UNHCR Votes to Continue Investigating War Crimes Despite Opposition from Yemeni Government and Saudi-Led Coalition

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) unanimously voted last Friday to extend the investigation into human rights violations and war crimes in Yemen despite opposition from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the internationally recognized government of Yemen. The Council supported the renewal of the mandate of the UN group of eminent experts in Yemen by 21 votes to 8.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen exerted pressure to block the renewal of the mandate of the UN Group of Eminent Experts in Yemen, the group that issued a scathing report on August 28th citing multiple, intentional human rights violations and possible war crimes.

The Yemeni government, in a statement from last Thursday, accused the experts’ group of “covering up the crimes of the Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen.” It called upon the international community to support the Yemeni government’s national committee to “investigate and to provide [the committee] with the international and regional expertise to ensure the success of its mission.”

UNHCR Votes to Continue Investigating War Crimes Despite Opposition from Yemeni Government and Saudi-Led Coalition
Photo Credit: Inside Arabia

Saudi Arabia and the UAE also rejected the renewal of the UN experts’ mandate. Instead, the kingdom supported the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), a body which the UN experts’ previously asserted lacked independence and impartiality.

Last Wednesday, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi thanked Saudi Arabia for its role in “alleviating [the] human suffering in Yemen.” Hadi’s speech before the UNGA omitted the fact that the humanitarian situation in Yemen is still dire and ignored the crimes committed by the Saudi-UAE-led coalition in Yemen while focusing on the crimes committed by the Houthi rebels.

In April, UN Secretary-General António Guterres described Yemen as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”  The August 28 UN Report concluded that all parties to the conflict may have committed war crimes in Yemen.

In the three years since the start of the war, all parties, including the now de facto authority in much of the region, the Houthi rebels, have committed human rights violations.  These have included “child recruitment, targeting of civilians, arbitrary detention, degrading and cruel treatment, and torture and violation of freedom of expression and belief,” as well as rape of both men and women, according to the UN report and numerous human rights organizations.

The Houthi rebels and pro-government forces have been fighting each other in Yemen since 2014. After the Houthis took control of large areas of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, the war escalated in March 2015. A Saudi-UAE-led coalition of nine Arab countries intervened to support the internationally recognized government. As of June 2018, the conflict had caused the “death of 6,660 civilians and non-combatants,” according to the UN report; however, “the actual figures are likely much higher.”

President Hadi’s speech at the 73rd session of the UNGA focused largely on Iran’s role in the conflict. He accused Iran and Hezbollah, an Iranian ally, of supporting armed militias in Yemen not only militarily and financially, but also through media outlets. President Hadi described the Houthi militias as a “proxy” force for the Iranians. An earlier UN report to the Security Council, issued in January 2018, confirmed the presence of “missile remnants, related military equipment, and military unmanned aerial  vehicles that are of Iranian origin and were brought into Yemen after the imposition of the targeted arms embargo.”

Analysts view what is happening in Yemen as a proxy war between, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other. President Hadi, who resides with his government in Riyadh, can only return to Aden with the permission of the UAE, which controls the city through the Yemeni militia forces it sponsors there.  President Hadi has thus been forced to adopt Saudi Arabia’s rhetoric and refrain from mentioning any violations committed by the Saudi-UAE-led coalition against innocent Yemeni civilians.

In his speech, President Hadi described the Houthis as “an extremist religious group that believes in its exclusive and divine right to rule, without any regards to the values of democracy and human rights.” In fact, the Houthis believe that they have been “chosen,” as highlighted in the Intellectual and Cultural Document signed by Abdulmalik al-Houthi and a number of Zaydi scholars in February 2012. President Hadi also alleged that the Houthis have used indiscriminate violence to destroy society in Yemen and create hatred among its people.

President Hadi specifically accused the Houthis of “destroying the foundations of coexistence,” an accusation that refers to the forced displacement and expulsion of Yemeni citizens from areas such as Aden. Although the government had said that the Aden residents who were forcibly removed from the city because of their northern identification and origin are “safe and at liberty,” this claim remains unsubstantiated. The Security Belt Forces in Aden and al-Dalea, UAE-run separatist forces, are preventing residents from the northern provinces from moving to the southern provinces on the basis of their northern identification. The charge of “destroying the foundations of coexistence” can equally be applied to all parties to the conflict.

Not surprisingly, President Hadi stressed that his country has been striving towards peace in all rounds of talks that his government has participated in, including the ones held last month. However, he also asserted that “the intransigence of the Houthis has kept the Yemeni people from making any significant progress.” Likewise, the Houthis accused the coalition “of preventing them from attending [the Geneva talks], and the UN was unable to grant them visas.”

President Hadi submitted that peace can be achieved if Member States commit to international resolutions, especially Security Council Resolution No. 2216 of 2015, which calls for the Houthis to withdraw from cities and institutions and to surrender their arms unconditionally.

Achieving peace in Yemen is now more complex than ever because it no longer depends solely on the withdrawal of the Houthi rebels from the cities. Instead, other factors further complicate any resolution, the most notable of which is the impact that the military intervention in Yemen has had on the map of alliances and loyalties in the country and in the region.

While millions of Yemenis face starvation and are forced to subsist only on leaves, President Hadi failed to mention in his speech that famine is the biggest threat to Yemenis. More than 22 million people–almost all of them children–are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, according to UNICEF, and no end is in sight to this crisis.