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International pro bono legal effort removes a Yemeni man from UN Security Council blacklist

Mon 7 March 2022


On 3 March 2022, the UN Security Council’s ISIL and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee removed Mr Naif al-Qaysi of Yemen from their global terrorism blacklist. His delisting followed an application filed with the UN Office of the Ombudsperson in 2021 by a pro bono international legal team consisting of Dr. Gavin Sullivan (Edinburgh Law School), Dr. Rachel Barnes (Three Raymond Buildings Chambers), Maryam Mir (Doughty Street Chambers), with assistance from Ruby Shrimpton (Three Raymond Buildings) and independent Yemeni human rights expert, Baraa Shibaan.

Mr al-Qaysi was a former governor of Al Baidha province in south-east Yemen. In that official role, he was responsible for reinstating the Yemeni government’s security forces in the region as part of the government’s civil war against the Houthis and working with local tribes in the area. He was put on the UN Security Council’s terrorism blacklist in 2017 at the request of the US Government, effectively ending his political career and involvement in the Yemeni National Dialogue process. The US alleged he was a senior official and financial supporter of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a UN-listed terrorist group, but failed to provide any evidence to Mr al-Qaysi supporting this claim. Mr al-Qaysi has consistently denied being associated with terrorism in any way.

The team representing Mr al-Qaysi drew on witness and expert testimony to show there was no basis for his inclusion on the UN’s global terrorism list. It was argued that the US had relied on an overly simplistic account of Yemeni tribal politics to draw terrorist ‘associations’ and used false intelligence supplied by Mr al-Qaysi’s political opponents to incorrectly target him as an alleged AQAP leader. False intelligence shared with the US has previously been used for fatal drone strikes in Yemen.

This case highlights the dangers of listing individuals as suspected terrorists on the basis of secret evidence without providing an effective remedy to challenge their listing. Whilst the UN Office of the Ombudsperson helped secure Mr Al-Qaysi’s delisting in this case, it did not challenge the original listing decision or provide Mr al-Qaysi with evidence as to why he had been targeted by sanctions in the first place. This case also shows how easily secretive UN global counterterrorism measures can readily be used by local actors in the ongoing global war on terror to target political opponents for grievances unrelated to terrorism. Without robust due process procedures to allow those targeted to defend themselves, such powerful global listing processes can readily cause grave injustice.

Dr Sullivan specialises in global counterterrorism law, technology and international human rights. His book, The Law of the List: UN Counterterrorism Sanctions and the Politics of Global Security Law won the International Studies Association’s 2021 International Law Book Prize. His current UKRI-funded research (Infra-Legalities: Global Security Infrastructures, Artificial Intelligence and International Law) examines how AI and automation is reshaping global security governance, including in the area of terrorism listing. In the 2021-22 academic year, Dr. Sullivan is a Visiting Fellow at the Princeton University Center for Human Values.


Image credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters