US looking at new international body

to record rights abuses in Yemen

Tuesday, July 26, 2022
US looking at new international body

Rights activist say move is akin to asking Vladimir Putin to investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine

[caption id="attachment_22015" align="alignnone" width="1240"] A police officer in Sana'a, Yemen. The US move comes months after Saudi lobbying quashed an independent UN investigation into possible war crimes. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA[/caption]Published in the Guardian 12 July 2022

The Biden administration is exploring the creation of a new international committee to document and report on human rights violations in Yemen, months after a Saudi lobbying campaign quashed an independent United Nations investigation into possible war crimes.

The revelation comes on the eve of a tour of the Middle East by Joe Biden that will include a visit to Israel and – controversially – Saudi Arabia, where the US president has said his aim is to strengthen the “strategic partnership” while also “holding true to fundamental American values”.

Abdulrasheed al-Faqih, a prominent Yemeni human rights defender who is visiting the US, told the Guardian in an interview that he had discussed Washington’s plan to create a new “international mechanism” to investigate war crimes at a recent meeting at the US state department.

Faqih said the administration’s proposed plan to “replace” the independent UN body that had been investigating possible war crimes was deeply flawed. The state department, he said, was considering including representatives from Yemen’s presidential leadership council, which has close ties to Riyadh, as a “partner” in the new international mechanism.

“They are working on a very, very bad mechanism that can replace the [UN body],” he said. “First of all, the starting point is that the mandate is weak, and second, it is not independent at all.”

Faqih said if the administration pursues the proposal it would be akin to asking Vladimir Putin to investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Two others familiar with the preliminary discussions, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said they were also aware of efforts by the administration to reach out to NGOs to discuss the plans.

Al-Faqih is co-founder and executive director of Mwatana for Human Rights, a group that monitors and documents war crimes, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and restrictions on the press. The group’s field researchers have compiled extensive evidence of Saudi’s previous bombing campaigns in Yemen, and contributed to a 288-page report in 2019 by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), which found that the Saudi attacks appeared to violate international humanitarian law by “targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure”.

A spokesperson for the US state department declined to answer specific questions about Faqih’s concerns. In a statement, a the spokesperson said it had been “deeply disappointed” by the “termination” of the UN Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) at the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva last October.

The work of the GEE – a group of three independent experts who were appointed by the Office of the UN high commission for human rights in 2017 to investigate human rights abuses committed in the Yemen war – came to an abrupt halt last October, after the members of the Human Rights Council voted to end the investigation following a campaign by Saudi Arabia.

The US was not a member of the Human Rights Council in 2021, when the GEE lost its mandate in a close vote, but the US is currently a member of the council.

“We remain committed to working with our partners, including governments and civil society, to establish a new international mechanism for documenting and reporting on human rights violations and abuses in Yemen,” the state department spokesperson said.

The current truce in Yemen has created the “best opportunity for peace in years”, the spokesperson added. “Justice, accountability, and redress for human rights abuses and violations are essential for an enduring peace in Yemen, and the United States has long supported Yemeni civil society toward these ends,” the spokesperson said.

Faqih said he had also raised at a recent meeting with the state department what he called a “double-standard” in which the US had quickly moved to “document and investigate” war crimes by Russia, while leaving Yemen in the lurch.

“We all saw how quickly the international community reacted in Ukraine. In Yemen, we’ve been waiting eight years,” he said. The state department’s proposal so far, he added, was a “slap in the face” to civilian victims of the war.

One senior official in a Geneva-based human rights group said discussions about how to replace the GEE had been “simmering” for a while, and that there was a chance the issue could be raised before the Human Rights Council in September. While they said they believed the discussions so far represented a good faith effort to act, there were also concerns a new mechanism might be “more deferential to the Saudis”.

The official said while it was not necessarily an initiative that was being led by Americans, the US had nevertheless “stepped into the vacuum” created when the GEE lost a mandate to continue its investigations in the vote last year.

Faqih’s concerns about the US approach “seem legitimate”, the official said. “We’ve seen the parties to the conflict have no interest in investigating themselves,” they added.

The Biden administration’s own record of examining human rights abuses in Yemen has come under scrutiny. A congressional watchdog said in a report released last month that the US government had not fully investigated its own role in perpetuating human rights abuses in Yemen. It also raised serious doubts about Biden’s commitment to ending US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen.

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