Universal jurisdiction is potentially activated the moment impunity is confirmed. When Yemen’s parliament passed on January 21, an amnesty law granting President Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity for crimes committed over three decades of autocratic rule, they disregarded the country’s constitution and international obligations. More to the point, they shut out the demands of tens of thousands of Yemeni protestors, who stood their ground last year on the streets of Sana’a, calling for the president’s ouster—and eventual accountability. As Human Rights Watch warned parliamentarians,
The granting of immunity would not prevent courts in other countries from prosecuting serious human rights crimes in Yemen under universal jurisdiction laws…. Even if the Yemeni parliament grants immunity, the law will not hold water abroad….
Yesterday, just two weeks after closing his amnesty deal, Saleh found himself in a hotel in New York City, his temporary haven while seeking medical care. The former leader was met by two dozen loud Yemeni-American protestors, contesting his impunity and calling for his expulsion to The Hague.
Those justifying the amnesty view it as necessary, or the price of Saleh stepping down and averting a return to civil war. But the amnesty may be the beginning not the end of the story, as Saleh discovers that he can still be tried elsewhere and ongoing injustice breeds further conflict.