A Dutch-led effort to create a human rights mission for Yemen was abandoned Wednesday amid intense Saudi opposition at the UN, but human rights experts are laying blame in part at the feet of the United States, which failed to vigorously back the Netherlands — and may have worked behind the scenes to head off the independent investigation.
A Saudi-led coalition has bombed Yemen since late March in an attempt to push back Houthi rebels and their allies and reinstate the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The US (and UK) offers logistical support for the coalition, in addition to selling billions of dollars in weapons to its members, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. US officials say American personnel are also involved in providing targeting assistance for airstrikes, which the UN says are responsible for the majority of the more than 2,300 civilian deaths in the conflict in the past six months.
In September, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called for an independent, international inquiry into crimes committed in Yemen in the preceding year. Shortly after, the Netherlands, supported by several European countries, presented a draft resolution to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Among other elements, it called for a human rights mission, commissioned by Zeid, to be sent to Yemen, and for that team to be allowed access to all areas of the country.
Multiple sources familiar with negotiations in Geneva, where the HRC is located, said the Dutch initially encountered objections from the Yemeni government, as well as from the Saudis, Qataris, and Emiratis — all three of whom currently sit on the council.
The Saudis and other Arab members of the council then introduced an alternative text, which called for the UN to only assist an existing national inquiry in Yemen, established by the government in exile in Riyadh, which supports the Saudi-led intervention. Human rights and civil society groups considered it unacceptable, both due to its content and because it was introduced by a belligerent in Yemen's war. They offered public support to the Dutch.
Largely quiet on the matter was the United States. After multiple requests for comment on whether the American government supported an international, independent human rights inquiry for Yemen, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power released an ambiguously worded statement on September 24.
"We're following the ongoing discussions in Geneva closely," Power said. "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."
Power went on to call for increased humanitarian access in Yemen, but refrained from answering the question posed to her by several reporters: whether or not the US supported an investigation of the sort that Zeid called for.
Four days later, on September 28, the US ambassador to the HRC Keith Harper told the Associated Press in a text message that he supported Dutch efforts.
While not explicitly calling for a human rights investigation, Harper told AP that though he supported the Dutch, he felt "that the council speaks most powerfully when unified, so we are working with all parties to find a consensus solution."
The next day, a spokesperson for the US mission in Geneva, once more refraining from endorsing either what Zeid requested or the Netherland's resolution, told VICE News, "Yes, we support the Dutch position."
But observers in Geneva and New York say that instead of pushing for the Dutch resolution or one of its later drafts to be passed, the US simply let it die.
By calling for consensus, said Nicolas Agostini, Geneva representative for the International Federation For Human Rights, the Americans were in essence pushing for the Saudi text.
"It was terrible, the US was silent for a very long time," Agostini said. "The Dutch should have had public support from the 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."
Despite being left alone, and under intense pressure from the Saudis, the Netherlands still could have left their resolution tabled ahead of a vote on Friday. This week, in an effort to compromise, the Dutch delegation presented a new draft with different language. But it still called for a team of experts and support staff to collect human rights information, have access to "all relevant parties," and "establish the facts and circumstances of serious violations and abuses committed by all parties."
The Saudis responded with a new resolution of their own that appeared to further water down a text that human rights groups had already deemed insufficient. It called for no international human rights team, and instead requested only that OHCHR provide an update on "implementation of the program of technical assistance and capacity building in the field of human rights."
Faced with total opposition from the Saudis and their allies, and de-facto instructions from the US to compromise, the Dutch announced on Wednesday that they had withdrawn their text entirely, likely ending efforts to get an international inquiry.
The Arab text, meanwhile, was tabled as an item 10 resolution, a move that generally sees a consensus outcome and the consent of the host country. In the case of Yemen, however, both the government and those introducing the text were belligerents in the war, and thus far have proven resistant to any kind of independent accounting of the conflict. By Thursday, only their resolution remained.
"The resolution tabled by the Arab group represents a shameful capitulation to Saudi Arabia and has denied Yemeni victims their first real opportunity for justice," said Balkees Jarrah, senior council at Human Rights Watch. "By failing to establish a UN inquiry, the Human Rights Council has squandered an opportunity to deter ongoing abuses in Yemen."
The Dutch mission to the UN told VICE News that US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders on the sidelines of a counter-terrorism summit held at the UN on Tuesday, the day before the Dutch withdrew their resolution. A spokesperson for Koenders had not yet responded to VICE News' request for comment about the content of that discussion.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford