Yemen loses a dictator, but not his shadow
Yemen elected a new president this week, but one of the conditions for the vote was complete amnesty for the ousted longtime dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Whether that amnesty will eventually be overturned has implications for Yemen, and other dictators in the region.
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Yet Yemen also illustrates the increasing limitations of amnesty. The law has received sharp criticism from the UN and human rights organizations. More importantly, tens of thousands of youth protesters in Yemen marched in opposition to the amnesty, vowing to work to have Saleh and his associates put on trial.Skip to next paragraph
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These developments forced an eleventh-hour amendment that actually restricted the law’s coverage. Rather than full amnesty for all of Saleh’s civilian and military aides, they only received political immunity and can be held accountable for criminal or terrorist acts, though Saleh himself still goes completely free.
Yet even Saleh’s full amnesty is unlikely to last long given the current global environment. While it took over a decade, the amnesty included as part of Pinochet’s negotiated transition from power was overturned, and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest. Similarly, Taylor was granted exile in Nigeria as part of the 2003 peace agreement that orchestrated his removal from power, but he was released by Nigeria just three years later to stand trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Countless other leaders around the world have also faced prosecution for human rights violations after amnesty laws, which they believed provided them protection, were revoked by legislatures or overturned by court rulings.
In a few years, it would not be surprising to see Saleh behind bars as well, but the implications of such a development are not entirely clear for the protection of global human rights. One wonders just how long existing authoritarian leaders will be willing to strike this type of bargain to transition from rule if amnesties continue to be revoked and former dictators hunted down.
The result of such a development may be to encourage them instead to hold on to power at all costs, leading to more cases like Syria, where clashes between the regime and protesters have intensified, resulting in over 5,000 dead this past year.
Yemen thus represents a crucial case for the evolution of international law, the long-term developments of which may determine whether or not amnesty remains entrenched as a key component of political transitions, or if Saleh becomes the last example of a dictator foolishly believing he could safely step down from power and avoid jail.