Obama renews 'emergency' order on Yemen

In a little-noticed move, President Obama signed an executive order this week extending "the national emergency with respect to Yemen" for a further 12 months. The official announcement says:

"The actions and policies of certain members of the Government of Yemen and others continue to threaten Yemen's peace, security, and stability, including by obstructing the implementation of the agreement of November 23, 2011, between the Government of Yemen and those in opposition to it, which provided for a peaceful transition of power that meets the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Yemeni people for change, and by obstructing the political process in Yemen. 

"For this reason, I have determined that it is necessary to continue the national emergency declared in Executive Order 13611 with respect to Yemen."

The order allows the US Treasury, in consultation with the State Department, to freeze US-based assets belonging to anyone who is considered to be impeding the transition process.

Executive Order 13611, originally issued in May last year was an unusual measure and there are only two precedents: the first was an order signed by President Bush in 2006 relating to Ivory Coast and the second, signed by Obama in 2009, threatened action against anyone obstructing the agreement for a transitional government in Somalia.

Writing about Order 13611 in the Washington Post last year, Karen DeYoung noted that it was the first order issued for Yemen that did not directly relate to counterterrorism:

"Unlike similar measures authorising terrorist designations and sanctions, the new order does not include a list of names or organisations already determined to be in violation. Instead, one official said, it is designed as a 'deterrent' to 'make clear to those who are even thinking of spoiling the transition' to think again.

"While 'the transition has been proceeding more or less on track,' the official said, the executive order is 'just one more way of us trying to ensure that trend continues'."

The background to this is that the popular uprising which broke out in Yemen in 2011 did not bring a clear end to the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh, who had been in power for 33 years, clung on defiantly but eventually stepped down in February 2012 under an agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The agreement established a two-year "transitional" period but Saleh was granted immunity from prosecution and allowed to remain in Yemen, along with members of his family and entourage – some of whom held key posts in the security apparatus which gave them the ability to hamper the transition.

In the meantime Saleh's deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi (who had latterly distanced himself from Saleh) took over the presidency for the transitional period – a move that was legitimised after a fashion by holding a single-candidate presidential "election". Since then, Hadi has been trying to reduce Saleh's influence – for example, by appointing Saleh's son, Ahmad (who was formerly in charge of the Republican Guard), as Yemen's new ambassador in the United Arab Emirates.

Last February the UN security council expressed concern about interference with the transition and specifically named Saleh in that context (along with southern separatist leader Ali Salim al-Beidh):

"The Security Council expresses concern over reports of interference in the transition by individuals in Yemen representing the former regime, the former opposition, and others who do not adhere to the guiding principles of the Implementation Mechanism Agreement for the transition process, including former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and former Vice-President Ali Salim al-Beidh. The Security Council reiterates its readiness to consider further measures, including under Article 41 of the UN Charter, if actions aimed at undermining the Government of National Unity and the political transition continue.

"The Security Council expresses concern over reports of money and weapons being brought into Yemen from outside for the purpose of undermining the transition."

One of the major flaws in the transition agreement was that it made too many concessions to Saleh – immunity from prosecution, etc – in order to persuade him to step down, leaving the whole transition process at the mercy of obstructive elements.

Given the concerns about interference, and the fact that Yemen is still in the throes of the transition, it's not surprising that Obama decided to extend Order 13611. To let it lapse now would have looked rather odd, even though it doesn't appear to have been used. As far as I'm aware, no assets have so far been frozen under the order. There are unconfirmed claims that the Saleh family have property in the US, so possibly it has had some sort of deterrent effect – and of course it doesn't just apply to Saleh and his supporters.

Aside from that, it's interesting to recall that this time last year in the United States both Fox News and Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald were attacking Order 13611 in a rather hysterical fashion, claiming that it posed a threat to free speech and the rights of US citizens. There is still no sign of it doing so.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 18 May 2013