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UN ends Yemen war crimes probe amid Saudi Arabia’s intense lobbying

Damaged buildings are seen after Saudi Arabia carried out air strikes in Yemen on September 1, 2019. (Photo by Anadolu Agency)

The United Nations Human Rights Council has dropped an investigation into possible war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen amid reports of intense lobbying by Riyadh.

Members of the UN rights body pushed through a vote on Thursday to shut down war crimes investigations in Yemen, with 21 countries voting against the motion, 18 in favor and seven abstentions.

The vote marked the first time a resolution has been defeated in the UN Human Rights Council's 15-year history. 

The resolution, led by the Netherlands, would have given independent investigators another two years to monitor atrocities perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition during Yemen's protracted conflict.

Dutch ambassador Peter Bekker denounced the vote as a major setback, saying, "I cannot help but feel that this Council has failed the people of Yemen.”

"With this vote, the Council has effectively ended its reporting mandate, it has cut this lifeline of the Yemeni people to the international community," he added

Radhya Almutawakel, chairperson of the independent Yemeni activist group Mwatana for Human Rights, said she was deeply disappointed by Thursday’s vote.

"By voting against the renewal of the GEE today, UN member states have given a green light to warring parties to continue their campaign of death and destruction in Yemen,” she said, referring to the investigators known as the Group of Eminent Experts.

John Fisher of Human Rights Watch said the failure to renew the mandate was "a stain on the record of the Human Rights Council.”

"By voting against this much-needed mandate, many states have turned their back on victims, bowed to pressure from the Saudi-led coalition, and put politics before principle," he said.

The vote came as several rights advocacy groups revealed earlier this week that Saudi Arabia, which is not a voting member of the UN Human Rights Council, had been heavily lobbying against the resolution that would extend the mandate of UN investigators in Yemen.

"Saudi Arabia, a leading party to the conflict in Yemen accused of serious violations including likely war crimes, together with its coalition allies, is engaging in a tireless lobbying campaign to deter states at the Human Rights Council from renewing the inquiry mandate,” Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at US-based group Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Nasser said if the panel bowed to Saudi pressure and failed to extend the mandate by two years, it would be "a stain on the credibility of the Council and a slap in the face to victims.”

Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the UN chief still believes there is a need for accountability in Yemen.

“We will continue to press for accountability in Yemen, a place ... in which civilians have seen repeated crimes committed against them,” Dujarric said.

The Group of Eminent Experts, set up by the council in 2017, has found repeatedly that Saudi airstrikes and shelling during the seven-year conflict may amount to war crimes.

Kamel Jendoubi, head of the group, said in presenting its latest report last month that airstrikes launched by the coalition "continue to exact a huge toll on the civilian population".

Since March 2015, Jendoubi said, it is estimated that over 23,000 airstrikes had been carried out by the coalition and that over 18,000 civilians had been killed or wounded.

Saudi Arabia, backed by the US and regional allies, launched a war on Yemen in March 2015, with the goal of bringing the former Riyadh-backed regime back to power and crushing popular Ansarullah resistance movement.

The war has left hundreds of thousands of Yemenis dead, and displaced millions more. It has also destroyed Yemen’s infrastructure and spread famine and infectious diseases.

Yemeni armed forces and allied Popular Committees, however, have grown steadily in strength against the Saudi-led invaders, and left Riyadh and its allies bogged down in the country.

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