Southerners’ Right to Self-determination: Between Hopes and Concerns


Sat, 07-05-2022 02:13 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24)

Given the developments of the Yemeni scene and the sequence of local and regional interactions with its events since the outbreak of the civil war in 2014 in comparison with what happened before 2011, particularly since the beginning of the peaceful Southern movement (Hirak) in South Yemen in 2007, talking about the Southerners' right to self-determination will seem too early. It is not probably the proper time to talk about that according to what the Northern elites usually suggest on most occasions. However, talking about this issue is not new, as Southern political forces used to present such a vision to solve the unity crisis. On the other hand, more radical Southern forces used to present the term “independence” from North. They see that South was occupied in the 1994 War. They believe that such a war nullified all pacts and agreements accompanied the Yemeni Unity in 1990. Meanwhile, they see that the circulation of the term “disengagement” means recognition of Unity although it ended as soon as Ali Abdullah Saleh forces invaded South. They argue that such a notion should have been prior to the 1994 War not after it.

Anyway, most Southerners agree that it is their right to decide the most suitable solutions for them whether through maintaining Unity under any framework or not keeping it. A large percentage of the Southern political forces see that self- determination could be the most logical solution to address the troubled scene in Yemen since 1994. This is in light of the laws and the international treaties which have evolved over time including the "Declaration of Principles of International Law" concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the "Charter of the United Nations" as approved by the General Assembly in its resolution 2625 (XXV) of 1960. It officially declared “the principle of equality of peoples in their rights and the right to self-determination”. This principle stated that “the establishment of a sovereign and independent state, the free association or integration with an independent State or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people constitute modes of implementing the right of self-determination by that people” [1].

The first part of Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966 stipulated that: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”. It added that: “All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence” [2]. It is remarkable that this right topped other human rights included in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights due to its importance and because this right is the basis of other rights. 

We could review examples of countries which applied the right to Self- determination in the 1990s and thereafter as a solution to end their chronic conflicts and disputes. The list includes for example Yugoslavia's referendum in Europe in 1990, Slovenia’s vote in favor of independence from Yugoslavia [3], Bosnians’ vote in 1992 for independence from Yugoslavia and the establishment of Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina [4]. Moreover, "Montenegro" gained independence from Yugoslavia in 2006, and then Kosovo in 2008. In Africa, the most famous self-determination referendums include Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993 [5] and South Sudan’s independence from North in July 2011. As for Asia, East Timor's independence from Indonesia in 1999 is the most prominent [6].

It can be said that the whole self-determination referendums resulted in gaining the independence except for the Quebec referendum in Canada in 1995, which failed in its second attempt as well as the 2014 public Scottish independence referendum in which 55.42 of Scottish voters voted to keep their country as part of the United Kingdom while 44.58% voted for independence. However, Scotland's leaders still stick to making another referendum. 

It is important to note that the countries which gained their right to self-determination have relatively succeeded in quelling the conflicts and the subsequent focus on development and building. The aforementioned referendum cases differ in their historical and political roots from the position of South Yemen which was an independent State after the exit of British colonialism in 1967 before entering a unity with North Yemen in 1990. However, benefiting from the experience of countries which practiced the right to self-determination is important on the negotiation table as one of the political solutions for peace in Yemen during the incoming stage. 

Source: South24 (embedded maps)

Southern visions on self-determination

The STC has constantly called for the right to Self-determination to gain independence through its statements as one solution that guarantees the Southern people's issue. This also benefits the region’s stability, secures the interests of brothers and friends and protects the navigation lanes in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea according to the STC Spokesperson Ali Al-Kathiri" [7]. Such demands were not the first of their kind as different Southern parties previously suggested this solution during the Cairo Conference in 2011 under the slogan “together for Southern People’s self-determination” with the presence of former Presidents Ali Nasser Mohammad and Haider Abu Bakr al-Attas. The vision included a suggestion to re-formulate Yemeni Unity as a federal state consisting of two regions (Northern and Southern) based upon the borders of May 21st 1990 and with a new constitution through a 5 years transitional period followed by a referendum decided by the Southern people. However, Southern factions boycotted the conference claiming that it didn’t adopt the demand of immediate separation from North Yemen [8].

In conjunction with the Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference in 2013, President of the National Congress for Southern People, Mohammed Ali Ahmed, withdrew from the dialogue team. He justified his move as derived from his keen on not touching the national principles of Southerners regarding their right to restore their full state and self-determination as well as rejecting any projects or solutions that belittle or dodge around their national project. The withdrawal came after the exhaustion of all attempts and political efforts to reach a fair solution for the Southern issue [9]. Those demands are not different from those proposed by other Southern components. They included the revolutionary movement led by Baoum, the Inclusive Southern Conference, the Southern communities abroad, and some political parties such as South Arabian League Party. After the latest Riyadh Consultations, the party confirmed that the Southern people are the only reference to address the Southern issue, and urged the International and the regional community to supervise the Southerners’ self-determination procedures as a legitimate right guaranteed by the Charter of the United Nations and recent international law [10].

As a matter of fact, the Southerners have strived to deliver the voice of their cause abroad. For years, they tried to find an external backer who adopts their visions and ideas to solve the crisis of Yemeni Unity. The indifference by the international and regional community as well as the foreign diplomats towards such voices led to disregarding the major Southern issue and the solutions presented by the Southerners. This led to the exacerbation of the situation and produced new waves of violence in Yemen. Therefore, the international community and the foreign decision makers will have to absorb the visions raised by the Southerners to deeply understand the Southern issue’s dimensions and local dynamics. They have to improve their contact with the Southern leaders to pave the way for a sustainable peace in Yemen.

The regional balances and the Northern concerns

In 2015, the UAE played a major role in supporting the Southern forces as a main partner as part of the Saudi-led Arab Coalition. The UAE is at the top of those influential forces who later established the STC. It made a remarkable contribution in organizing the Southern Resistance and equipping the Southern security and military forces whether in the Southern areas, Aden-Lahj, Hadramout and Shabwa, or in the North towards the western coast in addition to its support of the Southern Giant Brigades. Although the UAE’s disclosed stance doesn’t support Southern independence, it has been the first foreign ally to adopt a smart policy in dealing with the Southerners and understanding the sensitivity of their position. Meanwhile, it took into consideration the relationships with other anti-Houthi Yemeni forces apart from the Islah Party (the Muslim Brotherhood).

As for Saudi Arabia, It didn’t forge a close relationship with the Southerners until before the outbreak of the 2014 War. It focused on North Yemen especially during the last years of the six Saada wars 2004-2009, because of the threats of the Yemeni inflamed areas on its southern borders. Saudi Arabia also had concerns towards the spread of the so-called “Al-Shabab Al-Momin” (the Young Believers) who are later known as the “Houthis”. This could increase the Iranian influence on the border governorate of Saada which is adjacent to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia remained focused on North Yemen even after 2011 although the peaceful Southern Hirak was in its peak before the Yemeni change crisis. However, the Southerners were met with a kind of disregard. The interest in South Yemen was directed towards combating terrorism although former President “Saleh” was not a reliable partner in this file. 

Moreover, the Saudi policy continued playing the sponsorship role to manage the Yemeni variations. It realized the importance of the Southerners’ influence after the 2015 War and the impact of making balances among different parties. It sponsored “the Riyadh Agreement” to defuse the crisis between the Yemeni government and the STC in 2019. Thus, the Southerners became a main partner in the new government. It sponsored the latest  intra- Yemeni Consultations in Riyadh which changed the structure of the Yemeni Presidency. STC President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi became a Member of the newly-formed Presidential Council despite his anti-Unity political stance among the other Southern members in the Presidential Council.

It can be said that the regional stance, led by the KSA and the UAE became more absorbing and more aware of the importance of the Southerners’ issue in the political scene. This is as important as their war to end the Houthi coup against the state in Yemen. It is pointless to postpone dealing with the Southerners sufficiently to support their political choices. Firstly, they proved their reliability as a strategic ally in the war against terrorism and the Houthis. Secondly, the security of the KSA and its neighbors is associated with the security and the stability of Yemen in both South and North. It is expected that the international and the regional community, foremost of which is the KSA, will support any option agreed by the Yemeni to end the war during the incoming period. This was expressed by Saudi Ambassador in Yemen “Mohammed Al Jaber” in his televised response to a question about his country's stance towards the Unity issue. He said: “The KSA will support any decision agreed upon by the Yemeni parties without the use of force against any party” [11]. This implies that the official Saudi stance which was strict in its adherence to Unity has become more flexible than before.

On the other hand, the Northerners have to deal with the Situation in South in a different way and try to think outside the Unity box. It seems that the media pumping which has aimed at inciting people resulted in adopting a hostile approach against all who call for getting out that box. Furthermore, there is an apparent grassroot emotional sentiment in North towards the Unity as a result of the political upbringing associated with it and its accompanying pumping by the former authority. As for the Northern elite, the matter is more related to power after more than three decades of strong centrality. They fear losing influence on important strategic areas such as South Yemen which has vast geographical areas, huge economic resources and wealth. Additionally, this could open new doors related to several human rights and political demands at the level of North itself such as the Tuhamai issue. 

Self-determination in the negotiation framework

The Southern efforts in the latest Riyadh Consultations were enhanced to enlist the Southern People issue in the negotiations agenda to end the war in Yemen. The STC was keen to add this formula to the Consultations outputs to serve as a main starting point for proceeding with the expected negotiation process with the Houthis. The STC is expected to present a viable project such as “the right to self-determination” in the negotiation agenda schedule of the UN Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg. It is more likely that beginning discussing the Southerners' issue without putting visions and viable projects as solutions will prolong its negotiation context and would open the door for controversy and disagreements which won't not be limited at the level of the Southern parties but also among the Northern ones.

Thus, the Southern parties are expected to agree on presenting the “self-determination” vision during the final solution negotiations for a comprehensive peace in Yemen based upon the broad popular support of this option. It can be presented as part of a specific time frame with a mechanism sponsored by the UN, and a referendum monitored by it. Naturally, the Southern attempts to propose solutions should enjoy the attention and the support of the international and regional community for a sustainable peace in Yemen and the stability of the region’s security. 

Executive Director of South24 for News and Studies
Photo: The flag of Southern Yemen (South Yemen) currently raised at the UN Headquarters in New York - South24 Screenshot (Original video

[1] Information about The UN and decolonization (
[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - University of Minnesota, Human Rights Library (
[3] #AllezDemocracy 03 - The Slovenian independence referendum (1990) (FEATURED DOCUMENTS) - Archives Portal Europe
[4] The backstages of the 1992 Bosnian Referendum for independence from Yugoslavia - YouTube
[5] Declaration of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea after twenty years of war (
[6] East Timor... 20 Years of the Independence of the "Catholi Country" from Indonesia | (
[7] The STC: We call for the right to self-determination and the post- Riyadh agreement is not the same as before it - 02.02.2021, Sputnik Arabic (
[8] The “Cairo Conference” announces a vision for resolving the Southern issue that proposes a federal state of two regions for a period of five years, followed by a referendum on Yemeni unity - (
[9] (Southerners withdraw from the Dialogue Conference in Yemen (Reuters
[10] The South Arab League Party calls on the regional and international community to supervise the procedures for the Southerners’ right of self-determination - Aden 24 (
[11] Watch what the Saudi Ambassador said about the Southern issue and the KSA's support for the Yemeni decision - YouTube

South YemenIndependenceNorth YemenReferendumArab CoalitionRiyadh ConsultationsHouthisSelf determination