In a joint request to the UN General Assembly on June 29, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch demanded Saudi Arabia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for its “gross and systematic violations of human rights” abroad (most recently in its military involvement in Yemen) and within its own borders. Additionally, the two humanitarian organizations are condemning Saudi Arabia for abusing its position on the UNHRC to sustain its obstruction of justice for human rights violations and war crimes.
The groups are requesting the General Assembly to vote with a two-thirds majority to remove Saudi Arabia from UNHRC membership until they cease human rights violations in Yemen and allow credible investigations into said violations.
“The credibility of the UN Human Rights Council is at stake. Since joining the Council, Saudi Arabia’s dire human rights record at home has continued to deteriorate and the coalition it leads has unlawfully killed and injured thousands of civilians in the conflict in Yemen. To allow it to remain an active member of the Council, where it has used this position to shield itself from accountability for possible war crimes, smacks of deep hypocrisy. It would bring the world’s top human rights body into disrepute,” said Richard Bennett, head of Amnesty International’s UN Office.
The Saudi Arabian-led coalition of nine Arab states was established to intervene and sway the outcome of the Yemeni Civil War shortly after it began in March of 2015. Historically, Yemen is divided between the Shiites who live mostly in the northeastern region of the country and the Sunnis who live in the southeast. The coalition, which includes Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, supports the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi who is fighting against the Iranian-backed Houthis, an armed Shiite-political insurgent movement.
From the beginning of the war till March of this year UNICEF found that of the 6,200 people killed, more than 3,000 of them were civilians and one third of those civilians were children. Additionally, with Yemen’s public services and infrastructure “on the verge of total collapse,” the report noted that since the war started 63 health facilities have been attacked or damaged contributing to the estimated 10,000 children under five who have died from preventable diseases due to lacking health services. With almost half of the nation’s provinces on the brink of famine, the UN reports that 82% of the Yemeni population is in dire need of humanitarian aid. 320,000 children face life-threatening malnutrition, UNICEF says.
According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia, in coordination with the U.S. and other Western allies, has played no small part in Yemen’s humanitarian devastation. The two organizations have documented 69 coalition airstrikes considered illegal under international humanitarian law. Some of them may be categorized as war crimes, having killed approximately 913 civilians, targeting homes, markets, hospitals, schools, civilian businesses, and mosques. 19 internationally banned cluster bomb attacks have also been documented, some of which were in civilian areas.
“What’s particularly shocking is the deafening silence of the international community which has time and again ceded to pressure from Saudi Arabia and put business, arms and trade deals before human rights despite the Kingdom’s record of committing gross and systematic violations with complete impunity,” said Bennett.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called for the United States, the UK, and France to halt their weapon sales to Saudi Arabia until they have ceased their unlawful airstrikes in Yemen and have credibly investigated their human rights violations. However, Saudi Arabia’s Western allies have not stopped selling the nation weapons as the coalition continues its ravaging operations. At the organizations’ UN press conference the day of the joint request the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division Sarah Leah Whitson reported that these allies have also provided the coalition intelligence and targeting assistance. Despite numerous requests from humanitarian organizations, the Western allies involved have not released a report on the specific instances of their targeting assistance, she said.
In October of 2015, when strong evidence of the coalition’s war crimes started to emerge, Saudi Arabia exploited its membership to the Human Rights Council by pressuring countries to turn down a resolution that would establish an international investigation into the coalition’s alleged crimes in Yemen. Instead, they gathered support for their own vacuous resolution that called for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to assist a Yemeni commission of inquiry (backed by Saudi Arabia). The resolution does not even mention the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s airstrike campaign, let alone the coalition itself. In other words, Saudi Arabia effectively blocked investigations into their military operations.
Additionally, in June Saudi Arabia threatened the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with discontinuing their hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for significant UN programs, coercing him into removing the nation from the SG’s “List of Shame” for human rights violations against children in Yemen. Mr. Ban and other UN officials claim the decision was based on a revision to the UN’s annual children and armed conflict report, despite the fact that the Secretary General actually admitted to receiving “undue pressure” from the Saudis to remove them from the list. “Saudi Arabia has amassed an appalling record of violations in Yemen while a Human Rights Council member, and has damaged the body’s credibility by its bullying tactics to avoid accountability,” said Philippe Bolopion, Deputy Director for Global Advocacy at Human Rights Watch.
Not only does Saudi Arabia continue to commit human violations in Yemen unabated, but also within its own borders. The nation’s crackdown on dissent continues, executions have increased, and the systematic discrimination against women and the Saudi Shia minority community remains. Bennett stresses that “at home [the Saudi Arabian government] has carried out hundreds of executions, put children on death row after grossly unfair trials, and ruthlessly repressed opposition and human rights activists.”
What does this say about the legal and moral legitimacy of the international community and about the United Nations as an organization when Saudi Arabia can commit incredible violations without genuine and honest opposition? The irony of its position on the Human Rights Council only makes this tragic situation even more surreal. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have a clear message to the UN and Saudi Arabia’s allies: be courageous and condemn Saudi Arabia for its crimes.