At the most recent session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Canada joined a core group of countries calling for an international commission of inquiry into abuses in the armed conflict in Yemen. It was a courageous decision by any measure. Canada has lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arabia – which for the past two and a half years has been leading a coalition responsible for scores of unlawful airstrikes in Yemen – making it an unlikely partner in this effort. But, the Trudeau government has shown this week that being a global leader on civilian protection means not letting immediate interests get in the way of your core values.
The need for an independent mechanism to address the gravity of violations in Yemen cannot be overstated. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, some amounting to war crimes, have killed thousands of civilians and hit schools, hospitals, markets, and homes. The Houthi-Saleh forces whom the coalition is fighting have committed numerous abuses, too, including recruiting and deploying child soldiers and indiscriminately shelling civilian areas. Parties to the conflict are using banned weapons like cluster munitions and landmines that may endanger Yemeni civilians for years to come.
The coalition’s pledges to credibly investigate these abuses itself and to minimize civilian harm have repeatedly proven hollow. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has blocked at the UN any sort of independent inquiry that would ultimately scrutinize not only its own actions, but those of opposing forces. With the Human Rights Council having failed to act in 2015 and 2016, war crimes continued and Yemen became the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Countries like Canada that joined this week’s effort to establish a commission of inquiry recognize the need to put an end to the paralysis of UN member states on Yemen. Canada would increase its credibility if it suspended arms sales to the Saudis.
In her June address outlining Canada’s foreign policy priorities, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said that when countries like the United States fail in their global leadership role, it “puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course.” By supporting this critically important inquiry into abuses in Yemen and seeing it to fruition, Canada is doing exactly that.