“Victory for Yemenis” or “Deeply Flawed”? Deconstructing the Resolution on Yemen

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres with Saudi foreign minister Adel Ahmed Al-Jubeir

The U.N. human rights council’s new resolution on Yemen is not the “victory” that Amnesty and others claim, but rather a watered-down version of the Dutch proposed draft, which fails even once to condemn Saudi Arabia. Compared to the council’s sharply condemnatory resolution in response to the 2014 Gaza war, which involved a fraction of the casualties caused by the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, the resolution is a slap on the wrist.
Saudi Arabia has been leading a bombing campaign against the Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen since March 2015. According to UN statistics, the fighting has led to massive civilian casualties, with almost 5,000 civilians dead between March 2015 and March 2017, and over 8,000 injured. The Saudi coalition has also imposed a naval blockade causing a humanitarian disaster for the civilian population, with 17 million struggling for food.
A major feature of the Dutch draft was the creation of an international commission of inquiry, considered to be the gold standard of UN human rights investigations. However, Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of serious international law violations, strongly opposed such a commission.
The Saudis went so far as to threaten certain Western countries with consequences if they supported the text. “Adopting the Netherlands/Canadian draft resolution in the Human Rights Council may negatively affect the bilateral political and economic relations with Saudi Arabia,” warned Saudi Arabia in a letter.
At the last minute, the Netherlands withdrew its draft in favor of a Saudi-backed text that was presented by Egypt. The final negotiated text was adopted by consensus — which means it had council member Saudi Arabia’s support. Yemen also accepted the text.
Amnesty International hailed the resolution as “a victory for Yemenis,” while Human Rights Watch called it “deeply flawed.”

Key Flaws in final Text

A critical review of the final text confirms that the Human Rights Council dropped the ball on Yemeni civilians:

  • Most significantly, the consensus text eliminates the international commission of inquiry to be established by the Human Rights Council and replaces it with a much weaker “Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts with knowledge on human rights law and the context of Yemen,” to be chosen by the High Commissioner.
  • The inclusion of regional experts who know “the context of Yemen” may suggest a quiet deal in which the High Commissioner will appoint Saudi-friendly members.
  • Furthermore, the experts are not mandated to investigate and document violations with a view to ensuring accountability of perpetrators, but rather to examine and establish the facts surrounding violations — without any reference to accountability.
  • Language suggesting possible war crimes and crimes against humanity was removed.

How Arab League’s Text Watered Down the Dutch Draft

Other significant differences between the Dutch draft and the final resolution:

  1. The Dutch draft was proposed under Agenda Item 2 (Annual Report of the High Commissioner), thus leaving some ambiguity as to the extent of critical review intended. However, the final consensus text leaves no ambiguity, as it is adopted under Agenda Item 10 (technical assistance and capacity-building), signaling an uncritical approach.
  2. Unlike the Dutch draft, the consensus text is deferential to the government of Yemen — praising and encouraging it for engagement in peace talks; emphasizing its commitment to human rights; and expressly taking note of its comments to the highly critical report of the High Commissioner.
  3. The final text tones down critical language: “aware of” instead of “alarmed by;” “concerned” instead of “gravely concerned;” “calls upon” instead of “demands.”
  4. The final text downplays human rights violations by removing reference to the “increased suffering of the Yemeni population;” replacing the term “human rights” with “social rights;” removing reference to “forced displacement as a tactic of conflict in violation of international humanitarian law;” and removing reference to harassment of media.
  5. The final text weakens the argument for an independent international COI, by legitimizing and encouraging the work of the Yemen National Commission of Inquiry, including by requesting technical assistance and support for it to complete its work, despite criticism by the High Commissioner and NGOs that National Commission investigations have gone nowhere.
  6. The final text tones down the language on accountability. While it speaks of the the importance of accountability, it refrains from expressly stating that human rights violators must be held accountable — key language deleted from the Dutch draft.
  7. The final text is watered down by adding the word “applicable” before “international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” implying that not all such laws apply.
  8. In a paragraph calling for an end to attacks on civilians, the final text removes the word “indiscriminate” before “attacks,” clearly pandering to Saudi Arabia which maintains that its airstrikes do not violate international law.
  9. The final text drops the requirement for an oral report at the 38th session, leaving in only one oral report at the 37th session prior to the written report which is to be delivered at the 39th session — in one year.

Comparing UN Reaction to Yemen & Gaza

A comparison of this resolution, adopted after more than two years of devastating warfare, with the July 2014 resolution on Israel adopted just two weeks into its military operation against Hamas in Gaza, drives home the point.

  • Unlike here, where Saudi Arabia was consulted and approved the final text of the resolution, Israel was not consulted in any way in the drafting and adoption of the 2014 resolution.
  • While Saudi Arabia is not mentioned once in the Yemen resolution which does not identify perpetrators beyond a general reference to “all parties,” Israel is singled out for censure and condemnation at least eight times with harsh language, such as “deploring” and “strongly condemns.”
  • Unlike the text on Yemen resolution, the resolution on Israel invoked the Fourth Geneva Convention, and even recommended that Switzerland convene the High Contracting parties to enforce the convention in the OPT. Notably, Saudi Arabia is a signatory to that convention.
  • The resolution on Israel accused the Jewish state of an illegal “blockade” of Gaza and practicing “collective punishment” against Palestinian civilians. The resolution on Yemen completely ignores Saudi Arabia’s devastating naval blockade.
  • While the resolution on Gaza accused Israel of “international crimes,” the word “crime” is never mentioned in the Yemen resolution.
  • The resolution on Gaza requested “all relevant special procedures” to “urgently” gather information on human rights violations of the Palestinians; the resolution on Yemen resolution is silent in that regard, making no similar urgent request.
  • The resolution on Gaza established an independent, international Commission of Inquiry focused on ensuring those responsible are “held to account” and protecting civilians from further assaults, and tasked with making specific recommendations in that regard. This is very different from the Yemen resolution which says nothing about accountability and tasks the experts only with making general recommendations. Furthermore, the COI on Israel was directed to report to the council within seven months, and the High Commissioner to report orally at the council’s next session; yet on Yemen, the resolution provides a much longer time-frame.
  • Unlike the Yemen resolution, the Israel resolution does not mention or defer to any Israeli national investigations or provide technical assistance to Israel for such investigations.

Once again, the politics of petro-dollars trump human rights at the UN’s highest human rights body.

UN Watch