Seeking Accountability in Yemen

Why the Truth Is So Hard to Get

People gather at the site of a Saudi-led air strike in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, September 22, 2016. Abduljabbar Zeyad / Reuters

Since March 2015, when the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition began its campaign to reinstall ousted Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, it has indiscriminately bombed dozens of residential areas, marketplaces, hospitals, and schools. In October of last year, in the deadliest assaults yet, forces struck a funeral in Sanaa and killed more than 140 civilians. The attack came just ten days after failed efforts by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to set up an international body to investigative atrocities in Yemen.

The death toll in Yemen has now reached an estimated 4,500 civilians, and representatives in Geneva are again turning their attention to the crisis. At an ongoing session this week, the HRC will provide an update on Yemen—the latest since its last report in September. But as an inter-governmental body comprising 47 countries, many of which have poor human rights records, the HRC is often paralyzed by infighting, leading to ineffective responses to regional crises. 

“It is always difficult to monitor human rights situations,” said one Western diplomat who spent several years negotiating at the HRC and asked not to be named. “There is a lot of resistance in the [HRC] room every day, regardless of the specific country in question, because many countries fear they may be next. They don’t want an automatic procedure of monitoring, and they add all kinds of legal or philosophical arguments to that like ‘the North is monitoring the South’ or ‘we need to cooperate instead of criticizing each other.’”

This is especially true in a case like Yemen, which serves as the front for a proxy war between arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. An investigation would not only implicate Riyadh, but also its backers, such as Washington, in war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. It is no wonder then that while Saudi Arabia wages a war over Yemen’s skies, it has also waged a diplomatic campaign to thwart efforts to set up an international inquiry. A year into the conflict,

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