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Yemen war crimes investigation renewed by UN despite Saudi opposition

Nations vote 21 to eight, with 18 abstentions, in favour of a resolution renewing the UN-backed probe
A report by the panel last month said coalition air strikes had caused 'most of the documented civilian casualties' (AFP)

The United Nations Human Rights Council has voted to extend an international probe into alleged war crimes committed in Yemen, despite strong opposition from Saudi Arabia and several of its allies.

Nations on Friday voted 21 to eight, with 18 abstentions, in favour of a resolution that renewed the UN-backed investigation for a year.

Last month, investigators detailed evidence of possible war crimes committed in Yemen by both the Saudi-backed coalition and the Houthi rebels opposed to Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The Arab group in the rights council had backed a rival text that called on Yemen's national human rights commission to take charge of future investigations of the conflict.

That proposal was a non-starter for many states, given a widespread lack of confidence in the Yemeni commission.

The approved resolution led by a group of European states and Canada calls on investigators to deliver another report next September.

Probe members had said they needed more time to fully document the range of violations committed in the conflict.

Abdulaziz al-Wasil, Riyadh's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said he voted no because the resolution did not address his "legitimate concerns," notably about the "lack of balance" in the first report.

The fact that it went to a vote underscored divisions on the issue within the 47-member rights council, which typically strives for consensus on major texts.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the vote "sent a clear message that it stands with Yemeni civilians".

"States at the UN Human Rights Council stood firm today, in the face of shameful efforts by the Saudi-led coalition to quash a UN expert inquiry," John Fisher, HRW's Geneva director, said in a statement. 

Saudi criticism

Ahead of the vote on Friday, the Saudi-led coalition had strongly criticised the UN mission, saying any extension should be a matter for the Yemeni government.

Hadi's government had already announced on Thursday that it was ending cooperation with the UN investigation into the alleged war crimes during more than three years of conflict.

"The government refuses to extend the mission's mandate because its findings, outlined in the report, did not meet the standards of professionalism and impartiality or the basic principles of the United Nations," said a statement carried by the state-run Saba news agency.

The coalition again took strong issue with the 28 August report by the panel, which though accusing both sides of violations, said that coalition air strikes had caused "most of the documented civilian casualties" and voiced "serious concerns about the targeting process".

In comments released to the AFP news agency on Friday through the Saudi information ministry, coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Maliki criticised the "inaccuracy of the information in the report, which was derived from non-governmental organisations and the testimonies of some persons whose circumstances are unknown".

He said the report "failed to mention Iran's role in Yemen, and the countless violations perpetrated by the Houthis, both against the Yemeni people and against the kingdom" of Saudi Arabia.

"These violations include targeting the kingdom using Iranian ballistic missiles – aimed at civilian and religious sites," he added.

'Blatant attempt to avoid scrutiny'

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in March 2015 in the conflict between the embattled Hadi, whose government is recognised by the UN, and the Houthis.

The coalition says the rebels have fired more than 200 missiles at Saudi Arabia since it intervened and accuses Iran of smuggling in the missiles to the Houthis through the rebel-held port of Hodeidah.

The Red Sea port is the entry point for UN aid for millions of desperately needy civilians. It is currently under attack by government and United Arab Emirates troops.

The coalition campaign has exacerbated the humanitarian impact of the war through intense aerial bombardments, causing mass civilian casualties. 

HRW last week accused Saudi Arabia of mounting a "campaign to discredit and undermine a UN investigation into abuses by all Yemen's warring parties," calling it "yet another blatant attempt to avoid scrutiny of the coalition's own actions in Yemen".

The UN says there have been nearly 10,000 confirmed deaths in the conflict since the coalition intervened in 2015, although the real number is far higher, AFP reported.

The conflict has triggered what the UN describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with three-quarters of the population - or 22 million people - in need of humanitarian aid.

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