Human Rights Violations in Yemen - Where is the Accountability?


The Yemeni Civil War has been called a “forgotten crisis” (Norton). As the world’s attention was turned to Syria, the conflict in Yemen, beginning in March 2015, has killed 10,000 people, driven 1.8 million people out of their homes, and has left 80% of the population in need of water, food, and basic medical supplies (Allen). The main factions in the conflict, the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels, have been accused by Human Rights Watch of using illegal cluster munitions, unlawfully detaining aid workers, and indiscriminately bombing civilian areas (“World Report 2016”). Saudi Arabia, the main leader in the coalition against the Houthis, has blockaded Yemen by air, land, and sea, resulting in widespread malnutrition and a humanitarian crisis of staggering magnitude. Civilians have also suffered from indiscriminate bombing, like in October 2016, when the Saudi-led coalition launched a funeral strike, killing over one hundred civilians and injuring over five hundred more during a large public funeral. Fragments of US-made bombs were found in the rubble after the attack (Emmons).

    Despite well-documented human rights abuses on both sides, the UN Human Rights Council failed in September 2016, for the second year in a row, to send an independent human rights inquiry to Yemen (Nebehay). A week before the convening of the council, eleven prominent international NGOs addressed a public letter to the Human Rights Council, calling on the Council to send an independent inquiry, a crucial step for human rights accountability, claiming that “no valid human rights-based reason has been identified that would justify failing to create an international inquiry.” If the Council fails to take more direct action, the letter warned, the council will have “shirked its mandate to promote accountability, failed to help provide victims of violations in Yemen the justice to which they are entitled, and undermined its own credibility as the Council marks its tenth anniversary” (“Urgent Need”). To many observers, the Human Rights Council did not pass the test.

    As the letter notes, the Human Rights Council marked its tenth anniversary in 2016, but it was not the first human rights committee of the United Nations. Its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, was considered failed and was disbanded by a General Assembly vote of a huge margin because of what many called its “political selectivity.” According to the Commission’s critics, the only countries who were held accountable for their violations were those who were relatively disentangled from global geopolitics (Ghanea). The conflict in Yemen is an important case study for examining the current Council’s commitment to distinguishing itself from its controversial predecessor, and prove that it is not limited by the same geopolitical dynamics. But as in the former UN Commission on Human Rights, state and corporate interests act as barriers to true human rights accountability. The actors in this saga—Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States, among others—seem too wrapped up in corporate and political interests to embrace international human rights standards within the Human Rights Council. After all, the Human Rights Council is not an isolated body; it is entangled in the political and economic interests of its member states.

     Some have pointed to the powerful Saudi Arabian influence on the Human Rights Council as an explanation for the lack of human rights accountability in Yemen. Salma Alder, a representative from the Cairo Institute, claimed that the UN Human Rights Council agreement “puts Saudi Arabia’s desire for impunity above the need to protect the people of Yemen” (Wintour). It is true that Saudi Arabia has a personally invested interest in Yemen. For the last nineteen months, the Saudi Arabian military has led a coalition of nine Middle Eastern countries against the Houthis in the Yemeni Civil War. The controversial coalition has been accused of war crimes by many international observers for its use of cluster bombing in civilian areas and its naval and air blockade that has resulted in a shortage of food, water, and medical supplies (Borger).  

    While Saudi Arabia has political incentive to keep a human rights inquiry out of Yemen, the United States, another member of the Council, has economic incentive. The two nations have had struck several significant military deals since before the Yemen conflict started. The United States has been supplying Saudi Arabia with arms since 2010, when the Pentagon made an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $60 billion of fighter aircraft, helicopters, and program support that was slated to last for twenty years (Levine). Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state, claimed that the deal would “enhance regional security and stability rather than diminish it.” (Quinn). Just five years after the initial deal, Saudi Arabia launched the coalition in Yemen, using its newly purchased American-made aircraft. Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Vermont and vocal critic of the US’s support of Saudi Arabia, described in an interview with NPR how the US provided support to the coalition in the form of intelligence and refueling to Saudi aircraft, saying, “‘I think it's safe to say that this bombing campaign in Yemen could not happen without the United States.’”(“As Yemen’s War Worsens”). Accusations of human rights abuses in the months following the launch of the Saudi Arabian coalition did not stop the US-Saudi Arabia partnership and high priced arms deals. In October 2015, just six months after Saudi Arabia started the naval blockade that resulted in the mass malnutrition of half of Yemen’s population (Norton), the US State Department approved a $11.25 billion program to update the Saudi Arabian navy (Defense Security Cooperation).

    As powerful members of the UN Human Rights Council, were the United States and Saudi Arabia reluctant to send an international independent inquiry to Yemen because of their involvement in the conflict? Evidence suggests as much. As of November 1, 2016, Saudi Arabia was reelected to the Human Rights Council (Bukuru). If the UN Human Rights Council leadership remains the same, justice is not likely to be found for the citizens of Yemen anytime soon. If the UN Human Rights Council is unable to hold these states accountable for their crimes, then who is?

Works Cited

Allen, Craig, Joe Burgess, Ben Hubbard, Jeffrey Marcus, Sergio Peçanha, and K.K. Rebecca Lai. "How the U.S. Became More Involved in the War in Yemen." The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Oct. 2016. Web.

"As Yemen's War Worsens, Questions Grow About The U.S. Role." All Things Considered. NPR. 11 Oct. 2016. NPR. Web.

Borger, Julian. "Saudi-led Naval Blockade Leaves 20m Yemenis Facing Humanitarian Disaster." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 June 2015. Web.

Bukuru, Joyce. "How Saudi Arabia Kept Its UN Human Rights Council Seat." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 03 Nov. 2016. Web.

Defense Security Coorporation Agency. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia-Multi-Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC) Ships. USNI News. U.S. Naval Institute, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. <>.

Emmons, Alex. "Photos Show Fragments of U.S. Bombs at Site of Yemen Funeral Massacre." The Intercept. The Intercept, 10 Oct. 2016. Web.

Ghanea, Nazila. "I. From UN Commission on Human Rights to UN Human Rights Council: One Step Forwards or Two Steps Sideways?" International and Comparative Law Quarterly ICLQ 55.03 (2006): 695-705. Web.

Levine, Adam. "U.S. Plans $60B, 20-year Arms Deal with Saudi Arabia." CNN. Cable News Network, 21 Oct. 2010. Web.

Nebehay, Stephanie. "Activists Cry Foul as U.N. Decides against Yemen Rights Probe." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 29 Sept. 2016. Web.

Norton, Ben. "“A Forgotten Crisis”: Mass Starvation in Yemen as U.S.-backed Saudi War & Blockade Push Millions to Brink of Famine." Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc., 29 Jan. 2016. Web.

Quinn, Andrew. "U.S. Announces $60 Billion Arms Sale for Saudi Arabia." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 20 Oct. 2010. Web.

Sengupta, Somini. "Saudi-Led War in Yemen Frays Ties With the U.S." The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

"Urgent Need for International Inquiry on Yemen." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 22 Sept. 2016. Web.

Wintour, Patrick. "Saudi Arabia Agrees Compromise on Inquiry into Yemen Abuses." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 29 Sept. 2016. Web.

"World Report 2016: Yemen." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 27 Jan. 2016. Web.


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