Editor’s Note: On March 7, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns led the U.S. delegation to the Friends of Yemen ministerial meeting in London, United Kingdom. This meeting reaffirmed the international community’s continued support for the people of Yemen during their historic transition process, including the upcoming National Dialogue and, ultimately, national elections in early 2014. The United States is committed to the Friends of Yemen process and its goal of supporting Yemen as it endeavors to achieve meaningful political, economic, and security sector reform. As part of this commitment, Rashad Hussain, Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, recently traveled to Yemen.
As a part of our on-going efforts to deepen and expand partnerships with Muslim communities around the world, I recently visited Sana'a, Yemen. I heard first-hand from Yemeni government officials, civil society, and religious leaders about a variety of issues, including the country’s political transition and National Dialogue, U.S.-Yemen cooperation, and U.S. engagement with Muslim communities around the world. I was impressed by the passion and optimism of Yemen’s vibrant civil society, and by the determination and sincerity of its people. There is so much more happening in Yemen than what is conveyed in news headlines that I wanted to share some of my observations.
Just before my arrival, the government announced that the National Dialogue would officially begin on March 18. I spoke with a broad array of civil society activists about their goals and concerns about the National Dialogue. I encouraged the full and active participation of all parts of Yemeni society in the National Dialogue, and highlighted the important role that civil society plays in ensuring the Dialogue’s success.
I also met with a group of influential religious leaders and discussed a range of issues, including violent extremism, protecting human rights, and U.S. policies in the region. Religious leaders play a vital role in Yemeni society, and I emphasized their importance in ensuring the health, protection, and prosperity of their communities. We discussed efforts to promote humanitarian assistance and the protection of religious freedom, especially for minority groups. In discussions regarding violent extremism, I highlighted the importance of discrediting the destructive ideology of terrorism, and noted that no grievance justifies the killing of innocent people. I also questioned the idea that terrorism occurs as a response to certain policies, asking what foreign policy grievance could drive someone to bomb a religious center or a Friday prayer.
The leaders showed a clear understanding of their responsibilities, and expressed their willingness to partner with the United States on these and other initiatives. The Foreign Minister and officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs also welcomed our interest in expanding partnerships with Yemen and suggested various areas of potential cooperation, including in addressing the challenges facing Yemeni youth.
In all of my meetings, I emphasized the U.S. commitment to continued assistance in addressing these critical needs and in partnering with the people of Yemen. The U.S. government gave Yemen over $119 million in humanitarian aid last fiscal year, and plans to provide significant support this year given the severity of the crisis. The international community needs to do its part to help Yemen address its humanitarian challenges, and I will continue to urge our partners to support the UN’s Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan.
What struck me the most by my visit was the enthusiasm and hope in the eyes and voices of the people I met. Yemenis are working to build a democratic and prosperous Yemen, and we are honored to be able to support their efforts.