April 25, 2011

Pardon Me, But …

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Richard Nixon was pardoned, but he was shamed; Scooter Libby’s sentence was commuted, but he was reviled; and a dictatorial autocrat was accused of permitted violent crimes and murder against hundreds of people but was sent to the Gulf coast to live in luxury. One of these things is not like the others.

Several days ago, Yemeni officials announced that President Ali Abdullah Saleh had accepted a proposal, crafted by the Cooperative Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), granting him immunity from prosecution for his crimes against the Yemeni people. He has 30 days to vacate the country and recieves complete immunity, along with other members of his regime. A coalition government will be established within the week. Saleh and his family will live out their lives in comfort in other Gulf states, despite Saleh’s 33-year abuse of power, consistent violation of human rights and suppression of the Yemeni people through an extensive security apparatus.

Since the anti-government protests started in January, BBC estimates that Yemeni security forces have been responsible for over 130 deaths. In the last week, as protests proliferated in light of the GCC’s proposal, troops began firing at protesters and using tear gas, wounding dozens and killing some. These desperate attempts of Saleh’s regime to hold onto power and quell the uprising come in the face of region-wide protests against autocratic leaders.

Ostensibly, granting immunity is the fastest way to get oppressive leaders out of office, preventing them from ordering further violent crimes against protesters or organized opposition movements. The countries in the GCC, however, are in the same region as Yemen, facing the same risks of uprising as Yemen and have witnessed the diffusion of protest movements across the Arab world over the last few weeks. On account of these facts, I’m inclined to believe that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar acted more out of vested self-interest when brokering the immunity deal than out of concern for the well-being of the Yemeni people. When the Organizing Committee of the Youth Revolution, one of the opposition protest groups in Yemen, complained that the GCC effort came out of a desire to save the regime and not the people, perhaps they were right.

Another complaint that the Organizing Committee expressed after news of the deal broke was that the 30-day period given to Saleh to exit the country was far too long. This criticism is extremely valid and applies to many instances in which immunity is granted. When autocratic leaders are allowed time to exit their posts, with no stipulations or serious obligations to cease their activities before they depart, they are essentially provided with a blank check to commit as many violent acts as they want against opponents before leaving. No matter how many acts of aggression, for example, Saleh might order over the next month to quell the protests — which are sure to continue — his immunity will not be revoked. Indeed, these acts of violence will only serve to increase justification for the immunity deal in the first place. It’s an autocratic catch-22 — do we revoke immunity if Saleh acts out, or do we still provide him with immunity to curb a process that might have been started because he knew he had a way out?

Indeed, politicians act violently because they know their actions might extend into normal terms, away from those twilight times between protests and departure. If leaders know that there’s a precedent set in their region where people who organize mass murder and suppression get set free with no legal consequences, what is to curb their behavior?  As the international community, we want to incentivize countries in autocratic regions to break away from that pattern, not encourage them to imitate other repressive regimes in the area.

In order to foster the potential for successful democratization, we need to send the message that there is accountability to the people. In America, the government institutionally listens to the people, and if leaders commit crimes then the public has the ability to make them legally responsible. I’m guessing if you’re reading this, a soldier hasn’t shot at you in a public square, and if one did, you’d definitely be interested in suing the official who told him to do so. The Yemeni people will not get to hold Saleh responsible, and the international community is doing nothing to help them do so. Instead, they must rely on supranational infrastructures to deal with domestically repressive regimes. People interested in stability should participate in measures that aid the empowerment of the people — the legitimization of the people’s voice.

The alternative to granting immunity is supporting opposition groups, which sometimes results in other countries acting too involved for their own or the populace’s good. I think, however, that the time allowed for opposition parties to foster their own identity and develop will actually help fill the power vacuum better than an immediate transition government would — one with no identity, forged arbitrarily from what other countries think is appropriate and democratic. People will die but ultimately the utilitarian good prevails because a group that is sufficiently developed to fill that power vacuum is victorious. Stability will reign if opposition groups develop as political movements with roots in the country’s affairs, not as a propped-up “unity” government like the one the GCC has proposed in Yemen.

I think the international community should take a hard line against groups like the GCC. The United States has close economic ties with Gulf states.  This leaves us with not only a vested interest in the stability of the region in the future, but also with financial bargaining tools to achieve that stability. Leaving a huge power gap and a weak coalition government comprised of political movements who have failed to unite in the past is not something that will encourage democratization or stability, especially in the Arab world.

Maggie Henry is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry