Saudi Arabia is pushing back against a U.N. investigation into its part in human rights violations in Yemen’s ongoing war.
Abdulaziz Alwasil, the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations on Wednesday said that the time is not right for the inquiry, called for by the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“We have no objection to the inquiry itself, we just have a discussion about the timing, whether this is the right time to establish an international commission, with the difficulties on the ground,” he said.
As it did in 2015 and 2016, when it backed Saudi’s push-back against such an investigation, the United States appears to again support Saudi Arabia. Diplomat Michele Roublet told a meeting: “We do have concerns that a full international independent Commission of Inquiry is not likely to get us there.”
The State Department did not respond to a series of questions from ThinkProgress on whether Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would support Saudi or back the calls for an inquiry, or on what it would take to “get us there.”
Internal documents showed that under President Barack Obama, State Department officials worried that the in backing Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes in Yemen, the U.S. might be complicit in war crimes under international law.
“I guess when they say ‘not now’ I agree — the time isn’t now, it was actually years ago,” said Akshaya Kumar, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the United Nations.
“We are way overdue on this … the evidence will be lost, the prospect of victims of being able to eventually secure justice is going to decrease dramatically,” said Kumar.
She added that such investigations might not be possible in the future as the Dutch, who have spearheaded the calls for inquiry, will not be on the U.N. Human Rights Council next year as their term will expire.
“So it’s a real-it-or-break-it moment,” said Kumar.
President Donald Trump has threatened to pull the United States off the U.N. Human Rights Council — the United States’ current term expires in 2019. Haley, meanwhile, has called the council “corrupt.” Saudi Arabia, often called out by human rights groups for flagrant rights violations against women, Shia, political opponents, and foreign workers within its own borders, was controversially elected to the council in 2013.
The U.S. continues to support Saudi Arabia’s fight in Yemen through massive weapons sales.
“The U.S. is comfortable pointing the finger at Burundi or Cuba, but when it comes to Saudi Arabia and jeopardizing a close ally’s interest, they’re not willing to stand up for those same principles,” said Kumar.
Owing to its support for Saudi, she added that “The U.S. could be trying to shield itself as well.”
Since 2015, a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition has been bombing opposition Houthi fighters, who are backed in part by Iran. Since the start of the war, both sides have been accused of killing citizens. Reports from the United Nations, as well as human rights groups have repeatedly blamed Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes for the majority of civilian casualties, including children.
According to U.N. figures, of the roughly 10,000 people who have died since the start of the war, 5,144 were civilians. The war has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine and triggered a cholera outbreak that has infected more than 600,000 and killed more than 2,000.
In 2015, Saudi and its coalition partners — including the United States — blocked a U.N. rights investigation, calling for the investigation to instead be carried out by a Yemeni national investigative mechanism.
“The problem with that mechanism is that it was established by the government of Yemen, which has Saudi support, and so it has a huge amount of difficulty operating in any of the places that are controlled by the Houthis, and also a huge credibility issue because it is a mechanism that is so beholden to the Saudi government,” said Kumar.
In addition to the Yemeni inquiry, a Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) made up of the Saudi coalition of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates was set up, which has a pattern of clearing Saudi Arabia of any blame for civilian deaths in Yemen. Most recently, on Tuesday, JIAT cleared itself in a series of deadly strikes that targeted not only fighters, but schools, homes, and clinics.
The Joint Incidents Assessment Team said on Tuesday it had discovered mistakes in only three of 15 incidents it reviewed, and maintained the coalition had acted in accordance with international humanitarian law.
The United Nations, in 2016, placed Saudi Arabia on roll of countries blacklisted for committing violations against children in armed conflicts. After a campaign of pressure and what Human Rights Watch described as “political manipulation,” Saudi Arabia was removed from the list.
Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. chief at the time, said he made the “painful” decision after Saudi Arabia threatened to pull funding for several U.N. programs.