Saudi Arabia used “incentives and threats” as part of a lobbying campaign to stop UN investigations into human rights violations committed by all parties to the Yemeni conflict, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Saudi Arabia’s efforts were ultimately crowned with success when the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) voted against the extension of the independent war crimes investigation in October. The vote marked the resolution’s first defeat in the Geneva organ’s 15-year history.
Talking to the Guardian, political officials, diplomatic sources and activists knowledgeable of the lobbying effort described a covert campaign in which the Saudis appear to have influenced officials to ensure the measure is defeated.
In one case, Riyadh allegedly warned Indonesia – the most populous Muslim country in the world – that it would discourage Indonesians from traveling to Mecca unless officials vote against the October 7 resolution.
In another case, the African nation of Togo announced during a vote that it would open a new embassy in Riyadh and receive financial support from the kingdom to support anti-terrorism activities.
Both Indonesia and Togo refrained from adopting a resolution on Yemen in 2020. Both voted against the measure this year.
The resolution was rejected by a simple majority (21-18), with seven countries abstaining. In 2020, the decision was adopted by 22–12 votes, with 12 abstentions.
“This kind of hesitation – from 12 no to 21 – doesn’t just happen,” one official said.
John Fisher, director of Human Rights Watch in Geneva, said: “The voting was very intense. We understand that Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies and Yemen have worked at a high level for some time to persuade states in capitals through a combination of threats and incentives to support their bids to end the mandate of this international monitoring mechanism. ”
He added: “The loss of the mandate is a huge blow to accountability in Yemen and to the credibility of the Human Rights Council as a whole. The assertion that the mandate was rejected by a party to the conflict for only one reason other than to avoid the investigation of international crimes is a parody. “
Representatives from the Indonesian and Saudi Arabian embassies in Washington and the Foreign Office in Togo did not respond to a request for comment.
The HRC was the first to vote to create a group of experts to investigate possible violations of humanitarian and human rights law in Yemen in 2017.
The Yemeni civil war intensified in 2015 after a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, using weapons purchased from the US and UK, intervened on behalf of the internationally recognized government of Yemen against the Houthi rebels. According to activist groups, the conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced 4 million.
Saudi Arabia, which is not a voting member of the UN Human Rights Council, initially supported these efforts.
The reports from experts known as the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE) have become increasingly “judgmental” over the years, said one person who followed the issue closely.
In 2020, the GEE recommended for the first time to the international community to focus on accountability for potential war crimes. These included five recommendations, including that the case be referred to the prosecutor of the international criminal court by the UN Security Council.
One person who followed the issue said, “I think it must have been the trigger moment when the Saudi coalition realized that it was actually going too far.”
The countries that supported the measure, led by the Netherlands, were clearly caught off guard by the aggressive tactics of the Saudis.
During the negotiations, none of the countries that later changed their votes from abstention to no objected to the resolution, which differed from the 2020 version in only one significant way: it sought to extend the term of office to two years instead of one.
Sources said that “wake-up calls” were made to supporters of the measure only a week before the vote, when they realized that the Saudi Arabia campaign was “very different from previous years” – in part because Saudi Arabia interacted with politicians. in selected capitals around the world.
“You could see things change and it was a shock,” said one person familiar with the situation. Typically, voting positions are known a few days before voting. But in October, member countries declined to share their final position, which supporters saw as a worrying sign that some countries were under intense pressure.
Supporters of the resolution decided to continue voting, although the outcome was uncertain.
“For the Saudis, winning this battle at the expense of the Yemeni people is terrible. But it is also a textbook case for other countries like Russia and China to torpedo any other investigation. It really shook everyone to the core. Those members of the council who have not withstood the pressure should be closely watched, ”said one person close to the issue.
The term of office of the HRC members is three years. Of the countries participating in both 2020 and 2021, four changed their votes from abstentions to negative on the Yemen resolution: Indonesia, Bangladesh, Senegal and Togo.
The vote took place while the Togolese foreign minister was on an official visit to Saudi Arabia and coincided with the announcement of the opening of a new embassy in Riyadh. Togo also announced that it would receive counter-terrorism funding from the Saudi Arabia-based International Fighting Center. against extremist ideology.
In the case of Indonesia, Saudi Arabia is believed to have advised that Indonesian Covid vaccination certificates may not be recognized by Indonesians traveling to Mecca unless the country rejects the measure. One observer said the perceived threat showed that the Saudis were willing to “instrumentalize” their access to the holy site.
A week after the vote, the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s ally in the conflict in Yemen, invited Senegal to sign a memorandum of understanding to create a joint Emirati-Senegalese business council. The aim of the council was for the UAE Chamber of Commerce to “stimulate cooperation” between the “two friendly countries”.
The UAE did not respond to a request for comment.
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