As his country faces economic and humanitarian disaster, Yemen's president seems concerned only with retaining power
guardian.co.uk, Monday 17 October 2011
Almost nine months after the uprising against President Saleh began in Yemen, it looks as though the UN security council will finally get round to issuing a resolution this week. Whether that will make any difference on the ground remains to be seen.
On Sunday, six more demonstrators were shot dead on the streets of Sana'a – reportedly by plainclothes government snipers – and clashes between pro-Saleh forces and tribal militias allied with defected elements of the Yemeni military continue unabated.
In the midst of that, Yemen, which has long been one of the world's poorest countries, continues its slide towards economic and humanitarian disaster.
"Every night, a third of the Yemeni people go to bed hungry," Valerie Amos, a UN humanitarian official, warned last week. "In some parts of the country, one in three children are malnourished – among the highest malnutrition levels in the world." Even for those who have food to eat, prices of basic commodities continue to soar.
These economic problems have been overshadowed by political conflict but they are a major factor in the country's instability. Worse still, there is no longer any prospect of tackling them while Saleh remains in power.
Not that Saleh appears particularly concerned by that. All the signs are that his main – perhaps only – priority now is to ensure that he and his family continue to hold the reins for as long as possible, even if in the end he presides over a country in ruins.
Increasingly, he seems to be harbouring Mugabe-style delusions. Last week, as word spread of the likely UN resolution, he accused diplomats of being biased against him. Foreign ambassadors, he said, "move from one opposition to the other, collect information and consider the information they get from the opposition as they if they are the victim whom they should support". He also described the local opposition as "insane [people] who can't sleep and only want to take power".
At an international level there is broad agreement that the way forward for Yemen should begin with Saleh's departure but persuading him to go is proving far more difficult than it did in Tunisia or Egypt. Among the complicating factors are American fears about al-Qaida in Yemen and Saudi Arabia's fears of a genuinely democratic transformation in its southern neighbour. The Saudis don't really care about Saleh but they are opposing any change that upsets the general status quo.
The proposed security council resolution – drafted by Britain and leaked last week – could win approval from Russia and China because, unlike the earlier resolution Syria which they vetoed, it doesn't talk of sanctions or other punitive measures. The draft "strongly condemns the continued human rights violations by the Yemeni authorities" and "demands an immediate end to all violence by all sides".
It adds that "all those responsible for human rights violations and abuses should be held accountable" – which sounds like a threat to prosecute Saleh and other offenders – while also calling on Saleh to "immediately sign and implement a political transition on the basis of the Gulf co-operation council initiative". This is where the resolution gets into a muddle. The GCC initiative includes immunity from prosecution for Saleh, so the security council cannot hold him to account for his crimes while at the same time urging him to sign the initiative.
Apart from that, there is little reason to put much faith in the GCC initiative since its "transition" timetable allows plenty of scope for Saleh to backpedal and prevaricate. He was originally supposed to sign it in April but then refused at the last minute.
Since then he has alternately blown hot and cold on the initiative – usually depending on how much pressure he happens to be under at the time – but there is not much reason to suppose that a security council resolution will make him sign it now, let alone implement it.