Intense conflict is on the cards
The Yemeni government’s endorsement of an amnesty “against legal and judicial prosecution” for the supposedly outgoing president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and all his aides “who worked with him in all government, civil and military departments during the years of his rule” flies in the face of not only the people of Yemen but also the international community.
The move came two days after a declaration by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay that granting amnesty to Saleh and his cronies would be against international law. Ironically, the UN position is likely to strengthen the embattled strongman’s apparent resolve to torpedo the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative that set the ground for a peaceful transition of power. Saleh could even use Pillay’s argument as a pretext to hold onto power while he continues to harbor hopes of a comeback and attempts to crush the anti-regime rebellion using his powerful security forces.
The draft law for amnesty, “which applies to all acts committed before it is issued,” now goes to parliament for ratification, but there is no assurance that the Saleh regime would accept that its continued crackdown on protesters is not covered under the deal.
Yemenis are appalled at the all-inclusive amnesty, which Saleh has used to secure the continued loyalty of his cronies who could also face trial in its absence.
Although he signed the GCC initiative in November and agreed to transfer power to his deputy, Vice-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Saleh has shown every sign that he has no intention to let go of dominating control over his country.
He has only nominally stepped down, but retains all his presidential powers. Saleh’s son and nephew control the strongest security forces of the country and Hadi, who has always lived under the president’s shadow, is in no position to assert authority. Hadi himself has accused Saleh of interference in the state’s affairs and warned that he would leave the capital if his one-time boss continues to exercise presidential powers.
Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) is part of the coalition government sworn in by Hadi, and his close loyalists remain in key positions in government (although several of them were forced out in recent weeks in minor blows to the beleaguered autocrat).
The state media continues to refer to Saleh as president and to carry reports on his movements and decisions as head of state.
That is the status quo pending parliamentary approval of the GCC-brokered agreement that should come in 90 days from the signing of the November deal.
In her comments on Friday, Pillay pointedly noted: “International law and the UN policy are clear on the matter: amnesties are not permissible if they prevent the prosecution of individuals who may be criminally responsible for international crimes including war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and gross violations of human rights.”
She also reminded the Yemeni parliament that an amnesty for Saleh would be in violation of Yemen’s international human rights obligations.
The UN rights chief’s call is unlikely to persuade the Yemeni parliament, which is dominated by the GPC, to vote against the amnesty deal. If anything, it would be passed with a strong majority since those who are anxious to see the long-time strongman out would also be voting in its favor.
The tricky part is that after the vote Saleh could try to buy more time by citing the UN position and arguing that he needs further guarantees that post-revolt Yemen will respect the amnesty deal and he and his cronies will not be prosecuted.
His challengers insist that Saleh should not be allowed to get out of the country and should be put on trial for “war crimes and crimes against humanity” at the International Criminal Court.
Obviously, the mercurial Yemeni leader, who has always thrived on playing one against another throughout his 33-year reign, would turn to the GCC and the US, which supports the deal for power transition. He could even hinge his compliance with the agreement on such a guarantee that no one would be able to provide. And that would mean continued strife in the country since Saleh would certainly use everything in his power to fight off his foes while also eyeing how best he could wave the Al-Qaeda card at the US. He has always played on US concerns that his departure from power could lead to Yemen being controlled by Al-Qaeda forces who would turn the country into another Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
In fact, he ceded territory to Al-Qaeda -linked militants in the south in the second half of last year to strengthen that perception while he was in Saudi Arabia receiving medical treatment for wounds he suffered in an attack on his presidential compound in June.
Until late last month, there was an expectation that Saleh would leave for the US and could even remain there under some arrangement made with Washington. However, the administration of President Barack Obama did not seem to be very enthusiastic over the idea of hosting a former head of state accused of killing his own people. The US State Department repeatedly said one-time ally’s request for a visit for medical treatment was under review before the Yemeni leader said he had changed his mind and was not leaving the country. His aides described the decision as response to concerns that his departure could be bad for Yemen and the ruling party.
However, his foes argue that his continued grip on power is the source of instability in Yemen and Sunday’s government approval of the amnesty deal would only fuel their anger. They will not allow Saleh to continue his oppressive reign, directly or by proxy, under whatever pretext.
It is difficult to see how the two positions could be reconciled. Short of a miracle or a dramatically unexpected development, an intensified conflict is on the cards for Yemen.