In a significant stand against impunity for war crimes in Yemen, the 39th UN Human Rights Council voted on Friday September 28th to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen. In the lead up to Friday’s vote, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), in collaboration with Yemeni partner organization Mwatana for Human Rights, advocated for the renewal and strengthening of the GEE’s existing mandate to impartially and independently investigate rights violations and abuses in Yemen. Friday’s Council vote will ensure the continuation of investigations in a country that remains home to “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world;” which continues to worsen with the lives of millions of civilians at stake.
Prior to the Council session, 55 civil society organizations jointly published a statement on the need to renew the mandate of the GEE, established last year to combat the impunity enjoyed by all parties to the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The warfare has left over 22.2 million civilians (75% of the population) in need of humanitarian aid. The GEE published a report on August 28th 2018 implicating all parties to the conflict as potential perpetrators of war crimes and violations of international law, while stressing that additional time was required for the GEE to monitor and document violations on the ground. In comments to the Associated Press, Mona Sabella, an international advocacy officer at CIHRS, warned that a failure to renew the GEE would “empower repressive governments that want to destroy the U.N. human rights system.”
The urgent need for a strengthened GEE to continue its vital work toward meaningful and effective international accountability was reinforced in a joint oral intervention by CIHRS and Mwatana for Human Rights during a general debate with the High Commissioner. Partner organizations also joined with CIHRS to co-sponsor a side event “Yemen: Millions of Civilians at Risk,” featuring GEE chairperson Mr Kamel Jendoubi, who empathized the need for additional time to investigate all crimes in Yemen from September 2014, as per its mandate. At the same side event, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed its strong support for the GEE and the continuation of its work.
Despite the critical need for continued investigations in Yemen, the extension of the GEE’s mandate remained uncertain in the days leading up to the Council vote. States such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led the charge against the GEE’s renewal, undoubtedly recognizing its potential to hold them accountable for violations in Yemen. As Sabella noted in the same AP article: “Nothing would make Saudi Arabia and the UAE happier than to do away with independent investigations into war crimes in Yemen.”
Yet despite the opposition, several States remained steadfast in defending the Council’s legitimacy to protect victims of human rights abuses, including the Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Ireland and Luxemburg. The GEE prevailed by a strong majority of 21 votes in favor and only 8 against.
With the renewal of the GEE’s mandate, eyes will be on all parties to the conflict in Yemen, particularly in regards to their targeting of civilians. The GEE’s renewal represents a direly-needed victory for the rights of Yemeni civilians, whose lives are increasingly imperiled as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. Yet the struggle for accountability and justice is far from won. It is imperative that all relevant stakeholders continue to assist the GEE in pursuing accountability for alleged war crimes in Yemen.
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