Saudi inquiry into war crime claims in Yemen inadequate, say rights groups

A boy cries near houses hit in airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, on Sunday. Six people were killed and seven injured. Photograph: Hani Ali/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Ian Black - Middle East Editor - The Guardian

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty call for independent commission to look into allegations of war crimes, such as bombing of Médecins Sans Frontières clinics

Saudi Arabia’s pledge to investigate allegations of civilian casualties caused by its bombing campaign in Yemen has been dismissed as inadequate by human rights groups, which insist an independent inquiry is needed to settle mounting controversy and provide accountability for possible war crimes.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting in Yemen said on Sunday that it regretted civilian deaths, which it said were “unintended”, and it was now investigating the allegations and improving its targeting mechanisms. About 6,000 people have been killed since the start of Operation Decisive Storm in March last year.
The coalition command said it had formed “an independent team of experts in international humanitarian law and weapons to assess … incidents and investigate the rules of engagement”. The objective was to reach “conclusions, lessons learned, recommendations and measures that should be taken” to spare civilians.
The statement came in response to sharp criticism of the coalition by UN expertsfuelling growing international concern about the human cost of the war. The US and Britain, which both supply weapons to the Saudis and back the intervention in Yemen, have been pressing for a response from Riyadh.
Amnesty International said coalition members had a duty to investigate allegations of violations by their forces. “But there must be an international, independent, impartial commission of inquiry to look into all reported violations and abuses by all parties to the conflict, to establish the facts and identify the perpetrators … with a view to ensuring that those responsible are held accountable,” it said.
Human Rights Watch said its concerns would only be addressed if it had “guarantees that the committee will be taking real measures towards ensuring accountability”. The Campaign to Stop Bombing Yemen said a UN inquiry was necessary.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), whose facilities in Yemen have been hit three times, called the establishment of a ‎committee “a step in the right direction”. But independent and impartial international investigations were also needed, it said.
Last November Philip Hammond, the UK foreign secretary, said the Saudis’ denials that there had been breaches of international humanitarian law were not enough and called for “proper investigations”.
The Saudis repeatedly advertise the backing they are getting from the US and Britain. “Experts from the United States … [will] work on extensive reports and develop operating mechanisms, together with the British side,” said the coalition spokesman, Brig Gen Ahmed Asseri, adding that the advisers had held a workshop in recent days at coalition headquarters.
Amnesty said the UK “should immediately suspend export licences for all further arms bound for the Saudi war machine pending the outcome of its own review of UK arms to Saudi Arabia”.
A report by UN experts seen by the Guardian last week said the coalition had carried out 119 sorties that violated humanitarian law, and called for an international commission of inquiry.
The Saudi-led alliance is seeking to prevent Houthi rebel fighters, whom it sees as a proxy of Iran, from taking complete control of Yemen. The Houthis deny any backing from Tehran and accuse the coalition of launching a war of aggression.
Asseri said a hotline had been set up with MSF to protect its facilities. He acknowledged that the coalition was responsible for the bombing of an MSF hospital in northern Yemen on 27 October, which it denied at the time, telling reporters that planes had targeted Houthi fighters nearby.
MSF has requested that the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission investigate the attack. The body has a mandate to investigate violations of international humanitarian law under the Geneva conventions.
“MSF cannot rely solely on internal investigations by one or another party to the conflict in establishing the events … involving our medical facilities,” the medical aid organisation said on Monday. “An independent, impartial inquiry that is distanced from the interests of those at war must be carried out. We need to understand what happened and why, for the safety of our teams and our patients, in Yemen and in all conflicts.”
Belkis Wille, Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the statement from Riyadh “does not sound like it includes what the coalition is obliged to do under the laws of war: transparently investigate those attacks that led to violations, hold accountable those who perpetrated the violation, and compensate the victims.”

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