Today, senior United Nations human rights and humanitarian officials are briefing the Security Council on the devastating toll the armed conflict in Yemen is taking on civilians. As Council member countries reflect on an effective response, they should examine their own motivations.
Since March, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of nine Arab countries with US logistics and intelligence support has carried out a military campaign against the Houthis, who ousted Yemen’s government early this year. More than 2,500 civilians have been killed in the conflict, most by coalition airstrikes, according to the UN. While all sides have committed serious violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch field investigations have uncovered numerous coalition airstrikes that were unlawfully indiscriminate, hitting residential homes, markets, healthcare facilities, and schools where there was no military target.
Yet the Council has reserved virtually all of its criticism for Houthi forces, which have used indiscriminate weapons and landmines that have harmed civilians, while remaining almost silent on coalition abuses. And though the Council has called on all parties to comply with their human rights obligations, and promised to impose sanctions on those who fail to do so, in practice it has only applied sanctions to Houthi leaders and supporters. This will only embolden coalition members to continue their abuses.
Saudi Arabia and other coalition members have shown no serious interest in investigating unlawful coalition strikes that may amount to war crimes, as is their obligation under the laws of war. In October at the Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia campaigned successfully to derail a proposal for an international inquiry into violations by all sides. This maneuver to sidestep international scrutiny may echo in the Security Council chamber.
Why is the coalition given a free pass? One possibility: follow the money. In April, Saudi Arabia announced it would meet the UN’s entire appeal for US$274 million in emergency funding for Yemen. In reality, Saudi Arabia has disbursed little of what it promised, and made the remainder difficult to obtain. Condemning the coalition could jeopardize vital assistance now dangling in front of the UN. That might explain why, in October, the UN’s humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien held an unusual joint press conference alongside the Saudi ambassador to the UN, recognizing the Kingdom’s support.
The Security Council has a choice. It can remind coalition members that international law applies across the board, and that every official responsible for human rights abuses in Yemen is vulnerable to sanctions. Or, it can remain silent and partisan, proving to people in Yemen who lost a mother, brother, or child to unlawful coalition airstrikes that the Council is content to turn a blind eye.