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Did the U.N. Security Council just grant amnesty to Yemen’s Saleh?

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on Friday to condemn Yemen’s bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters, and endorsed a regional political initiative aimed at securing President Ali Abdullah Saleh‘s commitment to leave office. The passage of the resolution marks the first time the 15-nation council has weighed in on the political crisis, which has played ...

Vatican-Pool/Getty Images
Vatican-Pool/Getty Images

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on Friday to condemn Yemen’s bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters, and endorsed a regional political initiative aimed at securing President Ali Abdullah Saleh‘s commitment to leave office.

The passage of the resolution marks the first time the 15-nation council has weighed in on the political crisis, which has played out over more than 9 bloody months.

It placed the U.N. squarely behind a 6 and a half month-old proposal by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that would grant immunity to Saleh and his inner circle if they agree to step aside.

The amnesty provision was sharply criticized by Yemen’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Tawakkul Karman, who told reporters outside the council after the vote that she would press for Saleh to be tried by an International Criminal Court.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) also opposed an amnesty for serious crimes. “International law prohibits the use of amnesties that prevent the prosecution of individuals for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity or gross violation of human rights,” said Rupert Colville, the spokesman for UNHCR. “That would apply in this situation as in any other.”

British and German officials defended today’s resolution, noting that while it endorsed the GCC initiative, it also included a provision stressing “that all those responsible for violence, human rights violations and abuses should be held accountable.”

After the U.N. vote, Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall-Grant, who led the negotiations, appealed to Saleh to immediately sign the GCC settlement and implement the political transition in Yemen.

The United States, which has cooperated closely with Saleh on counterterrorism matters since the 9/11 attacks, has been pressing the Yemeni leader to cede power for several months. Washington’s support for today’s resolution reflects growing frustration with Saleh’s refusal to go despite repeated pledges he would do so.

After the vote, the White House issued a statement saying that “over the past nine months, the Yemeni people have braved repression and violence to demand a more just, accountable, and democratic government. Today the international community sent a united and unambiguous signal to President Saleh that he must respond to the aspirations of the Yemeni people by transferring power immediately.”

Security Council diplomats have effectively accepted the Gulf leaders’ contention that it would be impossible to convince Saleh to yield power without a guarantee that he and his closes aides won’t be prosecuted. “It’s the only game in town,” said Germany’s U.N. ambassador Peter Wittig.

The resolution “strongly condemns the continued human rights violation by the Yemeni authorities” and “expresses profound regret at the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including women and children.” It also demands that all opposition movements refrain from violence and provocation “for perpetrating human rights abuses.” The resolution calls on the U.N. to report back to the Security Council in 30 days to revisit the matter.

A report by the UNHCR last month concluded that “many Yemenis, peacefully calling for greater freedoms, an end to corruption and respect for the rule of law, have been met with an excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force by the state. Hundreds have been killed and thousands have suffered injuries, including loss of limbs.”

The demonstrators have provided a backdrop to an increasingly violent power struggle between Saleh and his supporters, on one side, and armed opponents, including al Qaeda elements, on the other, according to the report. Today’s U.N. resolution, which presses for restraint on all sides, reflected on the complexity of the crisis.

In April, the GCC drafted a political settlement that would commit Saleh to transfer powers to his vice president, followed by elections and the drafting of a new constitution. In return, Saleh and his advisers would be granted immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during the crackdown. Yemen’s main opposition alliance, the Joint Meeting Parties, signed the accord. But Saleh has refused to do so.

In recent weeks, Saleh’s government has intensified its military crackdown on protesters, while armed groups, including al Qaeda, have targeted government buildings and officials.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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