How Saudi Arabia Uses Influence To Quash Human Rights Investigations

The UN's Human Rights Council refuses to investigate Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. And American leaders refuse to openly criticize the kingdom

Oct 02, 2015 at 2:27 PM ET

The United Nations’ top human rights body torpedoed plans this week for an international inquiry into human rights violations by all parties involved in Yemen’s escalating war, even as an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States carried out its deadliest attack on civilians in the country to date.

On the same day, a group of leading American politicians, including two former presidential nominees ducked questions about the Saudi-led air campaign, which the UN’s High Commissioner For Human Rights says is responsible for two-thirds of the 2,300 civilians killed since March.

At best, these incidents underscore how the international community and U.S. leaders have refused to confront Saudi Arabia over its conduct in the Arab world’s poorest nation, despite a track record that continues to exact a punishing toll on innocent lives. On Monday, Saudi-led aircraft allegedly fired upon a wedding party in Taiz, killing 130 people in what is the deadliest single event of Yemen’s civil war. At least 80 of the victims were women, according to reports.

“I saw no body intact,” Ahmed Altabozi, whose niece was killed in the airstrike, told the New York Times.

Saudi Arabia later denied that its coalition carried out the airstrikes at the wedding party, suggesting instead that local militias, who, like the Saudis, are fighting Houthi rebels, had fired rockets at the reception.

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Two days later, on Wednesday, the UN’s Human Rights Council halted its inquiry into the Yemen war. The proposal, which was introduced by the Netherlands, would have also called for warring parties to allow humanitarian groups to deliver food, medicine and other aid into the country, which has been hampered by a Saudi-led naval blockade.

The proposal faced stiff opposition from Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. The United States, Great Britain and France remained virtually silent on the issue, to the dismay of human rights groups.

“By failing to set up a serious UN inquiry on war-torn Yemen, the Human Rights Council squandered an important chance to deter further abuses,” said Philippe Dam, a deputy director for Human Rights Watch. 

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Meanwhile, several American politicians at a forum in Washington DC appeared reluctant to speak critically of the high number of Yemeni civilian casualties caused by Saudi-led airstrikes.

“Nice to see you,” Mitt Romney told Lee Fang, a reporter with The Intercept, when asked whether he had concerns about the bombing campaign in Yemen. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat who founded the Human Rights Caucus in his chamber, ignored Fang’s questions about Saudi Arabia. So did Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat.

Fang did manage to get a detailed response on Saudi Arabia and Yemen from Arizona’s John McCain, who chairs the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and was the Republican’s presidential nominee in 2008. McCain first insisted that Saudis had not bombed innocent civilians, calling the statement “not true.” He then claimed that the Houthis had killed more civilians, which contradicts official UN tallies.

“I’m sure in wars terrible things happen,” McCain concluded.