December 15, 2011

Yemen's Karman Magnifies Heat On Western Capitals

In late October Tawwakul Karman paid a visit stateside. Unable to halt the unilateral passage of UN resolution 2014, an internationalized process to validate the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative in Yemen, the Nobel laureate turned to her next target: America’s capital. Karman has familiarized herself with numerous foreign officials through her activist organization, Women Journalists Without Chains, and isn’t new to high-stakes politics.

She wasted no time jumping onto the international stage after receiving the Nobel prize, and potentially ran ahead of herself by dreaming of Yemen’s presidency.

However Karman dwells on the rim of youth at 32, leading her to constantly refine the rougher edges of her statecraft. Entering Washington with a mixed tone, Karman mingled with congressional officials and State Department representatives in preparation for her meeting with Hillary Clinton. She then blasted the Obama administration for failing to support Yemen’s pro-democracy movement.

“In Yemen it has been nine months that people have been camped in the squares,” Karman explained. “Until now we didn’t see that Obama came to value the sacrifice of the Yemeni people. Instead the American administration is giving guarantees to Saleh... There is no accountability for Saleh in the U.N.-backed plan, which was developed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).”

Possibly fearful of losing her audience, or believing that cooperation would bear more fruit, Karman subsequently fell back to the diplomatic high-ground for her appointment with Clinton. The Secretary did begin Yemen’s revolution as one of Karman’s heroes, and the latter might have wished to keep this connection alive. The two emerged with smiles and warm rhetoric after a private meeting. Clinton would mundanely declare, “the United States wants to be a good partner for the Yemeni people as they fulfill the aspirations of the revolution of the youth of Yemen.”

Although believing the opposite, Karman played along and thanked the “American people and American administration.” Her momentary acquiescence allowed the Obama administration to exploit her and shove her out the backdoor. Despite telling Clinton that “Ali Saleh and his regime is over,” unflinching U.S. support for the GCC’s initiative has left the majority of his regime in power. The State Department recently joined other foreign powers in praising Yemen’s new “unity” government.

Perhaps Karman views the British government for what it is in Yemen - a lapdog of Washington - or maybe she decided to prevent a repeat of her whitewashed trip to America’s capital. As part of her long voyage home from Oslo, where she picked up her Nobel and delivered an impassioned speech, Karman stopped over in London to meet with the world’s largest Yemeni diaspora. She also took the opportunity to meet with William Hague, the UK’s Foreign Minister, and spoke before an assortment of parliamentarians and humanitarian officials (the EU recently increased its aid).

"You didn't do your duty yet," Karman said. "Not like you did in Egypt, not like you did in Tunisia."

Speaking to the international community as a whole rather than the United Kingdom, Karman reminded Western governments that neither she nor Yemen’s pro-democracy movement accepts the GCC’s deal as is. Her demands remain unchanged: the UN must refer Saleh to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and freeze any foreign assets.She also criticized Yemen’s impending presidential “election” and its single consensus candidate, VIce President

Nor does Karman accept Hague’s “logic” as Western capitals prepare to leave Saleh in power for another three months. Karman appears to be speaking to the Obama administration through Britain’s government when she says “they have to take their responsibility. And they have to be clever, not stupid. Please don’t play with Ali Saleh. Don’t give him a chance to cheat you more and more and more.”

“Three months is a long time. It means, enter Yemen to civil war. And I warn you because you are silent, you encourage him by your silence to do that.”

In general, the Nobel’s youngest laureate criticized the West’s double-standard response to the Arab revolutions: "Human rights is human rights. Democracy is democracy. You don't support these things by half. You don't stand with one country but don't stand with another."

Hague, of course, followed Clinton’s path by gliding over Karman’s criticism. London remains a staunch backer of the U.S.-drafted GCC proposal, and Hague praised the “new” government only days before her arrival. Hague predictably failed to advance his government’s position after meeting with Karman, instead reverting to the Western script: “We discussed the importance of peaceful and inclusive political transition in Yemen and I reiterated the UK Government’s ongoing commitment to supporting this.”

As if Karman approved.

Yet the immediate déjà vu of Clinton and Hague isn’t sufficient reason to change political course. Karman is more likely to achieve results through forceful diplomacy, as a softer tone failed to produce in Washington or Paris (where Foreign Minister Alain Jappe falsely promised to “discuss” an asset freeze). The West may be deaf to Yemen’s revolutionaries, but they should continue speaking the truth until someone finally listens.

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