In a December speech at Chatham House, Nobel Laureate Tawakul Karman addressed the London public. She voiced two demands: freeze former Yemeni President Ali Saleh’s assets, an independent investigation into alleged war crimes. But in light of recent developments surrounding former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure, she must broaden the agenda in order to help bring about a total transition to democracy.
“With you we will build a new world,” Karman told the London audience as she urged them to help freeze Saleh’s assets—the assets of his regime and the assets of his family. Money is power for Karman and many Yemenis, and that power was used to sustain the violence committed against the Yemeni public during their struggles since January 2011.
According to the account Karman gave in her speech, these struggles led to the injury or death of 28,000 people, and are not yet over. Even in the lead-up to expected democratic elections later this spring, there is still constant protesting in the streets and violent clashes among opposition groups. The country is also closer to the edge of economic collapse than ever before. President Saleh’s presence in Yemen is still strong and his interference is unabated.
Salah reneged on the peace deal first brokered by the GCC in April 2011, which required him to step down. A new deal signed in late November requires Saleh to back down by the end of January. In exchange, Saleh will receive immunity, as will members of his administration. The country’s new interim president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, is now threatening to leave after reports that Saleh and his administration continue to meddle in the country’s affairs. Clearly, attempts to remove Saleh from power have not removed the problem.
Karman seems to think freezing Saleh’s assets could provide some incentive for him to cooperate, which is perhaps why she chose London as the platform to ask for the West’s help in freezing his assets. As it now stands, Saleh continues freely interfering in Yemeni government affairs and his wealth, despite the suspicion that he obtained the wealth through corruption and crime. This provides the foundation for Karman’s second request: prioritize UNSC Resolution 2014, which calls for an independent investigation into the war crimes that allegedly occurred in Yemen.
Perhaps the most disturbing news for Karman and the spirit of the pro-democracy protesters in Yemen is that the US, perceived as the world’s great protector of democratic values, has offered its support for the Saleh amnesty deal. This support comes much to the dismay of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the latter of which called it a “smack in the face for justice.”
Certainly, the US has its own interests at stake: appeasing the GCC is a top priority. Karman makes a solid point regarding the freezing of assets, in pointing out that harsher international action was taken with Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s dictator Muammar Qadhafi. Why is there not the same reaction to Saleh? It is difficult to justify the asymmetrical approaches.
The US has stated that the deal is necessary to convince Saleh his time is over, but there are few incentives to prevent future meddling when there are no repercussions and no accountability. Additionally, without holding Saleh to public account, his memory will be strong in the minds of the Yemeni public and his supporters may be emboldened by this perceived success. Freezing Saleh’s assets does little to bring a sense of justice or closure to Yemenis. This is why Karman’s agenda must expand to include persuading the US to overturn their support for Saleh’s amnesty deal.
Her credentials are right for the job. Already, Karman is the co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership during the initial protests. She is the first Yemeni —and the first Arab woman —to win the prize. Despite her broken English, her intentions and passions were clear throughout the Chatham House speech: hallmarks of an effective leader.
Since she is a member of the Al-Islah opposition party, winning over the US could still prove quite difficult, Other members of the party are seen as conservative and extreme, and some have been flagged by the US. This is, however, the same political party that brought her into Yemen’s parliament and supported her as she established Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005.
Additionally, the US has a rationale behind their backing of the amnesty package, seeing it as an effective method to oust Saleh while preventing further bloodshed. However, this theory has holes. It is more likely that if Saleh is not held to account he will continue to rifle in the affairs of the state, and there will be further violence as protesters continue their struggle against his authority and fight for their vision of a truly democratic Yemen.
What Karman offers best is a ‘boots on the ground’ perspective, and it is evident that in her opinion the West has a role to play. In her speech, she promised that as Yemen surprised the world with a revolution, it will surprise them again with the creation of a great Yemen. It may just be a matter of which Western nations will actually take solid steps to support the Yemeni people and support justice over the appeasement of oil-rich states as they work towards such goals.