Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman spoke at the 2021 Pearson Global Forum.

Misinformation, falsification of the facts or “at best, the presentation of half of the story,” are among the worst manifestations of the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman told the 2021 Pearson Global Forum

Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Tehran – which Karman calls “the capitals of the counterrevolution in the region” – have mobilized to undermine the Arab Spring revolutions that democratized countries across the region, including Yemen. Their hope is that the dreams of change and demands for freedom and democracy don’t spread, she said in her Oct. 13 keynote address on “The Future of Yemen.” 

Karman’s keynote address was just one lens through which the Oct. 12-14 Pearson Global Forum – titled “Information in Conflict”– examined how both misinformation and disinformation have flourished in the digital age and how that affects conflict. Hosted by the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, this fourth annual forum was a virtual event with policymakers, scholars and leaders from around the world exploring topics ranging from “Misinformation: Why Is It a Problem?” to “Russia's Firehose of Falsehoods.”  

Over three days, the forum focused on the manipulation of knowledge and the impact of social media on global affairs; the impact of misinformation in Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia; and artificial intelligence and international security, cyber abuse, security and defense. 

Professor James A. Robinson serves as institute director of The Pearson Institute.

“Misinformation and disinformation in a world undergoing a digital revolution have profound implications for our future, particularly when it comes to global conflict,” said Professor James A. Robinson, director of the Pearson Institute. “The world-class leaders, scholars and experts who participated in the Pearson Global Forum increased the depth of our understanding about these concerns and pointed out ways to inform policy and maximize the potential to prevent and resolve conflict.” 

One of those leaders was Karman, who is known in Yemen’s youth movement as “Mother of the Revolution” and won her Nobel in 2011 along with Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work.” 

Katherine Baicker, dean and Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris

In her introduction of Karman, Katherine Baicker, dean and the Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris, noted that as “policymaking has always relied on good information,” the stakes have never been higher. “We've never had more information, but it's never been harder to sort out the information from the noise and the misinformation in the world,” she said.  

Karman devoted her address to sorting out information – telling “the story of Yemen.” 

With its strategic location on the Red and Arabian seas, Yemen has a “glorious history” stretching back thousands of years, she said. But, she added, when talking about the current civil war and Yemen’s path to peace, “it's very important to start with the nature of the regime that was ousted by the peaceful Yemen revolution” during the Arab Spring. 

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had taken office in 1990 after leading North Yemen from 1978, led “a failed and corrupt authoritarian regime that during three decades of its miserable rule brought Yemen to a terrible state of deterioration and failure,” Karman said. 

“The peaceful revolution cannot be viewed as a luxury or a reckless whim,” Karman said. “It was, like the other Arab Spring revolutions, an urgent need which came in response to Yemeni youth who were fed up with the state of corruption, tyranny, female exclusion, marginalization, nepotism, and bribery.” 

 But the peaceful revolution, which ousted Saleh, and the subsequent transitional process started to create a democratic Yemeni state “were subjected to regional conspiracy and international betrayal that produced counterrevolution, war, internal fighting, and external interference,” Karman said. 

War has continued for seven years, she said, and “is still destroying everything in Yemen – land and people” and the dream that ignited the revolution. 

Ali Abdullah Saleh was deposed as President of Yemen following the Arab Spring.

Unleashed in September 2014, the latest conflict began when the Iranian-backed Houthi movement (which officially calls itself Ansar Allah, or “Supporters of God”) invaded the capital city, Sanaa, conspiring with Saleh to disrupt a referendum on a new constitution. A Saudi-led military intervention targeting the Houthis began in 2015, Karman said, “under the cover of supporting Yemini legitimacy, however, it is clear today that after seven years of war it has another agenda [which is] to divide and destroy Yemen.” (Saleh was later killed by a Houthi sniper in 2017).

Saudi Arabia, which neighbors Yemen, and Iran are now locked in “frantic competition” for control in the country, she said.

“As a result of the Houthi coup, and the Saudi-Emirates war in Yemen and the failure of the Yemeni politicians, Yemen today is witnessing a disaster that the world has said is man-made,” she said, “But the truth is that it is a disaster made by tyrants and the enemies of freedom.” 

 “And in light of a shameful and painful global silence,” Karman added, “Yemen is experiencing the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has witnessed in decades.” 

The United Nations, too, labels the situation the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” putting the civil war death toll at over 200,000 and estimating that 4 million people have been uprooted from their homes.

“The main reason for all the disasters that happened and are happening in Yemen is to make Yemeni people an example to other people in the region who dare to dream and talk about change. There are many countries in the region who want to give their people a scary lesson.” 

If this war continues, Karman said, it is not only an issue for Yemen but is a danger to regional and global peace and security. 

She outlined several measures she sees as necessary to end the conflict, including stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and preventing weapons from Iran reaching the Houthis. She also said the international community must live up to its pledge to push for an end to fighting and sponsor the transitional process for Yemen’s return to a functioning state. 

“If external interference is stopped – and by that I mean the Saudi, Emirati, and Iranian interference – we will not only make peace but we will establish a pre-democratic state, a state with justice and the rule of law, and we will be a strategic partner in maintaining the security and stability of the world,” she said.

The first step, she said, is stopping the war and then, after a Saudi/Emirati withdrawal, resuming the interrupted political process, working with the United Nations to form a military committee that would withdraw weapons from all militias in the country and build an army, starting reconstruction and winning a commitment from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to compensate Yemen.

“After every war there will be peace. There is no war forever,” she said, and “Yemenis are ready and longing for peace.”

But “whoever thinks that Yemen is easy to swallow and that its people are easy to tame is committing a grave mistake. The matter is very complicated, but Yemeni people possess a longstanding legacy of pride, dignity, resistance and disobedience.”