In a victory for human rights groups and European countries, the UN Human Rights Council voted last week to extend the investigation of human rights conditions in Yemen with a 21 to eight majority, despite objections by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The duration of the investigation of atrocities committed during the war in Yemen has become an annual diplomatic quarrel, with Holland frequently demanding an investigation of the war, while Saudi Arabia objects to any international scrutiny.
Last year, the two sides reached a compromise by forming a group of experts to investigate, but the report issued last month angered Riyadh because it blamed the majority of deaths on the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthis who are Iran’s allies.
Several Sunni countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have been at war since March 2015 against the Houthis (their official name is the Ansarullah Group) who are Zaidi Shia, under the pretext of supporting the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Tehran denies supporting the Houthis even though Iranian official and semi-official media promote Ansarullah.
In the voting session, Britain’s representative Julian Braithwaite – whose country supports Saudi Arabia – said it is important to give the experts more time to investigate since there are many incidents that were not completely documented, “especially those pertaining to Houthis”.
Mexico’s Ambassador Socorro Flores Liera said the experts should investigate the obstruction of delivery of food aid, and called on all countries to stop sending weapons to the warring parties.
Reuters reported that “the number of those who died in the war is unknown, and the UN has stopped trying to count the dead for two years”.
At the time, hospitals tallied more than 10,000 deaths. The Saudi-led coalition, which includes a strong presence by the UAE, has carried out thousands of air strikes primarily targeting Houthi military locations.
However, they have also killed many civilians, even though Riyadh and its allies declare they did not do so on purpose.
In a rare move, the coalition admitted responsibility for killing dozens of children in Saada in northern Yemen in an air strike, and promised to prosecute those responsible.
The war has also destroyed Yemen’s economy, which was already the weakest among Arab countries, pushed 8.4 million people to the brink of famine and caused a cholera outbreak.
UN agencies report that 3.5 million people will be added to those in dire need of urgent assistance. The UN has described the situation in Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now.
UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told the Security Council on Friday that, “we are losing our battle against famine”.
He added: “Today, there are areas suffering from conditions similar to famine, and in some cases, people are eating tree leaves because they cannot find any type of food.”
According to UN figures, three quarters of Yemenis, or 22 million people, need humanitarian assistance, including eight million who are in dire need of nutrition.
The Yemeni riyal devalued by 30 per cent last month, which caused a sharp increase in fuel prices since it is almost entirely imported.
Meanwhile, UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths told the BBC that the international community must take immediate steps to end deteriorating conditions in the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Griffiths said he was encouraged by the global response to the UN’s warning of imminent famine, and how this focused minds on the urgent need for peace talks. Griffiths hoped he will hold more talks within weeks.
The military stalemate with neither side able to defeat the other further compounds humanitarian conditions.
Since the Arab coalition intervened in support of the legitimate Yemeni government, battle lines have remained the same with Houthis controlling the majority of the territories in what was known as North Yemen, while their opponents control the rest of the country.
Mohamed Al-Makhlafi, a leading figure in the Yemeni Socialist Party and former minister, said the situation is more complicated than Yemen can handle.
“The warring parties have become politically and militarily exhausted,” he said. “They must sit down to negotiate; there is no other option for anyone.”
Makhlafi explained how the tense alliance between Houthis and the forces of the late president Ali Abdullah Saleh finally disintegrated, and even led to Saleh’s assassination.
“Meanwhile, those in southern Yemen are fighting the Reform Party, who are the [Muslim] Brotherhood in Yemen,” he said. “This means Yemen will likely see more divisions leading to more political fragmentation, which will be irreparable for a long time to come.”
Since the early days of the war, there were attempts for a ceasefire, such as the 12-17 May 2015 truce, followed by the Geneva conference on 20 May that year, and the announcement by Yemen’s foreign minister 19 June that negotiations had ended without any results.
In late 2015 and early 2016, the two sides negotiated in Kuwait under UN auspices amid the December 2015 truce. In 2016 and part of 2017, former UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed attempted a complex mediation between the two sides, but was unsuccessful.
Months later, neighbouring Oman’s attempt at mediation also failed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: UN investigation in Yemen extended