Saudi Arabia sinks UN war crimes probe in Yemen, Washington stays silent

People gather at the site of a Saudi-led air strike which targeted a tunnel leading to the presidential house near the Petrol Station in Yemen's capital Sanaa, October 1, 2015. © Mohamed al-Sayaghi
The Netherlands dropped their bid to establish an independent UN-led probe into alleged war crimes in Yemen, yielding to an alternative resolution proposed by Saudi Arabia, which stands accused of causing most of the civilian deaths in the conflict.

The Saudis are leading a coalition of countries, whcih since late March has been using their military to attack Houthi rebels in Yemen in an attempt to put ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi back into power. According to UN numbers published on Tuesday, at least 2,355 civilians have been killed during the six months of the conflict. The majority of them died in Saudi attacks.

The latest of alleged atrocities in the Yemen war is an apparent Saudi airstrike that killed 131 guests at a wedding party. The Saudis, who have air superiority in Yemeni airspace, denied any involvement.

According to Amnesty International, many civilian killings in Yemen can be considered war crimes. In September, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called for an independent, international inquiry into alleged war crimes in the country. The Netherlands submitted a draft resolution to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) shortly after, which among other things called for UN experts to be sent to Yemen to investigate allegations of crimes committed by all parties involved. The proposal was backed by a number of European countries.

The document was opposed by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, all members of the council, as well as the Yemeni government in exile. The Saudis allegedly won their place at the council through a secret deal with the British government, according to the cables exposed by whistleblower website WikiLeaks.

The Saudis proposed an alternative resolution that doesn't provide for an independent international inquiry and instead calls on the UN to support a probe led by the Hadi government. Human rights groups objected to the Saudi draft resolution, saying it would put a belligerent party in charge of the probe and would ultimately leave Saudi crimes obscured.

READ MORE: WikiLeaks cables implicate UK & Saudi Arabia in secret deal to secure UNHRC seats

While the Saudis kept pushing for their draft resolution to be passed, the US kept mostly silent on the debate, and didn’t voice support for the Dutch proposal. Last week, American UN envoy Samantha Power released an ambiguously worded statement on the issue, which said Washington was “following the ongoing discussions in Geneva closely.”

"We do believe the Human Rights Council and OHCHR [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] have an important role to play regarding the humanitarian situation, and look forward to working with our colleagues in Geneva," Powers said.

The US helps its Arab ally Saudi Arabia in the Yemen bombing campaign with logistics and targeting. America is also the biggest provider of weapons for Saudi’s armed forces.

On Wednesday, the Netherlands announced they were dropping their draft resolution, leaving the Saudi document the only contestant for UN endorsement. Washington's de facto opposition to the document played a significant role in its eventual demise, according to Vice News.

"It was terrible, the US was silent for a very long time," Nicolas Agostini, Geneva representative for the International Federation For Human Rights, told Vice News. “The Dutch should have had public support from key partners including the US throughout the process.

“By the second week of negotiations, it became clear they wouldn't get that kind of support. [America's] very late public expression of support for the Dutch text, and emphasis on the need to reach consensus, de facto benefited the Saudis."

Human Rights Watch condemned the UN HRC's failure to create an independent Yemen inquiry, saying the Yemenis would suffer because of it.

“Such a mechanism would have been crucial to confront continued impunity for crimes committed in the country... The increasingly desperate Yemeni population should not be ignored by the world’s preeminent human rights body,” the rights group said in a statement.

"It's all been about Saudi Arabia protecting itself from an international probe, really," commented Philippe Dam, HRW deputy director in Geneva.