Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have fended off the threat of an independent UN-sanctioned inquiry into human rights abuses in Yemen, but have been forced to accept that UN investigators will be tasked with documenting rights violations.
The tortuous compromise, after days of behind-the-scenes negotiations at the UN human rights council in Geneva, was described by Human Rights Watch and the EU as a limited step forward. Others said it represented a flagrant failure of accountability.
Salma Amer, the UN advocacy officer at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said the text “puts Saudi Arabia’s desire for impunity above the need to protect the people of Yemen”.
Calls for an international inquiry had been led by the Netherlands and supported by most EU states, including the UK. The outcome underlines Saudi determination not to be put in the dock over its widely criticised bombing campaign, which it began in March 2015 in an attempt to fight Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
In his speech to the Labour party conference on Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn called for an end to UK arms sales to Riyadh in view of allegations of indiscriminate bombing, which activists say is has repeatedly hit civilian as well as military sites.
The compromise deal struck on Thursday will involve UN investigators being attached to an existing Yemen national commission inquiry into human rights abuses. The commission has been condemned as partial, slow and failing to meet acceptable international legal standards.
According to the agreement, additional international human rights experts should be deployed in Yemen to “complement the investigatory work of the national commission while collecting and preserving information to establish the facts and circumstances of alleged violations and abuses”.
The UN high commissioner for human rights is also tasked with presenting an oral update on the situation in Yemen to the human rights council at its next meeting. The original European draft was tougher. It instructed the office of the high commissioner to “dispatch a mission to monitor and report on the situation of human rights in Yemen”.
Speaking on behalf of the EU after the resolution was adopted, Slovenia’s representative to the UN in Geneva, Vojislav Šuc, described the text as a “good and reasonable compromise”.
Save the Children, one of the groups lobbying in Geneva this week, welcomed the news of extra international experts but said: “These must be independent and given access to the information they need to establish all the facts around reported violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, which are destroying the lives of Yemeni children and their families.
“The UK can use its influence to ensure that warring parties cooperate with these experts, and the human rights council must be prepared to act on the recommendations.”
John Fisher of Human Rights Watch in Geneva, told Agence France-Presse: “It’s a step in the right direction,” even if the resolution “fell short” of the hoped-for inquiry.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: “Members of the human rights council which are party in this conflict have abused the UN rules to deflect accountability.
“This is another failure by the top human rights body which shamefully accepts the membership of Saudi Arabia, one of the most brutal and cruel repressive states in the world, and allows it to dictate resolutions.”