UN is right to shut down the Yemen war crimes panel

At a cost of about $8m, the expert group’s output was further undermining the tainted human rights council

The decision of the UN Human Rights Council to end the mandate of its Yemen panel on Thursday brought to mind the quip that, despite its official name, the group was neither expert nor eminent. The four-year track record of the UNHRC’s "Group of Eminent Experts" has been controversial from the outset and over time, its series of reports having only served to stoke increasing levels of frustration.

Yemen’s representative in the debate told the meeting at Geneva on Thursday, it is not that the country does not want accusations into human rights excesses exposed and properly investigated. The issue for the government was that the group, as currently composed, was not acceptable. “We do not accept that a group of experts that has shown itself to be biased and unprofessional be the body carrying out that task," the submission said. "A group of countries is insisting on the draft resolution despite their lack of rigour and the poor quality of the report.”

The Yemeni position was that a move to renew it would undermine the credibility of the UNHRC and create divisions – not resolve them. “We therefore reject the draft resolution."

The 47-member UNHRC is often pilloried for its composition and its partial uptake of the human rights issues that arise around the world. The proposed budget for the additional year of operation of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen was $7.98 million, according to UNHRC president Nazhat Shameem, who chaired the debate.

That is a lot of money to lay out for a three-person ad-hoc panel that included Kamel Jendoubi, a Tunisian activist, Melissa Parke, a former Australian minister, and Ardi Imseis, an academic from Canada.

According to a factsheet from Save the Children, the UK-based humanitarian aid organisation, it costs $220 for an intervention to help one child suffering from malnutrition. The budget for the UN project would therefore help save more than 35,000 Yemeni children afflicted with malnutrition.

One of the big issues with the panel was that while lavishly funded, it did not out work inside Yemen. Instead, it took submissions from outside groups, including campaigners that have lined up against the Yemen government, in what was a very polarised issue on the international stage. When it came to complicated verification it was reliant on outside sources. The US-based Centre for Advanced Defence Studies, for instance, did more to expose how Iran was supplying drone and ballistic missile technology to the Houthi rebels than the panel of experts. Indeed, the panel was left to rely on the centre’s work for reporting in early 2020.

The reports from the panel serially, and apparently happily, overstepped the provisions of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Meanwhile, a simple Google search for some of the names on the panel shows up some close and long links to regional factions.

The very language that the body used is often a giveaway. On its website, it gives space to the responses of the “de facto authorities” and its reports hail the Houthis as "leaders of the revolution". The UNSC calls for the restoration of the legitimate government of the country.

The UNHRC has, in effect, outsourced the challenges in Yemen. A separate resolution would provide an alternative path of providing international support and capacity building to the Yemen government’s own institutions.

It has offered to open its national commission of inquiry to co-operate directly with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Advocates say this route is likely to provide a more effective intervention on the ground, for it would ensure better collection of evidence at the places where human rights atrocities are committed.

Delegates to the UNHRC, including those who voted in favour of renewing the mandate – such as the ambassador of Brazil – lamented the lack of unity on support for Yemenis. Indeed, a mechanism that has ended up creating division has become counterproductive in its own terms.

Mar 2005.
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One of the big issues with the panel was that while lavishly funded, it did not out work inside Yemen

There are an estimated 12 million starving children in need in Yemen. In the conflict itself, grave violations of the rights of children include the recruitment of juveniles as fighters. Meanwhile, the threat from the Safer tanker – the rusting Houthi-controlled vessel moored off the country's Red Sea coast with a cargo of 1.1 million barrels of oil – continues to be an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen. Cross-border attacks being carried by the Houthis continue to endanger lives.

When the last mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts was handed down in October 2020, the resolution set out the plight of prisoners. Yet, diplomats can only protest the Houthis' failure to honour commitments to release thousands from their jails. The resolution also took a stand against the use of starvation as a weapon of war. Yet, the Houthi offensive against Marib, the last government stronghold in the country's oil-rich north, has made exactly that a reality for many more Yemenis.

Protestations from charities and other bodies have flooded the internet since the vote on Thursday, given that the move marked a defeat for western donors who had backed the group of experts' reports since its establishment in 2017. Its reports had proved to be milestones, as the impasse underpinning the conflict grew and the push for a negotiated settlement by the special envoy and others was obstructed.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the UN system has been played. Maintenance of the current approach was not an option that promoted peace. Clear thinking following the squeals of outrage could see Yemen better served by fresh efforts to get much closer to the atrocities on the ground.

Published: October 9th 2021, 2:00 PM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.