You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else. – Winston Churchill
On Oct. 14, the United States regained its seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) after three years of absence. The United States withdrew from the 47-member council under the Trump administration but has now indicated its intent to be an effective member under the Biden administration.
Conditions in Yemen continued to deteriorate over the three years of U.S. absence from the council, punctuated most recently by the UNHRC’s rejection of a resolution to keep investigating war crimes in Yemen. The resolution was introduced by the Netherlands to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE), which would have authorized two more years of monitoring of atrocities in Yemen, but Bahrain, Russia, and 19 other nations blocked the resolution on Oct. 7.
The vote was completed with a total of 21 countries against the resolution and 18 countries supporting. There were seven absentees. At the time, the United States still had only observer status and could not vote on the measure.
The Biden administration understands that the 2018 withdrawal by the United States from the UNHRC created a vacuum of power to be filled by other nations like China, commenting that it would be better for the United States to be a part of the UNHRC and create change from the inside rather than participate from the outside as an observer.
However, U.S. leadership is very much needed now in Geneva to do right by all victims of atrocities around the world, including the Yemeni people. They are in dire need of help, and for now, the United States appears to be unwilling or unable to be that voice for them.
Saudi Arabia, like the United States, could not vote on the GEE reauthorization resolution – it narrowly lost election to the council during the last cycle. However, the Saudis lobbied heavily against the resolution and the vote was led by Bahrain, a close Saudi ally. Furthermore, this resolution was spun by Saudi Arabia as a western initiative, rather than a humanitarian one.
These Saudi machinations reveal that it is entirely possible for States with observer status, rather than full membership, to participate in and influence the outcome of UNHRC negotiations. The U.S. failure to use its power and influence has contributed to a lack of accountability for perpetrators of atrocious crimes being committed in Yemen and sends the wrong signal on accountability around the world – when in fact, the United States should be setting a positive example.
The United States needs to send a respected ambassador to the Human Rights Council as soon as possible to reclaim its negotiating powers. The Biden administration took the first step last week, nominating Michèle Taylor to represent the United States on the council. But given the huge backlog within the Senate confirmation process, it may be some time before Taylor can start to make progress in Geneva.
For now, the end of the Yemen resolution has meant the end of the Group of Eminent Experts’ (GEE) reporting mandate, the main international vehicle that has helped bring attention to the Yemeni people’s plight. The UNHRC created the GEE in September 2017 with the purpose of carrying out a comprehensive investigation of all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights committed by all parties in the Yemeni conflict since September 2014. UNHRC had renewed the GEE mandate in 2018, 2019, and 2020. With the GEE reports came extensive documentation of the perpetration of atrocity crimes – with the goal of “sustainable and inclusive peace, ensuring accountability for perpetrators of violations, and realizing victims’ rights to reparations.”
As of now, more than 100,000 people have been killed in Yemen and over four million people have been displaced from their homes as a result of the seven-year war. An estimated 85,000 children died due to severe malnutrition between April 2015 and October 2018. In addition, around 24 million people – 80 percent of the Yemeni population – need some form of humanitarian assistance. Food scarcity and security affects 20 million people. On top of that, around 20 million people do not have access to adequate healthcare due to lack of fully functioning hospitals. The GEE had issued a number of important reports identifying human rights and humanitarian law violations by all parties involved, including the impact of arms sales, indiscriminate attacks, and siege warfare on civilian security. In acknowledging the end of its mandate, it lamented:
Now is the time for more action, rather than less. By ending the only United Nations independent entity investigating and issuing detailed public reports on human rights violations committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, the Council appears to be abandoning the people of Yemen.
The burden now shifts to non-governmental organizations to continue to monitor and investigate past atrocity crimes, a new trend in this “age of the strongman” as the international community looks away. (See Just Security’s prior coverage here and here). The increasing reliance on NGOs to perform monitoring on minimal budgets and other restrictions should not be the only means to investigate atrocity crimes. While NGO’s play an important role in this process, the NGOs do not have the power that nations have. These organizations cannot impose international mandates, a mechanism used by countries to achieve their desired results faster.
Though the Biden administration has won a seat on the next session of the UNHRC, convening in January 2022, the United States must do better immediately by vocally defending the Yemeni people. The Yemeni people deserve international oversight of the warring parties – and the United States has an obligation to apply its considerable international bargaining power to advance justice and peace in the region, including by supporting international investigations into atrocities in Yemen.
*This commentary benefited from the assistance of Kanalya Arivalagan.