Yemen Conflict: UN Agrees To Send War Crimes Investigators

On this Friday, in a last-minute compromise between Western powers and Arab countries, the UN has agreed to establish an investigation team to examine alleged human rights violations and war crimes committed amid the conflict in Yemen. The team, consisting of eminent experts, will also identify those who are responsible. A compromise was reached after Saudi Arabia and its allies provided an amended draft resolution. The UN Human Rights Council adopted the resolution without a vote, which both Saudi Arabia and Yemen delegation accepted. The council mandated the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein to send the investigation team immediately.

In fact, al-Hussein has been continuously calling for an independent investigation in Yemen in the past three years, as the Yemeni national commission has proved ineffective. Dutch ambassador Monique TG Van Daalen also believed that “this urgent request could no longer be ignored.” On behalf of a group of Western countries, Van Daalen stated that this investigation aims at establishing facts and circumstances “comprehensively, transparently, independently and impartially,” in order to end the war crimes in Yemen.

Indeed, Yemen is now facing one of the world’s greatest humanitarian disasters. In 2015, the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels took control of most of northern Yemen, including the capital Sana’a. Since then, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have been bombing various schools, markets, hospitals and other civilian targets in Houthi-controlled areas. On the other hand, Houthi rebels are also accused of major war crimes. According to the UN, more than 10,000 people have been killed by the conflict in Yemen. In addition, more than 17 million Yemenis are now suffering from serious food shortages and more than 2,100 people died from a national cholera outbreak in April. A quarter of the victims are children.

For the past two years, Saudi Arabia has successfully blocked calls for an international investigation. The country maintained that it followed the international law with regard to airstrikes in Yemen and it even threatened economic and diplomatic retaliation if council members favoured investigation proposal. Recently, intense negotiation over this contentious issue was going on between Western powers and Arab states. On one hand, Netherlands and Canada asked for a Commission of Inquiry in Yemen, which is the UN’s highest-level investigation. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia stuck to its less-intrusive proposal. In order to avoid deadlock, countries with close ties to Saudi Arabia such as the US and Britain played a role as mediator. Luckily, in the end, the Saudi envoy Abdulaziz Alwasil endorsed Friday’s resolution, which is slightly softer than the earlier Dutch draft. Yemen’s delegation declared “[their] acceptance” as well.

This resolution could be the first step to pull the innocent Yemenis civilians out of their deeply troubled situation. It is a good sign to see different parties coming to an agreement to face the issue together. To put an end to war crimes, it is first necessary to find out what exactly is happening, how large the scale is, and who is/are responsible for the violations. In that regard, UN experts should be of great help to the inadequate national commission. However, according to Al Jazeera, the UN investigation team will need a year to gather evidence and present it to the Human Rights Council. I believe one year is too long. In that case, it would probably take the UN more than one year to effectively adopt measures to punish those who are responsible and to end the conflict. During that period Yemenis civilians will remain vulnerable to airstrikes, hunger, and disease. To prevent further tragedies from happening, the UN must accelerate its pace and finish the investigation as soon as possible. Actions to help Yemenis rebuild their country must be taken by international actors and charitable organizations the moment when war crimes evidence is gathered.