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Yemen war: Saudi Arabia lobbying campaign 'shut down' UN investigation

Sources tell the Guardian that Riyadh used 'incentives and threats' to end United Nations investigation into war in Yemen
The fighting in Yemen has seen some 80 percent of the population, or 24 million people, relying on aid and assistance (AFP)

A UN investigation into human rights violations committed in the Yemen conflict was shut down following an intensive Saudi lobbying campaign, according to a report in the Guardian.

Sources with close knowledge of the process said that Saudi Arabia had used “incentives and threats” to force members of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to vote against extending the independent war crimes investigation. 

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The campaign proved to be successful, with a majority of 21 countries against 18 voting in October to end the investigation, the first time in its 15-year history that the HRC has had a resolution defeated.

It also represented an extraordinary turnaround from 2020, when the resolution to continue the investigation had been passed by 22 votes to 12. “That kind of swing - from 12 no’s to 21 - does not just happen,” one official told the Guardian.

According to the report, Saudi Arabia is alleged to have warned Indonesia - the most populous Muslim country in the world - that it would make it difficult for Indonesians to travel to the holy city of Mecca if Indonesian officials didn’t vote against the 7 October resolution. 

Indonesia was one of the 21 countries to vote against continuing an investigation that was set to focus its attention on accountability for potential war crimes. 

China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela, Libya and Uzbekistan were among the countries that voted against the resolution, while the UK, France, Germany, Brazil and Mexico voted to support it. Seven countries abstained.

Political officials, diplomatic and activist sources spoke of other instances in which Riyadh had used its influence to swing the vote its way. 

Togo, the African nation that also voted against the resolution, announced at the time that it would be opening a new embassy in Riyadh, and that it would receive financial support from the Gulf kingdom to support anti-terrorism activities. 

John Fisher, the Geneva director of Human Rights Watch, said: “It was a very tight vote. We understand that Saudi Arabia and their coalition allies and Yemen were working at a high level for some time to persuade states in capitals through a mixture of threats and incentives, to back their bids to terminate the mandate of this international monitoring mechanism.”

'Damning' reports

The HRC voted to convene a team of experts to investigate possible violations of humanitarian law and human rights in Yemen in 2017. Saudi Arabia, which is not a voting member of the UN Human Rights Council, initially supported the effort. 

The Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE) was not granted permission to travel to Yemen, but a Guardian source close to the matter said its reports grew more “damning” over the years. 

This is thought to have influenced Saudi Arabia’s decision to intensify its lobbying efforts against investigations into the war in Yemen.

'We understand that Saudi Arabia and their coalition allies and Yemen were working at a high level for some time to persuade states in capitals through a mixture of threats and incentives'

John Fisher, Human Rights Watch

The aggression of the Saudis is said to have unsettled nations supporting the investigation, including the Netherlands, which was leading the efforts. 

The four countries - Togo, Indonesia, Senegal and Bangladesh - that went on to change their votes from abstaining to opposing the resolution did not give an indication of this change of heart until the vote arrived. 

One week after the vote, the UAE, an ally of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict, invited Senegal to sign a memorandum of understanding to establish a joint Emirati-Senegalese business council.

The Saudi-led coalition first intervened in Yemen in March 2015, after Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sanaa and began closing in on Aden, prompting Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, president of the internationally recognised government, to flee to Riyadh.

The death toll of the war, now in its seventh year, will reach an estimated 377,000 by the end of 2021, according to a recent report from the UN's Development Programme.

The fighting has seen some 80 percent of the population, or 24 million people, relying on aid and assistance, including 14.3 million who are in acute need. 

Representatives from the Indonesian and Saudi embassies in Washington and the foreign ministry in Togo did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

The UAE did not respond to a request for comment.