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UK accused of blocking UN inquiry into alleged war crimes in Yemen

Rights groups say UK is putting arms sales to Saudi Arabia before investigations into civilian deaths from coalition bombings
Yemeni men walk through a Sanaa building destroyed in a Saudi coalition air attack (AFP)

The UK is set to block an attempt to establish an independent international inquiry into the war in Yemen, prompting dismay among rights groups.

Canada and Holland are hoping to garner broad support for their proposal that the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva establish an inquiry to examine civilian deaths in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is accused of committing war crimes as part of a campaign against the Houthis.

More than 5,000 civilians have died since the conflict started in March 2015, with evidence mounting of the deliberate bombing of schools, hospitals and civilian infrastructure in its campaign to support the exiled president, Abd Rabbuh Hadi.

Despite calls from rights groups, the UK government now looks set to neuter calls from Canada and several European countries for a commission, similar to the one in Syria, to document crimes that have been committed by both sides during the conflict.

Saudi investigates own air strikes, clears itself

A rival resolution backed by Egypt, a member of the Saudi-led coalition, rejects calls for an international body to investigate allegations of war crimes.

Alistair Burt, Foreign Office minister for the Middle East and North Africa, recently told reporters at the UN that the UK government believed that Saudi Arabia was best placed to investigate allegations.

“Our view is that it is for the Coalition itself, in the first instance, to conduct such investigations. They have the best insight into their own military procedures and will be able to conduct the most thorough and conclusive investigations,” he said on 21 September.

The UK’s stance on the negotiations in Geneva come after it emerged that Saudi Arabia has investigated just 36 out of 293 allegations that it has breached international humanitarian law in Yemen recorded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in London.

The figures, revealed in little noticed written answers in the UK parliament, come after Saudi Arabia’s UK-trained Joint Incidents Assessment Team reported that it only found three targeting errors in its latest batch of investigations.

The panel, which was set up after international pressure, cited the presence of fighters at the homes, school and medical clinics that were targeted. The latest report, released last week, said the coalition had acted in accordance with international humanitarian law, Reuters reported.

Half-hearted investigation

David Mepham, Human Rights Watch’s UK director, said the UK government was making “extraordinary excuses for the Saudi-led coalition” and its “half-hearted” investigations into deadly air attacks.

"Yemen is Boris Johnson's chance to step up – to match the gravity of events on the ground with a strong British policy, rooted in justice and compassion, which can help build a better future for ordinary Yemenis," he said.

The deadline for diplomats in Geneva to agree a consensus is Friday, but a source in Geneva told MEE that the likelihood of an independent investigation was slim. If no agreement is reached, this will be the third year in a row that the HRC has failed to address allegations of war crimes in Yemen.

Lobbying effort from Saudi Arabia killed off similar moves two years ago, while last year Saudi Arabia had its name removed from an annual UN list of countries that kill and maim children in war.

The lack of strong action from the Foreign Office comes after Saudi Arabia warned countries earlier this week that support for the resolution could “negatively affect” trade and diplomatic ties with the oil-rich kingdom. The UK granted export licences for more than £3.8bn of arms since the start of the conflict in Yemen.

Not fit for purpose

Andrew Smith, a spokesperson for anti-arms trade pressure group Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), told MEE: “The UK government has been complicit in the atrocities carried out against Yemeni people, and now it is acting to stop them from getting justice.

"The current JIAT process is clearly not fit for purpose. The Saudi regime cannot be trusted to uphold and observe the most basic human rights of Saudi people, so how can it possibly be trusted to investigate itself for war crimes?”

Last week, the MoD announced a new defence and security deal with Saudi Arabia despite increasing political pressure that has seen Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn call for a halt to arms exports to Saudi Arabia over the kingdom’s bombardment of Yemen.

“We are selling arms to Saudi Arabia… and at the same time we are sending aid in, we should not be doing both,” he told delegates at Labour’s annual conference on Wednesday.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office told MEE: “We are discussing with our international partners the two resolutions that have been proposed on how best to protect human rights in Yemen.”

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