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.

AP Photo/Hanoi Mohammed
A protester with Yemen's flag painted on his body at a Feb. 22 rally in the capital of Senaa. The rally demanded prosecution of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The dictator was granted full immunity in exchange for this week's elections, but will his amnesty hold over time? Other dictators will be watching.

After 33 years, Yemen is finally rid of its autocratic ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh – but not necessarily free of his shadow.

With hope in their hearts, Yemenis surged to the polls this week to elect his replacement as president, the US-backed Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Mr. Hadi holds the possibility for a peaceful transition in this fourth country to lose a dictator in the Arab Spring uprising.

But Mr. Hadi was vice president in the Saleh regime as well as the only candidate on the ballot. And there’s another problematic side to this election. Mr. Saleh, who is in the United States receiving medical treatment, will not be going to jail, at least not for the foreseeable future.

To smooth the path to his departure, Yemen’s parliament granted him a broad amnesty. It covers all crimes committed by Saleh during his entire rule, including the killings of hundreds of protesters over the last year.

Amnesty is still a central component of many political transitions despite the global expansion and promotion of trials for human rights violations.

Yet the Saleh case, depending on its long-term outcome, could potentially make such bargains less likely in the future, with an uncertain effect on global human rights.

Yemen exemplifies the political usefulness of amnesty. After mass protests against his rule began early last year, Saleh engaged in several rounds of negotiations for his extradition. In October, he agreed to leave office under a framework designed by the regional Gulf Cooperation Council, a key component of which was a wide-ranging immunity provision.

Parliament’s recent passage of the law was linked to the nomination of Vice President Hadi for the presidency – Saleh’s supporters refused to approve the nomination until the amnesty was in place. The amnesty has thus served to facilitate the final political bargain that enables a transition in Yemen.

It should not be a surprise that the Gulf Council would incorporate amnesty as part of its framework; setting a regional precedent for immunity is in the interest of the six monarchies which make up the council, all with their own skeletons in the closet. Likewise, mindful of former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak on trial, Saleh and his party leaders predictably insisted on immunity as part of any deal.

Indeed, the recent push for accountability of former dictators around the world – from Chilean Augusto Pinochet and Peruvian Alberto Fujimori to Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir – may make existing leaders more insistent on amnesty provisions in any future transitions from power.

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.

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.

Andrew G. Reiter, assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., is a scholar of transitional justice, international law and political violence.

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