Rights groups: Suspend Saudi Arabia from U.N. Human Rights Council over war crimes

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the U.S.-backed Saudi regime's "gross violations" of rights

Published June 29, 2016 5:00PM (EDT)

A Yemeni man flees a gas station after it was hit by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in Houdieda, Yemen on February 5, 2016  (Reuters/Abduljabbar Zeyad)
A Yemeni man flees a gas station after it was hit by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in Houdieda, Yemen on February 5, 2016 (Reuters/Abduljabbar Zeyad)

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on the United Nations General Assembly to immediately suspend Saudi Arabia from the Human Rights Council over its "gross and systematic violations of human rights abroad and at home."

The leading human rights organizations also accused Saudi Arabia of using its position on the U.N. Human Rights Council "to effectively obstruct justice for possible war crimes."

Representatives from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch spoke at a joint press conference at the U.N. on Wednesday.

"The credibility of the U.N. Human Rights Council is at stake," warned Richard Bennett, head of Amnesty’s U.N. Office. "Since joining the council, Saudi Arabia’s dire human rights record at home has continued to deteriorate and the coalition it leads has unlawfully killed and injured thousands of civilians in the conflict in Yemen."

"To allow it to remain an active member of the council, where it has used this position to shield itself from accountability for possible war crimes, smacks of deep hypocrisy. It would bring the world’s top human rights body into disrepute," he added.

Since March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a U.S.-backed coalition that has rained bombs down upon Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch say the coalition has violated international humanitarian law in its attacks, indiscriminately and disproportionately killing and injuring civilians.

The rights groups also stressed that the Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly used internationally banned cluster munitions in civilian areas. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have documented 19 different attacks using at least six different types of cluster bombs, which were made in the U.S., U.K. and Brazil.

They condemned the U.S. and U.K., close allies of Saudi Arabia, for refusing to halt arms transfers to the coalition despite the thorough evidence of war crimes. Both the U.S. and the U.K. are providing support and intelligence to the coalition, and American and British military officials are physically in the command room for Saudi air strikes, where they have access to a list of targets.

In Yemen, hospitals, schools, weddings, residential neighborhoods, markets, refugee camps and even an Oxfam humanitarian aid warehouse have been bombed by the U.S.-back Saudi-led coalition.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch also noted that, despite "the strong evidence of the commission of war crimes by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen," the UNHRC has not investigated, because the Saudi regime exploited its membership to undermine a resolution that would have created an international inquiry.

Instead, Saudi Arabia and its allies, led by the U.S., created a national commission of inquiry in Yemen, which is being carried out by the Saudi-backed government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia when the war began.

Richard Bennett, Amnesty's U.N. officer, called this national inquiry "toothless" and emphasized that, after nine months, it "has failed to credibly investigate allegations of war crimes and other serious violations."

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that at least 3,539 civilians have been killed and 6,268 more civilians have been wounded in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition initiated its bombing campaign in March 2015.

A report by UNICEF found that an average of six Yemeni children have been killed or injured every day in the war.

According to U.N. figures, the coalition is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as other forces in Yemen combined. For months, the U.N. has said the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition is responsible for two-thirds of civilian casualties.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said "we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the coalition."

In addition to, with the help of the U.S., blocking an international investigation into its war crimes, Saudi Arabia also financially blackmailed the U.N. in early June to remove it from the U.N.'s list of states and armed groups that have violated the human rights of children.

The oil-rich regime threatened to withdraw all of its financial support for humanitarian projects, holding hostage aid programs for Palestinians in particular. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave in, and took the Saudi monarchy off the U.N.'s list of child-killers.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch also highlighted the extreme human rights violations that take place within Saudi Arabia.

Domestically, the Saudi regime "has carried out hundreds of executions, put children on death row after grossly unfair trials and ruthlessly repressed opposition and human rights activists," Bennett said.

"Saudi Arabia’s harsh crackdown on all forms of dissent at home has continued unabated throughout its current membership" in U.N. Human Rights Council, he added.

Since it was elected to the UNHRC, the Saudi regime has executed more than 350 people, mostly by beheadings. 2015 saw its highest record of killings since 1995.

Moreover, the Saudi regime regularly uses "grossly unfair trials" at so-called counter-terror courts to administer long prison sentences to human rights activists, the rights groups said. Human rights defenders who have worked with the U.N. Human Rights Council have been imprisoned by Saudi Arabia.

In fact, the Saudi Ministry of Interior stated clearly in 2014 provisions that contacting “any groups… or individuals hostile to” Saudi Arabia is a “terrorist crime.”

"Saudi Arabia also continues to discriminate against women in law and practice, including through the imposition of the male guardianship system, which treats all adult women as legal minors," the rights groups added. And "discrimination against the Shi’a minority remains systematic and entrenched."

They called on Saudi Arabia to release its prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, and to cease using the death penalty.

Despite these thoroughly documented human rights violations, the U.S. remains a very close ally of the oil-rich Saudi regime. In September, when Saudi Arabia was chosen to head a U.N. Human Rights Council panel, to international outrage, the U.S. State Department "welcomed" the news, affectionately adding, "We’re close allies."

U.N. General Assembly Resolution 60/251, the document that created the Human Rights Council, allows the General Assembly to suspend UNHRC members that commit "gross and systematic violations of human rights" with a two-thirds majority vote.

“What’s particularly shocking is the deafening silence of the international community which has time and again ceded to pressure from Saudi Arabia and put business, arms and trade deals before human rights despite the Kingdom’s record of committing gross and systematic violations with complete impunity,” said Bennett, head of Amnesty's U.N. office.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on U.N. member states to vote to suspend Saudi Arabia from the UNHRC, and to create an independent, impartial international inquiry into violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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Amnesty International Human Rights Watch Saudi Arabia U.n. United Nations Yemen