September 13, 2011

U.S., UN on Quasi Collision Course

Realizing that the Obama administration's policy in Yemen will not correct itself without total revolution, the cooperation between Washington and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime must be preserved for posterity.

Seemingly breaking the monotony of a worn groove, the United Nations Human Rights Council finally condemned Saleh’s regime after months of direct negotiations with the Security Council. A team of three U.N. human rights investigators visited Yemen between June 28 to July 6, and witnessed a mere sample of Saleh’s wrath: a prevalent use of live rounds, heavy tank shelling, suffocation through tear gas, stun guns, polluted water, torture, arbitrary detention and the blocking of ambulances and hospitals.

The mission found that children are as likely to be exposed to violence as adults.

“The Mission also observed that among those seeking to achieve or retain power some have deliberately sought to collectively punish and cause severe hardship to the civilian population by cutting off vital access to basic services such as electricity, fuel and water. The Mission notes the danger that the protests might become increasingly radicalized and more violent in response to the excessive use of lethal force by the government, and the growing involvement of, and intimidation by, armed elements within the demonstrations.”

Explicit as the UNHRC’s account first appears, its report only represents a small victory for Yemen’s revolutionaries, the first of many steps that should have begun months ago. UN envoy Jamal Benomar wasted his summer meeting with representatives of Saleh’s regime in a hollow attempt to maintain legitimacy. Many Yemenis accuse the regime of manipulating the power grid when UN officials come to visit, flipping it off once they’ve made their rounds. The UNHRC report makes no mentions of the aerial bombardment against anti-government tribes in Arhab district of Sana’a, in Taiz or in the southern governorates, where Yemeni and U.S. air-strikes have killed an undisclosed number of civilians.

The report also attempts to deflect some of the blame onto Sadiq and Hamid al-Ahmar, and defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar: "All sides may be guilty of using and abusing peaceful protesters and the civilian population in this increasingly violent power struggle.”

Protesters generally share this conclusion and are using their protection for separate ends, but their level of hostility is nowhere near Saleh’s U.S.-trained Republican Guard and Central Security Organization. These forces (and the National and Political Security units) are responsible for the majority of crimes listed in the UNHRC’s report. Nor will millions of peaceful protesters appreciate being “radicalized” by the UN. Yemenis are increasingly working anti-AQ themes into their demonstration, including the next “Friday Against Terrorism,” and remain peaceful despite being surrounded by violence.

They are liable to resent the UN’s warning of “civil war,” one of Saleh’s favorite terms and schemes to spook the West. To the UNHRC's credit, its report concludes that, "street protesters have sought to maintain their peaceful character despite the heavy price in loss of life and in severe injuries that has been paid thus far."

How the UN will reconcile an “international, independent and impartial investigation” with an approved “roadmap” remains to be seen, but the two are mutually exclusive. What is the next step after fact-finding if the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) gives Saleh six months to resign, as well as immunity from those findings? Many Yemenis hope that a UN investigation will lead to an ICC warrant for Saleh’s arrest, not a “national unity government” led by his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). Yet the UNHRC’s first recommendation to the international community is to, “call on all parties in Yemen to refrain from the use of violence and to resolve their political differences through an open, transparent and comprehensive dialogue.”

In one of its first statements, the executive council of Yemen’s National Council of Revolutionary Forces announced, "As the remnants of Saleh's regime are still illegally clinging to power, the NCPRF reiterates our call for the regional and international community not to hold any future agreement with Saleh's regime.”

Of course “dialogue” is just what Washington and Riyadh intend to pursue; the two parties form the backbone of the GCC’s initiative. Naturally Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, “stressed the government’s commitment to cooperate with the Human Rights Council.” However Saleh’s regime has denied these accusations and blamed the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the very party the international community is urging to negotiate with Saleh’s Vice President, Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi.

Perhaps most importantly, Saleh’s inner circle knows that Washington is still on its side. This unflinching support will impede any international investigation and prosecution into Yemen’s human rights abuses.

Without any updates on Yemen’s revolution from the White House or State Department - standard diplomacy after months of inaction - U.S. policy remains in the possession of the Pentagon and CIA. Instead of realigning on the protesters’ side, the Obama administration has developed a new line to sell its decrepit strategy against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Echoing White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan, CIA Director David Petraeus told a House-Senate intelligence committee hearing that, “counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen has, in fact, improved in the past few months.”

This vaporous phrase is riddled with flaws. Designed to both ease and boost the fear over AQAP, the administration has used Saleh’s duplicity in the south to maintain unquestioned support for his regime. Congress is extremely hostile to Yemen and serves as a driving force behind the cheaper, “off-shore” counter-terrorism applied by Petraeus and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. U.S. lawmakers share little concern for Yemenis beyond their potential impact for “radicalization,” and have quietly supported the administration's military escalation. Most are unaware that cooperation with Saleh’s regime is, in the long and short-term, a negative development in U.S. policy.

Saleh, not AQAP, is the root source of terror in Yemen.

The established pattern of U.S. policy is as follows: coordinate with Saleh’s regime to stall the revolution, support an unpopular power transfer through the GCC and UN, exploit Saleh’s “cooperation” and the potential for “civil war” to justify the preservation of his regime. U.S. officials love to talk about how AQAP “has emerged as the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad,” but no one will catch Panetta or Petraeus talking about Yemen’s revolution.

Especially UNHRC investigators.

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