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(Geneva, October 2, 2015) – The United Nations Human Rights Council missed a key opportunity to address alleged violations of the laws of war by all sides to the conflict in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 2, 2015, the council adopted by consensus a deeply flawed resolution that ignores calls for an international inquiry into mounting abuses in the country.

Overview of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. © 2011 Reuters

“By failing to set up a serious UN inquiry on war-torn Yemen, the Human Rights Council squandered an important chance to deter further abuses,” said Philippe Dam, Geneva deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “The world’s preeminent human rights body failed to generate effective international scrutiny over attacks by all the warring parties that have caused thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen in just a few months.”

The Netherlands originally put forward a draft resolution that would have mandated a UN mission to document violations by all sides since September 2014. It withdrew its draft on September 30 under intense pressure from Saudi Arabia and due to insufficient backing from key countries including the United States and the United Kingdom. The Yemeni government boycotted negotiations on the Dutch resolution during the council session. Several members of the Saudi-led coalition conducting military operations in Yemen – including Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates – openly opposed the proposed UN inquiry.

The Arab group, led by Saudi Arabia, prepared the draft resolution put forward at the council. This draft lacked any reference to an independent UN inquiry, calling instead on the UN high commissioner for human rights to provide Yemen with “technical assistance” to support a recently formed domestic committee and to continue the reporting already in place. Yemeni authorities have neither investigated nor prosecuted the serious international crimes committed since 2011, nor has the Saudi-led coalition investigated possible war crimes by its forces, Human Rights Watch said.

In a report on Yemen released on September 11, the UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, recommended establishing an independent and impartial international mechanism to investigate alleged violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law. On September 15, the UN special advisers on the prevention of genocide and the responsibility to protect joined Zeid in urging the creation of an international mechanism. Human rights and humanitarian organizations had also called for a UN inquiry into abuses by all sides in Yemen, including during the council session.

In sharp contrast to its backing for international inquiries and missions in Syria, North Korea, Libya, Sri Lanka, and Eritrea, the United States, which has provided extensive support to the Saudi-led coalition, remained silent until September 28. While the US eventually expressed support for the Dutch resolution, the US and the UK ultimately supported the consensus resolution put forward by the Arab group.

Since September 2014, the Houthis and other Yemeni armed groups, and since March the Saudi-led coalition, have committed serious violations of the laws of war and human rights abuses. The Saudi-led coalition has conducted indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes that have killed and wounded scores of civilians and destroyed numerous civilian objects. Coalition members have failed in their obligations under international law to effectively investigate alleged violations. Houthi and allied forces, as well as anti-Houthi armed groups, have also repeatedly violated the laws of war, including by launching rockets indiscriminately into civilian populated areas in southern Yemen and across the border in Saudi Arabia, mistreating people in custody, and recruiting children for their forces.

The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, with approximately 80 percent of the population in need of aid. With commercial imports accounting for 90 percent of Yemen’s food and fuel supplies, the coalition-imposed blockade has had a severe impact on the situation, and may amount to the war crime of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. Half the population is now facing food insecurity; over 15.2 million lack access to basic healthcare, and over 20 million lack access to safe water, contributing to the spread of preventable diseases such as dengue fever, polio, and acute diarrhea.

The high commissioner for human rights is expected to report to the council on the situation in Yemen at its next session, in March 2016. The high commissioner should keep the council regularly informed through formal and informal briefings, Human Rights Watch said. During the adoption process of the HRC resolution on Yemen, the US Ambassador “[called upon] this Council to take further action to ensure that it is addressed in an appropriate manner.” The council should respond credibly to developments through an urgent debate, special session, or other follow-up action.

“The US, UK, and France appear to have capitulated to Saudi Arabia with little or no fight, astoundingly allowing the very country responsible for serious violations in Yemen to write the resolution and protect itself from scrutiny,” Dam said.

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