As UN Rights Council Mulls Measure on Saudi Abuses in Yemen, Where Does the US Stand?

By Patrick Goodenough | September 27, 2016 | 4:17am EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

( – The Obama administration is caught between allies in Europe and the Arab world as a resolution comes before the U.N. Human Rights Council this week, calling for an independent investigation into human rights abuses in Yemen.

The draft resolution, introduced by the Netherlands and supported by Washington’s European partners, is opposed by Saudi Arabia, whose airstrike campaign against Shi’ite militia in Yemen has cost thousands of civilian lives.

The U.S. has provided logistical support for the Saudi effort. It was launched in a bid to restore the internationally-recognized government of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, but the climbing civilian death toll in the 18-month campaign has drawn increasing condemnation.

The U.N. human rights office said last week at least 3,980 civilians have been killed and more than 6,900 injured in the conflict. In August alone, at least 41 civilian facilities – including markets, hospitals and places of worship – were attacked and 180 civilians killed, it said.

As diplomats discuss the Dutch-drafted resolution on the sidelines of the HRC session in Geneva this week, the U.S. has yet to make its position clear.

The U.S. would not have a vote on the measure, as it is does not currently have a seat on the 47-member council. But it could lend valuable moral support, should it choose to do so.

(The U.S. is taking a mandatory 12-month break after two consecutive terms on the HRC from 2009-2015. It is expected to return in January, after elections due to be held in New York later this fall.)

Saudi Arabia and its allies, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are presently members of the council.

When the Netherlands attempted a similar push at the HRC a year ago, U.S. administration officials did not come out strongly in support of the initiative, pressing for “consensus” in the deeply divided council. The Dutch bid eventually died.

A Democratic lawmaker strongly critical of the Saudi campaign in Yemen urged U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power in a letter this week to come out in support for calls for an independent investigation.

“The repeated killing of civilians by the Saudi coalition, done with U.S. assistance, violates not just our moral conscience but degrades our reputation and standing in the world,” wrote Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).

“Based on my work with U.N. officials and human rights groups over the past year and a half, it is clear to me that many people in Yemen hold the U.S. responsible for the actions of the Saudi military coalition,” Lieu said. “We are also potentially creating numerous recruiting opportunities for terrorists with every U.S.-enabled bomb that drops in children and civilians in Yemen.”

U.S. lawmakers critical of the Saudi campaign in Yemen sought last week to block a $1.15 billion sale of tanks and other arms to the kingdom, but the bipartisan measure failed to pass in the U.S. Senate by a 26-71 vote.

“We are complicit and actively involved with war in Yemen,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told the Senate. “There’s been no debate in Congress, really no debate in the public sphere, over whether or not we should be at war in Yemen.”

“Our resolution may not have passed today, but this debate was very important in and of itself,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) afterwards. “For the first time in recent history, the Senate debated whether continued, unquestioned arms sales to the Saudis serves America’s national interest.”

The focus on Saudi actions in Yemen – and U.S. support for them – comes at a sensitive time for bilateral relations. President Obama on Friday vetoed a bill that gives families of victims of the 9/11 terror attacks the right to sue Saudi Arabia for any alleged role. He cited concerns that foreign governments could in turn sue U.S. officials, among others.

But the U.S. Senate is due to vote Wednesday to override that veto, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday. If successful in the Senate and then the House, it would be the first veto override of this presidency.

The Saudi government has lobbied hard against the legislation, warning over recent months that it would jeopardize investor confidence in the United States.

The Obama administration has been criticized for its approach towards human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. A year ago, a State Department spokesman said that the administration would “welcome” Saudi Arabia’s appointment to a leadership position at the HRC, saying that the U.S. and the kingdom were “close allies.”

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