and the next leaders of the world,” said Karman to the audience.

From a young age, Karman recognised the power of speaking out against political oppression. She organised several student rallies in Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen, while earning her degree in political science from Sana’a University. Later, she used journalism as a gateway to activism, writing candidly about the regime’s injustices and civil rights violations, despite Yemen’s severe restrictions on press freedom. In 2005, she co-founded the group Women Journalists Without Chains to promote freedom of expression and democratic rights.

Karman credits her father, a lawyer and politician, as an early influence on her strong character and boundless courage.

“Since I was a child, the first question I was asking my father was ‘What can I do for my country?’ I was never asking what can you do or what can the government do,” she said. “Always, he told me to be responsible, to carry the initiative, to do something, and also to be in the front line.”

From 2005 to 2010, she regularly led demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir Square. Many thought she would get bored and eventually give up, but the situation suddenly swung in her favor in late 2010, when the Arab Spring became to sweep across the Middle East from Tunisia. She gained prominence in her country as a leadership figure, becoming known as the “Mother of the Revolution” and paving the way for the participation of women in peace-building work.

However, with her struggle for democracy has come an arrest, threats on her three children’s lives, and even an attempted assassination. Her opponents have tried everything to scare her into compliance, but without as much as an inch of success.

“When they arrested me, they made me stronger than before. When I was weak, I was a little afraid because they can reach me and my kids,” she said. “But when they arrested me — and they were so stupid when they did that — they made my voice more strong, and they gave me more power inside Yemen and outside Yemen.”

Although President Saleh finally resigned in 2012 after the Yemeni revolution, Karman’s mission is far from over. Her country is currently suffering through what the United Nations has called “the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster.” Yemen is in the midst of a civil war, now in its fourth year, that has left 24 million people — an estimated 80 percent of the entire population — in desperate need of aid or protection. Civilians are being injured or killed at an alarming rate, and millions more are malnourished, homeless, or sick with cholera.

But Karman and the Yemeni people haven’t lost hope. She noted that Yemen has endured almost 5.000 years of civilisation and is a country with a rich history of democracy. They have much to be proud of, despite the hardships they currently face, including natural resources, stunning lands, and an incredibly resilient people.

“If I speak about the Yemen of my childhood, it is the same Yemen that I am living in now because I never left…The Yemen in my mind is the great Yemen,” said Karman. “The most important thing that we have is a great people, a very strong people who want to change their situation and who made the greatest peaceful revolution against the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

More videos of lectures and discussions of #LINO19 can be watched in our mediatheque.

Meeri Kim

Meeri N. Kim, PhD works as a science writer who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, Philly Voice and Oncology Times. She writes for The Washington Post’s blog “To Your Health,” has a column for Philly Voice called “The Science of Everything” and her work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Edible Philly and LivableFuture. In 2013, Meeri received a PhD in physics from the University of Pennsylvania for her work in biomedical optics.