Yemen’s fate was sealed six years ago

The transitional agreement signed in Riyadh in 2011 guaranteed immunity for those committing crimes in Yemen.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Saudi King Abdullah greets Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh at the Royal Palace in Riyadh on November 23, 2011 after the latter signed a Gulf initiative to hand over power to his deputy [Reuters]

Six years ago today, a transition agreement was signed in Riyadh, making way for Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh to step down from his 33-year reign. Those who brokered the agreement declared it would ensure a peaceful transition to democracy in Yemen.

They were so wrong.

Brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and endorsed by the US, EU and the UN, the Transition Agreement sealed the beginnings of a devastating fate for Yemen. A major part of the deal was to grant Saleh and his aides immunity from prosecution.

The myth of the NDC’s success

Soon after assuming the presidency in February 2012, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s vice president for 16 years, led the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) talks, which aimed to reconcile Yemenis from across the country and establish a power-sharing deal. Regional and international actors, including the US, hailed the NDC process as a success that achieved consensus.

This claim is a fallacy. The NDC process was not as inclusive as it purported to be and it retained components of the various GCC and UN agreements that should have been renegotiated, or removed altogether.

The justice expectations of those Yemenis who did suffer serious human rights violations during the Saleh era meant absolutely nothing.


One of those components was the immunity law protecting Saleh from being held accountable for crimes committed during his more than three decades of rule. Mass street protests took place in several Yemeni cities in 2011 and 2012 to demand the reversal of this immunity law, but to no avail.

Conflicting justice agendas

Still, Yemenis who were against Saleh’s immunity actively took part in the various working groups of the NDC. They worked hard to circumvent the immunity law by pointing out the blatant contradictions in the UN Security Council resolutions and statements. Those statements call for the implementation of the GCC Initiative in Yemen (which reiterates immunity for Saleh and his aides), while also calling on Yemen to ensure criminal accountability for human rights violations “in line with relevant international standards”.

When I was in Sanaa on the concluding day of the NDC in January 2014, participants were fixated on this bizarre contradiction. Those who negotiated Yemen’s own transition essentially called on Yemenis to pursue two conflicting goals: criminal accountability for serious human rights violations on the one hand, and Saleh’s immunity from prosecution on the other.

Meanwhile, the trial of Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak was under way, as was that of Tunisia’s former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The UN Security Council referred the Libyan situation to the International Criminal Court. It stopped short of doing the same for Yemen.

Of course, the prosecution of political leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia did not yield the justice their victims sought. But, unlike Yemeni victims, they were not stripped of the option of seeking redress for past crimes that they suffered.

Yemenis were not oblivious to these developments happening nearby. But the so-called “international community” sent a strong message in its starkly opposing strategies in Libya and Yemen: accountability for past atrocities is subject to the whims of certain international actors, none of whom were affected by the atrocities committed in those countries. In other words, the justice expectations of those Yemenis who did suffer serious human rights violations during the Saleh era meant absolutely nothing.

No accountability for mass crimes

Currently, a war rages between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and supporters of the Hadi government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition equipped with billions of dollars worth of weapons from the UK and the US.

War crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated on an almost daily basis in Yemen have triggered renewed focus on the astonishing lack of accountability for such atrocities. Multiple investigations have declared that civilians are indiscriminately killed, both as a result of the actions of the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis. Reminders that mass starvation is also a crime have increasingly figured in discussions surrounding accountability for crimes committed in Yemen.

Calls for an end to the US and UK arms sales have either continued to fall on deaf ears, or have been legally challenged by those who support the arms agreements at all (human) costs. The legality of arms sales and agreements between the UK and Saudi Arabia, for instance, has been under judicial review in a UK court. It emerged that the UK government ignored the advice of Edward Bell, head of the government’s Export Control Organisation, to halt the arms sales to a country that uses the weapons in violation of international humanitarian law.

On the other hand, individuals such as James Eadie QC, a legal adviser to the UK government, defended the arms sales and the “friendly relationship” between the UK and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Eadie chided those who called for an investigation into the legality of the arms sales, absurdly stating that it would be inappropriate” to pursue such an investigation, as it would require access to Saudi internal military records to determine whether there was an intention to kill Yemenis indiscriminately. 

Six years ago, the international community hailed the Riyadh Transition Agreement as an important and necessary step towards a peaceful transition in Yemen. The legacy of this GCC-brokered agreement, however, is one that sent a powerful message not just to Saleh and his aides, but to the multiple domestic and international perpetrators fighting in Yemen as well.

With over 10,000 people killed as a result of bombing, thousands more dead as a result of lack of access to food, clean water, and medicine, millions displaced, and millions starved as a result of the multiple blockades in place, this message is ominously clear: You can continue to perpetrate atrocities against innocent Yemeni civilians and still get away with it. 

In addition to the repeated calls to end the arms sales, lift the blockades to allow food and medicine in, enforce a ceasefire and re-start serious political negotiations, Yemen needs to be reclaimed by Yemenis. Those inside the country are either trapped, starved, or trying to make ends meet.

Yemenis outside Yemen, however, have started to strengthen their advocacy and networks in an effort to shape their country’s future according to their expectations. Such efforts must be supported by those who still believe that Yemeni lives matter.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.