Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Council voted to reject a resolution extending an independent expert review of the human rights situation in Yemen by another two years.
The resolution – proposed by the Netherlands – was the first to be defeated in the council’s 15 years of existence. It was supported by the principal Western suppliers of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Houthi rebels in Yemen but, it seems, not with the same vigor as it was opposed by Saudi Arabia.
The Reuters news agency called it a “defeat for Western states” on the council, though many of those same states will continue to profit from the war their arms are fueling in Yemen.
Media outlets blamed the dashed resolution on intensive lobbying by Saudi Arabia and its proxy Bahrain, a voting member of the council.
“UN member states have given a green light to warring parties to continue their campaign of death and destruction in Yemen,” Radhya Almutawakel, a representative of the Yemeni group Mwatana for Human Rights, told media.
The independent expert review consists of a trio of investigators – formally named the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts – tapped to investigate alleged war crimes “committed by all parties to the conflict” in Yemen since September 2014.
It was the only UN-mandated “independent entity” monitoring the situation in Yemen.
Prior to the vote against extending the investigators’ mandate, those experts said they were not given adequate human and financial resources to carry out their work and were denied access to Yemen by the government.
(Experts tapped by the UN to probe Israeli human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza have faced these same obstacles.)
The investigators “cannot succeed in its increasingly complex mission without the proper support from the international community,” they said in their final report, which was published in September under the title “A Nation Abandoned.”
The experts meanwhile pointed to a “significant accountability gap in Yemen.”
The Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, as well as the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council and de facto authorities, are responsible for serious human rights violations, according to the experts.
They decry that third states “continue to provide arms and military support to parties to the conflict, with little regard for the immense suffering caused to the people of Yemen.”
Arms transfers fuel conflict
The UK is one of the principal states fueling the war by providing arms to the Saudi-led coalition. The London government voted in favor of extending the mandate of the international experts investigating suspected war crimes in Yemen, some of it perpetrated with British-supplied arms.
Put simply, the UK supports examining grave human rights abuses in Yemen while it provides the weapons which it knows will be used to commit war crimes.
Britain certainly has not listened to the recommendations of the experts to stop fueling the conflict by halting arms transfers.
The UK is second only to the US in supplying arms to the Saudi-led coalition. Fragments of US-made weapons have been found in almost all airstrikes investigated by human rights activists.
In one report by the Yemeni human rights group Mwatana, it was stated that US-made weapons had been used in 25 out of 27 Saudi airstrikes identified. Every one of those airstrikes targeted civilians in Yemen.
The third main supplier of weapons to the coalition is France, which like the UK voted in favor of renewing the UN independent experts’ mandate.
The US was not a voting member of the UN Human Rights Council at the time of the Yemen investigatory body vote.
The Biden administration stated that it was “disappointed” at the outcome. “Accountability for human rights abuses is critical to lasting peace, and we will seek a new UN mandate on accountability for Yemen,” the State Department added.
The US was elected to the Human Rights Council after the Yemen vote and will begin a three-year term at the UN body in 2022. The Trump administration quit the council over supposed bias against Israel – a baseless accusation repeated by the Biden administration upon its reelection this month.
The UAE was also elected to the council. Its candidacy was opposed by Human Rights Watch, which said that the Gulf state, along with Cameroon and Eritrea, did “not meet the qualifications for membership on the UN’s top rights body.”
Human Rights Watch struck a more conciliatory tone regarding the US rejoining the council, despite its abysmal human rights record domestically and abroad – the US has used military force in nearly 20 countries in as many years.
Washington announced a change in policy regarding Yemen earlier this year, ending support for the Saudi-led coalition’s “offensive operations.” Yet the Saudi war is an inherently offensive operation and any support would constitute the very thing the Biden administration says it has ended.
So state the authors of a Brookings Institution article titled “Biden’s broken promise on Yemen.”
“Saudi Arabia is bombing and blockading another country: Between March 2015 and July 2021, the Saudis conducted a minimum of 23,251 air raids, which killed or injured 18,616 civilians,” they state.
“The Houthis, known formally as Ansarallah, launch missiles in retaliation but if Saudi airstrikes ceased, the Houthis would have little reason to provoke their powerful neighbor,” they add.
Those who follow Palestine will see the parallels with Hamas in Gaza, under a severe Israeli blockade since 2007.
The strategy underpinning Saudi tactics is the same used by Israel to foment regime change in Gaza, with the blessing of Washington, Brussels and the political wing of the United Nations.
The Saudis and Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president in exile, “seem to believe that if they force those living under Houthi rule to suffer, they will overthrow the rulers,” the authors of the Brookings Institution article on Yemen state.
“Yet this same strategy has failed for the past 15 years of US sanctions on Venezuela, 40 years of US sanctions on Iran, and 60 years of US sanctions on Cuba.”
Though the US’s economic warfare has failed to yield the desired regime change results, this strategy has caused great harm to average people living in those states, to say the least, as has Israel’s siege on Gaza.
Arms control measures be damned
The world’s top 11 arms exporters have all transferred weapons to parties to the Yemen war.
In addition to the US, UK and France, substantial suppliers include Russia, Germany, China, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.
Israel and Ukraine have also provided arms supplies, though not during periods of full-blown war, according to a report by Sam Perlo-Freeman published by the World Peace Foundation covering 2009-2018.
That study analyzing arms exports around the globe finds that weapons transfers increase the likelihood of armed conflict and make conflicts longer and more deadly.
This contradicts a claim made privately to shareholders by the head of BAE Systems, the UK’s largest weapons maker, that advanced weapons nip war in the bud.
“Civilians are killed in war,” Roger Carr from BAE Systems said in 2019. “The solution is to stop wars at the earliest opportunity. And our belief is that if you supply first-class equipment, you are the encouragement, particularly when used in defense, for people to stop fighting.”That has certainly not been the case in Yemen. Not only have these arms transfers fueled conflict, but they also violate the laws of many of the states exporting them.
The US, UK and France have arms export rules to prevent the transfer of arms “that might worsen conflict or be used for human rights or [international humanitarian law] violations,” as observed in the World Peace Foundation report.
Those rules have failed to prevent those states from exporting arms to parties that created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
As the World Peace Foundation report states, “there is frequently a gap between many states’ willingness to commit to strong arms export controls and their willingness to restrict their arms exports in practice.”
Instead, “states’ defense, foreign policy and military-industrial interests take center stage.”
That deference to national interests at the expense of justice is evident in the failure to censure or sanction Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and minister of defense who bears principal responsibility for his country’s actions in Yemen.
The White House’s national security adviser recently courted Bin Salman to advance Saudi normalization with Israel despite Biden’s campaign pledge to make a “pariah” out of the crown prince over his role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
In contrast, the UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on Houthi militias and forces loyal to the assassinated Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
With the support of the US, the UK has led the effort to impose sanctions on the Houthis while both states have lavished arms on Saudi Arabia, thereby prolonging the war in Yemen.
The sanctions on the Houthis are an extension of the economic war against Iran, though the extent of Iranian support in Yemen is greatly exaggerated and, like the authors of the Brookings Institute article state, “[Houthi] attempts to control Yemen will continue even if Iran withdraws what assistance they do provide.”
The US and UK denounce Houthi and Hamas rockets from besieged territory while providing Saudi Arabia and Israel with the arms to carry out far deadlier raids and thwarting meaningful efforts towards accountability.
Pledges to safeguard human rights by Western arms-exporting states ring hollow. Despite the hypocrisy of those in power, public outrage over the horror in Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi has pushed the needle closer to accountability.
“Germany, Italy and the US, among others” have “wholly or partly stopped arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” as Perlo-Freeman observes.
Invested in war
But that does not mean that those countries are not materially invested in the Yemen war.
The Netherlands voted to ban arms exports to Saudi Arabia in 2016. But Dutch banks continued to invest in weapons-makers supplying the conflict and its major pension funds finance human rights violations in Yemen and beyond.
“Ending arms sales is the single most effective step the US and UK can take” towards ending the war, as Perlo-Freeman observed in the New Internationalist earlier this year.
Without the support of US and UK arms manufacturers, the Saudi air force would be grounded in a matter of days, as a former BAE Systems employee has said.
Yet world powers carry on with arms deals as usual while gesturing towards a “rules-based international order” to which they pay little more than lip service.
So why do these states even bother with international human rights bodies?
Making a pretense of caring about human rights is necessary to the functioning of a system actually intended to impose imperial will.Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, hinted at this when he said in defense of Israel that “we must push back against attempts to subvert the ideals upon which the Human Rights Council was founded.”
And so “Western democracies” vote in favor of toothless probes into rights violations in Yemen (and Gaza) while lavishing weapons on Saudi Arabia (and Israel) and providing support to maintain their advanced weapons systems.
(Privately, the liberal mask may drop. A regretful former UK Foreign Office lawyer recently described Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s flippant apathy flaunted during briefings on civilian deaths resulting from Saudi airstrikes.)
So long as there is profit to be reaped, neither the emergence of conflict nor third states’ domestic laws will do much to restrain weapons transfers.
Earnest appeals by independent investigators to the nonexistent morality of weapons-exporting UN member states is, sadly, hardly more effective. That is not to say that their work is not necessary and should not be supported – their reportage informs the advocacy work of those genuinely concerned with human rights and willing to put their bodies on the line to defend them.
Activists carrying out direct actions to disrupt the arms trade have punctured the vacuum of accountability by imposing a cost – even if it is just in terms of public image – on and highlighting the complicity of corporations profiting from the bloodshed in Yemen and Gaza.
Divestment campaigns may also advance public consciousness and build international solidarity with peoples resisting regimes supported by Western liberal governments.
In tandem with local resistance, it will be organized, popular pressure – not the fictional consciences of powerful states – that will finally ground the fighter jets targeting civilians in Yemen, Gaza and beyond.
Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.