U.N. Says It Will Investigate Alleged War Crimes In Yemen

September 29, 2017
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Yemenis check the destruction following a suspected air strike by the Saudi-led coalition on June 9, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday adopted a resolution to appoint a group of experts to document human rights abuses in Yemen, where two-and-a-half years of war has left more than 10,000 dead and fueled an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis.

In the days leading up to the resolution’s passage, a bloc of Western countries had sought a proposal seeking the formation of an international commission of inquiry — similar to one that exists for the Syria conflict — to investigate human rights abuses in a war that has pitted a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition against Shiite Houthi rebels from northern Yemen.

The Saudi coalition, which has received assistance with targeting, refueling and munitions from the United States, has been criticized for airstrikes that have resulted in heavy civilian casualties in Yemen. A U.N. report published in early September found that the coalition’s airstrikes are the “leading cause” of civilian deaths. In the report, the U.N. said that over 1,100 children had been killed in the fighting since March 2015, and called coalition airstrikes “the leading cause of child casualties.”

Saudi Arabia, the region’s wealthiest country, strongly resisted the earlier resolution, favoring instead one that supports Yemen’s existing national commission that investigates human rights violations. But critics say that commission has failed to hold violators responsible.

Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the U.N. told FRONTLINE that the current commission in Yemen receives funding from Saudi Arabia, compromising its ability to access Houthi-controlled areas.

“The possibility of independence and the perception of impartiality is not there,” said Shamdasani, who supported an international commission. “The opposing parties – the Houthis – are not going to cooperate because this is seen as an investigation that is affiliated with the coalition and with the Yemeni government.”

The resolution adopted Friday reflected a compromise between a group of Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, and Western nations.

According to a draft of the resolution, the U.N. will appoint a group of “eminent international and regional experts” to investigate alleged human rights violations by all parties in the conflict dating back to 2014. The panel is being given a minimum of one year to conduct the inquiry.

“A credible international investigation is necessary in order to comprehensively, transparently, independently and impartially establish facts and circumstances surrounding violations with a view to put an end to the cycle of impunity in Yemen and to help prevent future violations,” Dutch Ambassador Monique T.G. Van Daalen said in Geneva on Friday.

A Saudi letter obtained Tuesday by the Associated Press showed that Riyadh had initially threatened retaliation against countries that support sending international, independent investigators to Yemen, the poorest nation in the region.

“Adopting the Netherlands/Canadian draft resolution in the Human Rights Council may negatively affect the bilateral political and economic relations with Saudi Arabia,” the letter warned, referring to sponsors of the earlier resolution.

The resolution supported by Saudi Arabia was revised later in the week to request that the U.N. dispatch experts to Yemen to monitor human rights violations while also continuing to support its national commission.

In 2015, objections from Saudi Arabia halted a similar attempt at the U.N. to create an international commission of inquiry.

The Yemen conflict, which began in 2014 when Houthi rebels took over Sana, Yemen’s capital, has resulted in approximately 700,000 suspected cases of cholera, according to a report by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and put 7 million at risk of famine. In June, the World Health Organization called Yemen’s cholera outbreak “the worst in the world.”

In FRONTLINE’s 2016 documentary Yemen Under Siege, journalist Safa Al Ahmad reported on the human toll of the war. She visited Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, which has seen half of its residents flee amidst the fighting.

“It is a beautiful city, extremely vibrant. It is considered the cultural heart of Yemen. And when I arrived in Taiz after being smuggled up the mountain, I saw a different city. It was empty and haunted and broken in a way I was hoping I wouldn’t see,” she said.

Ahmad visited a hospital where she shadowed Dr. Abu Dhar, the head of its trauma unit who struggled to ration a short supply of oxygen.

“The decision to go to war is extremely wrong,” he told her. “That decision, on a society that’s underdeveloped and poor, will exhaust it and set them back years because wars do not recognize humanity.”

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