Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
UN Report Finds US, France, and Britain May Be Implicated in Yemen War Crimes
The UN published a report on Tuesday indicating that the United States, France, and Great Britain may be complicit in war crimes in Yemen. According to the report, the anti-Houthi coalition, which is accused of killing civilians in air strikes that violate international humanitarian law and purposefully starving the civilian population, may have received weapons and intelligence support from the three countries.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have backed the anti-Houthi coalition and are two of the largest buyers of arms from the three countries. The “Group of International and Regional Eminent Experts on Yemen,” convened by the UN Human Rights Council to examine alleged violations of international law by all parties to the conflict, determined that “[t]he legality of arms transfers by France, the United Kingdom, the United States and other States remains questionable, and is the subject of various domestic court proceedings.”
“It is clear that the continued supply of weapons to parties to the conflict is perpetuating the conflict and prolonging the suffering of the Yemeni people,” said Melissa Parke, a member of the group of experts that authored the report. “That is why we are urging member states to no longer supply weapons to parties to the conflict.”
Oxfam’s Muhsin Siddiquey told The Guardian, “This shocking report should act as a wake-up call to the UK government. It offers all the proof needed of the misery and suffering being inflicted on the people of Yemen by a war partly fueled by UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other coalition members.”
However, the report stressed that the anti-Houthi coalition is far from the only party at fault, with atrocities and human rights violations committed by other parties. The Iran-supported Houthis were accused of using child soldiers, shelling cities indiscriminately, targeting civilians with snipers and resorting to “siege-like warfare.”
The report also noted that a secret list of suspected war criminals had been sent to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to help identify “individuals who may be responsible for international crimes.”
“There are no clean hands in this combat, in this contest,” UN expert Charles Garraway told reporters. “Everybody, everybody is responsible.”
UN Atomic Watchdog Warns Iran Not in Compliance with 2015 Nuclear Deal
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported late last week that Iran has continued to exceed the limits of its nuclear program as agreed upon in the landmark 2015 multinational deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), following abandonment of the JCPOA by the Trump Administration last year and re-imposition of sanctions in violation of the US’s commitments. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran was failing to comply with UN officials’ request for information on its storage of nuclear and radioactive material in Tehran. On Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani said that starting by Friday, Iran will work on developing centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment and disregard all of the JCPOA’s limits on nuclear research and development.
According to the IAEA, Iran is enriching its stock of uranium and refining it to a greater purity than permitted by the JCPOA. The IAEA report found that Iran has acquired 241.6 kg of low-enriched uranium, exceeding the stockpile limit of 202.8 kg of uranium for the second month in a row, and is enriching up to 4.5 percent, exceeding the enrichment level limit of 3.67 percent.
The report from the IAEA, which serves as the UN’s autonomous nuclear regulatory organization, suggested that Iran had not been fully cooperative with investigators, noting “Ongoing interactions between the Agency and Iran . . . require full and timely cooperation by Iran. The Agency continues to pursue this objective with Iran.” The Wall Street Journal reported that diplomats said that “Iran has refused to provide answers to important questions raised by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency over allegations.”
The news of Iran’s decision to exceed more of the JCPOA’s limits comes as France has tried to launch a plan that would make up for the United States’ withdrawal and imposition of sanctions. It involves providing a $15 billion credit line to Iran in exchange for the country’s full compliance with the JCPOA. However, the proposal depends on at least some form of US approval, which the US is reportedlyrejecting in favor of its so-called “maximum pressure” tactics.
On Wednesday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, made clear that if France could not quickly put their proposed deal together, Iran would continue to disregard the JCPOA limits noted above and further develop its nuclear program. President Rouhani seemed to confirm this, announcing shortly thereafter that he would lift all nuclear research and development restrictions.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Decries Risk of Statelessness for 2 Million in India
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees sounded the alarm bells over a potential move by India that could leave nearly 2 million people in the north-east state of Assam stateless. On Saturday, India initiated what is widely perceived to be a mass citizenship check through the release of a National Register of Citizens (NRC). The citizenship list included 31.1 million people in Assam, but left off around 1.9 million people—the vast majority of whom are Muslim, according to lawyers and human rights activists, as reported by the New York Times. Indian officials stated the excluded group was split roughly evenly between Muslims and Hindus, but would not provide a more detailed breakdown.
It is unclear what will happen to the millions left off the NRC, but UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi expressed significant concerns over India’s decision. “Any process that could leave large numbers of people without a nationality would be an enormous blow to global efforts to eradicate statelessness,” Grandi said in a statement. “I appeal to India to ensure that no one is rendered stateless by this action, including by ensuring adequate access to information, legal aid, and legal recourse in accordance with the highest standards of due process.”
According to the New York Times, Indian authorities have been quickly building deportation prisons in Assam in preparation of the publishing of the NRC. Those left off the list will have four months to appeal the decision to a so-called Foreigners’ Tribunal. However, lawyers have described the courts as biased and one said that the overall sentiment to Muslims in the Assam region is “xenophobia at its best.”
Assam state, which borders on Bangladesh, has been historically plagued with an anti-immigrant sentiment. Some critics of the Modi administration worry that the NRC is tied to other policies the government has taken that are seen as anti-Muslim, including trying to pass a bill this year that would grant citizenship to immigrants from neighboring countries if they were Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsee or Jain—but not Muslim.
UN Anti-Corruption Body Closes Its Doors in Guatemala
On Tuesday, the UN’s anti-corruption commission in Guatemala officially shut down, leaving many worried that the country will be extremely vulnerable to graft and abuse. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, referred to more commonly as CICIG for its Spanish initials, closed after Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales decided he would not renew the commission’s mandate.
CICIG is considered one of the most successful anti-corruption ventures in Latin America, resulting in several prominent businessmen and government officials being brought to trial on charges of corruption, including three former presidents. One of its main contributions was improving Guatemala’s attorney general’s office, and some worry that with the CICIG’s departure, pending cases will fall at the wayside.
“The fight against corruption has been weakened,” Haroldo Vasquez, the president of Guatemala’s Association of Judges for Integrity, told the Associated Press. “Justice and judicial independence are not issues that interest many people in the government.”
Worse, there’s some indication that people prosecuted under CICIG leadership are ready to attack those involved with the UN commission. One politician who was imprisoned following a CICIG investigation told Reuters, “In politics, if you’re going to attack, you should never leave the wounded behind. Now we have the list of investigators and prosecutors who are going to pay for being such bad people with all of us.”
UN Security Council Begins September With Briefing on Libyan Bloodshed
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council had its first briefing of the month with the UN Special Representative from Libya detailing the turmoil in Tripoli. Ghassan Salamé told the Security Council that since the Libyan National Army launched an attack to take control of the nation’s capital five months ago, some 120,000 people have been displaced and more than 100 civilians have been killed. While he did not have precise numbers on how many soldiers had been killed, Salamé said “anecdotally the figure appears to be in the low thousands,” adding that young Libyans “are spilling their blood on the battlefield, when their skills could better be used to rebuild their country.”
Salamé, who is also the leader of the UN Support Mission in Libya, stressed how dire the situation was, warning that the revived violence is “spreading geographically” and derailing what was “an active and promising political process.” According to the Associated Press, Salamé said that if the current conflict is not quashed with the international support of the Security Council, there would be one of two potential devastating scenarios: an extended battle ripe for a “growing transnational terrorist threat” or “a doubling down of military support to one side or the other by their external patrons,” which will “assuredly plunge the entire region into chaos.”
Teenage Climate Activist Greta Thumberg Leads Strike at UN
Swedish teenage activist, Greta Thumberg, led a climate change protest outside the UN headquarters in New York last week before attending a meeting with UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa. Thumberg was joined by hundreds of other activists, many of whom were also teenagers, who marched and chanted “the seas are rising, and so are we!” and “fossil lobbyists have got to go.”
Thumberg started drawing international attention in 2018 when she began weekly Friday protests outside of the Swedish parliament, carrying what has become her signature sign of “Skolstrejk for Klimatet” (School Strike for Climate).