By Kathy Kelly
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, with the cooperation of the U.S. succeeded this week in killing off a little known U.N. agency that for nearly four years has courageously advocated for hundreds of thousands of Yemenis suffering immensely in the civil war that is being driven forward by Saudi Arabia.
Monday, October 11, marked the official closure of the UN Group of Eminent Experts (Group of Experts or GEE) on Yemen. For close to four years, this highly respected investigative body scrupulously examined alleged violations and abuses of human rights suffered by Yemenis whose basic rights to food, shelter, safety, health care and education are being horribly violated even as they have been bludgeoned by Saudi and U.S. air strikes. “This is a major setback for all victims who have suffered serious violations during the armed conflict,” the Group of Experts wrote in a statement the day after the UN Human Rights Council refused to extend a mandate for them to continue their work. “The Council appears to be abandoning the people of Yemen,” the statement says, adding that “Victims of this tragic armed conflict should not be silenced by the decision of a few States.”
Prior to the vote, there were indications that Saudi Arabia and its allies, such as Bahrain which sits on the UN Human Rights Council, had increased lobbying efforts worldwide in a bid to do away with the Group of Experts. Actions of the Saudi-led Coalition waging war against Yemen have been examined and reported on by the Group of Experts. Last year, the Saudi bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council was rejected, but Bahrain serves as its proxy.
Bahrain is a notorious human rights violator and a staunch member of the Saudi-led Coalition which buys billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry from the U.S. and other countries to bomb Yemen’s infrastructure, kill civilians and displace millions of people.
The Group of Experts was mandated to investigate violations committed by all warring parties, and so it’s possible the Ansar Allah leadership, often known as the Houthis, also wished to avoid the Group’s scrutiny.
The Group of Experts’ mission has come to an end, but the fear and intimidation faced by Yemeni victims and witnesses continues.
Mwatana for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni organization established in 2007, advocates for human rights by reporting on issues such as torture of detainees, grossly unfair trials, patterns of injustice, and starvation by warfare through destruction of farms and water sources. Mwatana had hoped the UN Human Rights council would grant the Group of Experts a multi-year extension. Members of Mwatana rightly fear their voice will be silenced within the UN if the Human Rights Council’s decision is an indicator of how much the Council cares about Yemenis.
“The GEE is the only independent and impartial mechanism working to deter war crimes and other violations by all parties to the conflict,” said Radhya Almutawakel, Chairperson ofMwatana for Human Rights. Doing away with this body will, she believes, give a green light to continue violations that condemn millions in Yemen to “unremitting violence and constant fear.”
The Yemen Data Project, founded in 2016, is an independent entity aiming to collect data on the conduct of the war in Yemen. Their most recent monthly report tallied air raid numbers in September which had risen to the highest monthly rate since March. Sirwah, a district in the Marib province was, for the ninth consecutive month, the most heavily targeted district in Yemen, with 29 air raids recorded in September. Try to imagine a district the size of three city neighborhoods being bombed 29 times in one month.
Intensified fighting has led to large waves of displacement within the governorate, and sites populated by soaring numbers of refugees are routinely impacted by shelling and airstrikes. Pressing humanitarian needs include shelter, food, water, sanitation, hygiene, and medical care. Were it not for the brave reports of the Yemen Data Project about the conduct of the war, the causes of inhumane conditions suffered by people in Sirwah could be shrouded in secrecy. This is a time to increase, not abandon, attention to Yemenis trapped in war zones.
During the first months of 1995, I was among a group of activists who formed a campaign called Voices in the Wilderness to publicly defy economic sanctions against Iraq. Some of us had been in Iraq during the 1991 U.S.- led Desert Storm invasion. The UN reported that hundreds of thousands of children under age five had already died and that the economic sanctions contributed to these deaths. We felt compelled to at least try to break the economic sanctions against Iraq by declaring our intent to bring medicines and medical relief supplies to Iraqi hospitals and families.
But to whom would we deliver these supplies? Voices in the Wilderness founders agreed that we would start contacting Iraqis in our neighborhoods and also try to connect with groups concerned with peace and justice in the Middle East. And so it was that I began asking Iraqi shopkeepers in my Chicago neighborhood for advice. They were understandably quite wary. And one day, as I walked away from a shopkeeper who had actually given me an extremely helpful phone number for a parish priest in Baghdad, I overheard another customer ask what that was all about and then his reply: “Oh, they’re just a group of people trying to make a name for themselves.”
I felt crestfallen. Now, 26 years later, it’s easy for me to understand his reaction. Why should anyone trust people as strange as we must have seemed?
But no wonder I’ve felt high regard for the United Nation’s Group of Experts who went to bat for human rights groups struggling for “street cred” regarding Yemen. When Yemeni human rights advocates try to sound the alarm about terrible abuses, they don’t just face hurt feelings when met with antagonism. Yemeni human rights activists have been jailed, tortured and disappeared.
Yemen’s civil society activists do need to make a name for themselves.
On Thursday, October 7, the day the United Nations Human Rights Council voted not to continue the role of the Group of Experts with regard to Yemen, the United Nations agreed to set up an investigative group to monitor the Taliban. However, the agreement assured the U.S. and NATO that abuses committed under their command would not be subject to investigation.
Politicizing UN agencies and procedures makes it all the more difficult for people making inquiries to establish trusting relationships with people whose rights should be upheld by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.
When I was approaching shopkeepers for ideas about people we might contact in Iraq, I was just beginning to grapple with Professor Noam Chomsky’s essays about “worthy victims” and “unworthy victims.” That second phrase seemed a terrible oxymoron. How could a victim of torture, bereavement, hunger, displacement or disappearance be an “unworthy victim?” Over the next forty years, I grew to understand the cruel distinction between worthy and unworthy victims. A powerful country or group can use the plight of “worthy victims” to build support for war or military intervention. The “unworthy victims” also suffer, but because their stories could lead people to question the wisdom of a powerful country’s attacks on civilians, stories about those victims are likely to fade away.
Consider, in Afghanistan, the plight of those who survived an August 29th U.S. drone attack against the family of Zamari Ahmadi. Ten members of the family were killed. Seven were children. As of September 30, the family had not yet heard anything from the U.S.
I greatly hope Mwatana, The Yemen Data Project, The Yemen Foundation, and all of the journalists and human rights activists passionately involved in opposing the war that rages in Yemen become names that occasion respect, gratitude and support. I hope they’ll continue documenting violations and abuse. But I know their work on the ground in Yemen will now be even more dangerous.
Meanwhile, the lobbyists who’ve served the Saudi government so well have certainly made a name for themselves in Washington, D.C. and beyond.
Grass roots activists committed to ending human rights abuses must uphold solidarity with civil society groups defending human rights in Yemen and Afghanistan. Governments waging war and protecting human rights abusers must immediately end their pernicious practices. In the United States, peace activists must tell the military contractors, lobbyists and elected representatives, “Not in our name!” and demand that the United States government do a U-turn, extending a “no strings attached” hand of friendship to people in need and abolishing all wars forever. A good start would be for the U.S. to stop trying to cover-up the atrocities, like the Yemeni war, in which it is involved.