The United Nations body responsible for monitoring and recording human rights abuses effectively abandoned the people of Yemen last week. In a 21-18 vote with seven abstentions, the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) refused to extend the mandate of an independent investigation into war crimes committed by all sides in Yemen. Since its establishment in 2017, the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) had served as a limited mechanism for holding war criminals in the conflict accountable for their outrages against the civilian population. The Saudi government had fought against the establishment of an investigative group early in the war because they wanted to keep the coalition’s crimes concealed from international scrutiny. Now the Saudi government has successfully lobbied enough members of the UNHRC to shut down the investigation into the crimes that they and the other belligerents have committed against the people of Yemen. The vote showed how indifferent most of the world still is to the plight of the people of Yemen after more than six years of carnage and famine.
The Saudis have the most to gain by killing an independent investigation. It is the more than 23,000 coalition airstrikes that have been responsible for most of the civilian deaths in the fighting, and the coalition continues to bomb Yemeni civilian targets without regard for innocent life. The Yemen Data Project has tracked coalition airstrikes since 2015, and it condemned the UNHRC vote as soon as it happened: "This is terrible news for all those seeking accountability and transparency in the conflict in Yemen. This decision gives carte blanche to the conflict’s belligerents to do what they want with zero accountability, oversight or consequences." Aid groups have likewise denounced the council’s capitulation to Saudi pressure. It was the first time since the council was created fifteen years ago that a resolution at the Human Rights Council was rejected, and by all accounts it was Saudi influence that was responsible for the outcome. The Saudi government stands out as one of the worst culprits in the war, and that is why they are so determined to bury the evidence of their crimes.
The independent investigation has documented extensive abuses and crimes by all parties to the conflict. The most recent GEE report in September found that there has been no serious effort to rein in the abuses on any side: "With Yemen experiencing an unparalleled humanitarian crisis, the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts regrets that the conflicting parties continue to engage in serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and that third States continue to provide arms and military support to parties to the conflict, with little regard for the immense suffering caused to the people of Yemen."
Regarding the US role in the conflict, the 2021 GEE report noted that the Biden administration had committed to ending support for Saudi coalition "offensive operations," but the report adds, "It remains unclear what this terminology means in practical terms." The investigators can be forgiven for not being able to discern what changes the Biden administration has made to U.S. support for the Saudi coalition. The Biden administration certainly hasn’t done much to clarify matters in the eight months since the president made that initial announcement.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains dire. Voice of America reported last month: "More than 20 million Yemenis – in a population of around 30 million – need humanitarian assistance. The World Food Program says 16 million of them are "marching towards starvation," due to a combination of conflict and a crippling economic crisis." These conditions have been created by the warring parties, and they have created them by using starvation as a weapon. Half the population of Yemen is being slowly marched towards death. The GEE report states that "the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen could be substantially mitigated if parties to the conflict began to respect and comply with their obligations under international law," but clearly that will not happen unless there is substantial pressure on the belligerents to do so.
The GEE released a statement after the vote to end its mandate, imploring, "The people of Yemen should not be forgotten; the people of Yemen must not be silenced." Unfortunately, the decision to end the monitoring of war crimes is typical of the international response to Yemen’s war and humanitarian crisis. The people of Yemen are ignored as much as they are because there is no one that can credibly speak for the majority of Yemenis, and they remain trapped in a war that is waged upon them by states and armed groups that thrive on the mayhem.
The Saudi government made an intense effort to kill the UN investigation into war crimes so that they and their allies could continue killing innocent Yemenis with impunity. The very least that the US can do under the circumstances is to stop enabling their ability to wage war on the people of Yemen. That means at a minimum that the US needs to cut off all military assistance to the Saudi government and any other coalition government still involved in the conflict.
The lack of international support for credible, independent investigations into war crimes in Yemen is a serious blow, but it is not the end of the effort to hold war criminals to account. There are still human rights groups doing the essential work of documenting crimes committed against the people of Yemen. Mwatana for Human Rights is one outstanding example of an organization that seeks to hold all parties to the conflict accountable for their violations of international law. Their work will be more vital than ever now that the Human Rights Council has given up on the country.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.