The 48th Session of the Human Rights Council
13 September to 8 October 2021
ITEM 2 - Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General
Interactive Dialogue on the report of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen
14th September 2021
By Louise Requin / GICJ
The conflict in Yemen is a civil war opposing the Houthi militia to the legitimate Yemeni Government, headed by President Hadi and backed by a Saudi-led coalition. The conflict has divided the country into a Houthi-controlled North and a Government-controlled South.
The group of eminent experts is issuing its report which researched remotely on human rights violations. The findings lay out violent forms of arbitrary detention, specifically targeting human rights activists and journalists. Women are specifically at risk and reports find incredible levels of sexual violence performed by the Houthis on detained women. The humanitarian crisis rages on as the blockade continues, impeding food, medicine and fuel delivery. Airstrikes continue despite warnings that they constitute breaches of international law due to their indiscriminate and disproportional character.
Member states and civil societies organizations discussed the group’s finding after the chair presented the report. Discussions revolved around the legitimacy of the Group’s mandate. The coalition and aligned countries reject the Group’s findings and demand the non-renewal of its mandate. Conversely they support the national enquiry committee and requested international support for the latter. Western countries differed and expressed strong support for the Group’s mandate.
The group recommendations were the following: to refer the situation to the ICC, to expand the list of sanctioned individuals, to establish an independent criminal justice investigation, for third states to investigate war crimes, to create a special tribunal.
GICJ welcomes the efforts of the Group in reporting human rights violations. However, we deplore the lack of emphasis on Iran’s participation in arms transfer to the Houthis. The Yemeni civil war is a proxy conflict opposing Iran to Saudi Arabia, the Group should have addressed these issues. Furthermore, the UK, the USA and France are major suppliers to the coalition in weapons. Their involvement therefore enables the continuation of the conflict and should have been addressed. Finally, GICJ deplores the report’s characterization of the Houthis as “de facto authorities”, a term which credits the terrorist organization with power in a dangerous way.
Background of the Yemeni civil war
The conflict in Yemen rages on since 2014, when the Houthi militia emerged and took over the capital city of Sanaa. The Houthis pushed the Government of Yemen, led by President Hadi to the South while Houthis remained in control in the North. In 2016, a Saudi-led coalition of countries supporting the Government of Yemen and President Hadi started a blockade preventing the delivery of food, fuel and medical supplies through the Hudaydah port and Sanaa airport. The airport remains obstructed by the legitimate government. Since, the country has fallen into the world’s worse humanitarian crisis, as food insecurity threatens an estimated 400 000 children for the upcoming year. Peace negotiations are in a deadlock, as both parties seem to lack political will to end the conflict. A major impediment to peace is the heavy load of arms transfer which enables the protraction of hostilities.
The UN Security Council in resolution 2216 imposed sanctions on Houthi individuals including a travel ban, arms embargo and assets freeze. In October 2017, the OHCHR established the Group of Eminent Experts to monitor human rights violations and report to the Human Rights Council. The government of Yemen and the Saudi coalition rejects the investigation of the Group as illegitimate. The Council’s resolutions repeatedly included condemnations of the ongoing violations, called parties to respect international law, called for negotiations and ceasefire, called for inclusive peacebuilding efforts and the end of arbitrary detention and starvation of civilians, and urged all foreign states to stop arms transfer.
Report of the Group of Eminent Experts
Three members of the group were present: chair Kamel Jendoubi, Melissa Parke and Ardi Imseis. The session was presided over by President Nazhat Shameem Khan.
The Chair of the Group of Eminent Experts Kamel Jendoubi opened by saying that sufficient will from all parties could very well end the conflict, if states decided to commit, but deplored the lack of will from all parties to negotiate. He emphasized the fact that the shuffling of weapons to Yemen enables the continuation of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis.
The Group conducted 142 interviews with victims and witnesses. The conditions under the Covid-19 pandemic led the Group to conduct interviews remotely. They substantiated their report with satellite images. Despite difficulties caused by the pandemic and their short staff, the Group demanded for its mandate be renewed for another year.
The Group found that the conflict is raging on, with human losses higher than ever. The ongoing blockade has created a stark limitation of food, fuel and medicine import. Civilians are left starving, with an expected 400 000 children to face food insecurity in the coming year. The obstruction of the airport also prevents the effective delivery of humanitarian aid. The group called for the immediate end to the blockade and for the UN to organize safe delivery of humanitarian aid.
Airstrikes and shelling are conducted by the coalition and the Houthi Militia on a daily. Attacks are indiscriminate and disproportional. Such attacks may constitute war crimes under customary international law, as they also fail to respect principles of precaution. About 18 000 civilians were harmed by airstrikes this year alone, and infrastructures and medical facilities were also targeted and destroyed:
“One paramedic, after visiting an airstrike site in Sana’a, stated: “One week later, I was in the area and, in the drainage of the hotel, we found more bodies. The dogs had started eating those bodies. One month later, I smelled around the area and when I went to the building, I found a leg in the drainage.”
Many instances of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention were reported by the Group, as being used as a technique to foster allegiance through the spread of fear. Journalists, human rights activists are particularly at risk. Once detained, victims face torture, cruel and inhuman treatment. The Houthi Militia was found to use incredible levels of sexual violence on detainees with cases being detailed in the Group’s report:
“A female human rights defender […] was held in prolonged solitary confinement for four months in an underground cell with no light, and was only removed from the cell every two days to be raped. Two Zainabiyat officers would take her to another room, take off her clothes and call a man, saying: “she is ready”. As she stated: “I lost everyone. All my friends refused me when I was released, as the Houthis spread rumours that I was accused of prostitution. I am having problems with my family too … I need justice.”
The group stated that women, migrants, children and minorities are particularly at risk of displacement, trafficking and arbitrary detention. The Baha’I minority is actively persecuted by the Houthis, with six men forced into exile by the militia. The Houthis recruit children for battle, and findings of the group suggest that Saudi Arabia is training children for battle in Yemen as well.
The group concluded by stressing the importance of accountability, justice and investigation of the crimes, as well as the rights of victims to truth and reparation. They asked the council to implement an investigative mechanism similar to the Syrian one, and to prepare Yemen for an accountability-based approach, dialogue and transitional justice. They reiterated their urge for the UNSC to refer the case to the ICC for adequate international criminal prosecution.
Interactive dialogue with member states and civil society organizations
The debate mostly revolved around the legitimacy of the Group’s mandate. Speakers were aligned along these lines: Western countries fully supported the renewal of the mandate, defending it as the sole truly independent mechanism for investigation. Arab countries, the Maghreb and China on the other hand called the Group of Eminent Expert’s investigation illegitimate and demanded its mandate not be renewed.
The representative of the Government of Yemen opened the dialogue. He said the Group lacked professionalism and used a biased, dishonest and erroneous approach. Therefore, he rejected the “unverified” findings of the report. However, the representative said Yemen welcomed the investigation of human rights violations, and demanded the task be attributed to the national committee of enquiry. He defended the national committee’s ability to provide reports according to international standards and insisted on the importance of accountability for the Government of Yemen. He demanded international humanitarian support and assistance for the national committee.
Saudi Arabia further rejected the Group’s mandate, and asserted that peace negotiations are a national matter which should in no case be engineered through international interventions. The international community is biased, as proven by the report. Saudi Arabia believes that the group’s description of the Houthis emboldens them.
The Arab Group was represented by Egypt, and requested that the UN Human Rights Council provide capacity building and technical assistance to Yemen as opposed to “imposing” an investigation. The Arab Group rejected the Group’s findiings, along with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait, Jordan, Sudan who all demanded international support for Yemen’s national committee of enquiry.
The EU held the Group of Eminent Experts as the only group internationally accountable. Along with France, Ireland and the UK, the EU representative called for the renewal of the mandate. They also called for a ceasefire and urged parties to cooperate with peace negotiations. They stressed the grave character of the ongoing human rights violations.
Those who contested the legitimacy of the Group’s mandate also argued for non-interference and national sovereignty. Bahrain demanded support for the Yemeni government’s own initiatives should in virtue of their knowledge of the field. China made a similar pint, arguing in favor of supporting the government rather than the international investigation. China condemned the report of the group which it deemed “misleading”.
Iran condemned the Saudi blockade and the ongoing support of the West for the Yemeni government. They argued the blockade was starving civilians and the airstrikes were breaching international law. They denounced the complicity of the Western countries in supporting the legitimate government.
Debate around the territorial unity emerged, as one NGO proposed a referendum to establish an autonomous southern Yemen as part of a federal Yemen. Noting the dangers of a potential Houthi government this initiative suggests, many countries conversely called for territorial unity of Yemen.
Civil society organizations emphasized the depth of the humanitarian crisis. They denounced the hardships created by the blockade, which prevents safe entry of medicine and will cause 400 000 children to die in the upcoming year. One NGO further asserted that food insecurity was used as a method of warfare by the coalition, a method that requires immediate investigation.
Civil society organizations also focused on human rights violations: organizations presented cases of Baha’I’ people’s freedom being restricted to a minimum by the Houthis and demanded action for the safe return of the six Baha’I persons in exile. The National Institute for Rights and development along with the OIPMA denounced the war crimes committed on both sides of the parties and called for an investigation by the ICC. Women rights organizations argued for the inclusion of women in the Yemeni government and in peace processes and decried the arm sales which perpetuate the conflict.
Most NGOs expressed support for the Group’s mandate, while some criticized its lack of inclusion for women, children and for not addressing the primary responsibility of the Houthis. Impunity looms over Yemen and NGOs stressed the importance of immediate investigation and accountability.
The group of eminent experts concluded that the parties to the conflict’s unwillingness to end the conflict impaired a political solution. They emphasized the importance of bringing justice as soon as possible to the affected people and urged the international community to act with purpose. They issued five recommendations:
- First, they urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC to ensure investigation as the national authorities themselves are unwilling to investigate. They emphasized their reasonable belief of war crimes being committed.
- Second, they demanded the security council expand the list of sanctioned individuals according to a list they submitted
- Third, they asked for the establishment of an independent criminal justice investigation to work alongside the Group.
- Fourth, they demanded third states investigate war crimes committed under their jurisdiction.
- Fifth, they suggested the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute the individuals responsible in the longer-term.
Position of Geneva International Center for Justice
The current conflict in Yemen is being fueled by interested third parties who continue to transfer weapons to Saudi Arabia to be used in the conflict in Yemen. Growing evidence suggests that Iran is supplying weapons to the Houthis in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia. Yemen is currently being used as a territory for battle between these two countries, and the Yemeni civilians are paying the price. This element is completely ignored by the Group’s investigation, and demands immediate attention as supplying the Houthis with weapons violates the arms embargo imposed by the Security Council. Therefore, an investigation into supplier and criminal responsibility for the war is necessary.
France, the USA and the UK are the top suppliers of weapons to the Saudi Coalition. The immense revenue that arms sales in this region generate gives these three countries a clear monetary incentive to keep fueling the conflict. GICJ would like to remind the international community that the valorization of these economic interests causes human rights violations to be committed with impunity. These arms sales make these countries complicit to the war crimes committed by the coalition in Yemen. Therefore, governments must stop transferring weapons and honor their commitments to the protection of human rights. An investigation should examine the responsibility of these countries.
GICJ also points to the terminology used in the report. The group’s denomination of the Houthi militia as “de facto” authorities is a harmful and dangerous practice. Granting the terrorist organization the title of “authorities” gives them credibility and normative power. Similarly, civil society suggestions of granting the Houthi-controlled North independence would, in practice, give governmental and political power to the militia. The Houthis’ practices of violence and abuse make a strong case for why they should not in any case be seen as a legitimate candidate for power. The report’s detailed testimonies should forbid such suggestions.
Justice, Human rights, Geneva, geneva4justice, GICJ, Geneva International Centre For Justice
 The Zainabiyat are Houthi women’s security groups, trained to support the Houthis by, inter alia, maintaining order in detention facilities.
Previous Reports from the 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council