U.N. Chief to U.S.-Backed Saudi Air Coalition: You May Be Committing War Crimes in Yemen

The U.N. has asked Yemen to reverse its decision to expel a top U.N. human rights official after cluster-bomb complaints.

Tribal gunmen loyal to the Huthi movement brandish their weapons on March 26, 2015 during a gathering in Sanaa to show support the Shiite Huthi militia and against the Saudi-led intervention in the country. Warplanes from a Saudi-led Arab coalition bombed Huthi rebels in support of Yemen's embattled president, as regional rival Iran warned the intervention was a "dangerous" move. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Tribal gunmen loyal to the Huthi movement brandish their weapons on March 26, 2015 during a gathering in Sanaa to show support the Shiite Huthi militia and against the Saudi-led intervention in the country. Warplanes from a Saudi-led Arab coalition bombed Huthi rebels in support of Yemen's embattled president, as regional rival Iran warned the intervention was a "dangerous" move. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, warned Friday that a Saudi-led air coalition that is supported by the United States may have committed war crimes by using cluster munitions in heavily populated neighborhoods in Yemen.

The U.N. chief has “received troubling reports of the use of cluster munitions” in several Jan. 6 attacks in Sanaa, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at the world body’s headquarters in New York. “The use of cluster munitions in populated areas may amount to a war crime due to their indiscriminate nature.”

The warning came one day after the exiled Yemeni human rights minister announced plans to expel the U.N.’s top human rights official in the country, George Abu al-Zulof, on charges that the mission had shown bias toward Houthi rebel forces. The move to expel Zulof — who was already outside Yemen when the announcement was made — came just days after the U.N. issued a tough statement criticizing the coalition’s recent use of cluster bombs.

But Yemen’s U.N. ambassador, Khaled Alyemany, reversed the minister’s decision, assuring the U.N. chief in a letter Friday that “there is no such decision from the government” to declare Zulof persona non grata, Alyemeny told Foreign Policy Friday evening.

In his letter to Ban, Alyemany said his government had only expressed “dissatisfaction” with Zulof’s performance in a January 6 letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, and asked that he be replaced, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by FP. But Alyemany insisted that his government had never demanded that Zulof be declared persona non grata.

“Because of the fuss created around the matter and caused by media reports…claiming that the Yemeni government government ordered the expulsion…,” he wrote. “The Yemeni government has decided to give more time to review the relationship with” the high commissioner’s office.

On Friday, Zeid had protested the Yemeni governments call for the removal of its U.N.’s senior rights advocate as “unwarranted” and called on Yemen to reverse the decision.

Zeid, a Jordanian prince, said the expulsion would stain the reputation of the exiled Yemeni government, as well as its coalition partners, and place it in violation of obligations to uphold human rights. “Our role is to focus on human rights and the protection of civilians, not on the politics,” said Zeid, noting that 2,800 civilians have been killed in more than nine months of conflict. “Our job is not to highlight violations committed by one side and ignore those committed by the other.”

The latest crisis has proved particularly awkward for Washington, which has provided intelligence, targeting information, and logistical support to the air coalition. Dujarric said he could not confirm whether the munitions were American-made. But he said, “As a matter of principle, those who sell arms also bear some responsibility in how they are used.”

The United States supplied the Saudi military with cluster bombs between 1970 and 1995.

Dujarric said the U.N. “will not stop reporting” on Yemen’s human rights situation. To drive home the point, he read a statement from Ban describing deepening concern about the plight of Yemeni civilians.

The secretary-general, Dujarric said, “is deeply concerned about the intensification of coalition airstrikes and ground fighting and shelling in Yemen, despite repeated calls for a renewed cessation of hostilities.”

He said Ban is particularly worried about intense airstrikes, including those that reportedly hit the capital’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a wedding hall, and a center for the blind among residential and civilian targets in Sanaa.

The Obama administration has encouraged its coalition partners “to avoid civilians’ casualties” and stressed the importance of “precise targeting,” a State Department official told FP.

In a Jan. 7 report, Human Rights Watch again accused Saudi Arabia of dropping cluster bombs on Sanaa, including photographs of the munitions’ remnants. The State Department official said Foggy Bottom is reviewing the findings — though previous reports detailing Riyadh’s use of cluster munitions have failed to change U.S. policy.

The U.S. official declined to directly comment when asked whether the United States is at all culpable for Saudi Arabia’s use of cluster munitions, given the American arms shipments and political support for the bombing campaign. However, the official said, Washington has “encouraged coalition forces to investigate all credible accounts of civilian casualties as a result of coalition strikes” — and to publicly release those findings.

Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies intervened in Yemen last March to restore power to the country’s deposed leader, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was driven from power by Shiite Houthi separatists in January 2015 and placed under house arrest. On March 25, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, one day after asking Gulf countries and the Arab League for military intervention in Yemen. The next day, a coalition of Gulf states — led by Saudi Arabia and with help from the United States — opened an air war against the Houthis.

U.N. officials have described intense suffering by Yemeni civilians who have either been killed or injured during airstrikes. The coalition also imposed a naval blockade on ports in Aden and Hudaydah, cutting off vital imports of food, fuel, medicine, and other essential supplies into the country.

“Conditions of life have become untenable for the vast majority of people in Yemen,” Zeid told the Security Council last month, detailing the needs of an estimated 21 million people — 80% of the population — that rely on humanitarian assistance. About half of Yemenis suffer from malnutrition, Zeid said, adding: “The combined impact of violence and artificial impediments to the delivery of humanitarian assistance has proved disastrous.”

The U.N.’s public shaming of the coalition appears to have prompted this week’s backlash.

Yemen’s human rights minister, Ezzedine al-Asbahi, on Thursday accused the U.N. human rights office in Sanaa of downplaying recent atrocities committed in the town of Taiz, where Houthi rebels have blocked supplies from entering. Asbahi called it unacceptable that U.N. human rights officials “overlook these crimes.”

Zeid fired back, saying he was “perplexed by the accusation that we have ignored the deplorable situation in Taiz.” He said his office has repeatedly drawn attention to the plight of civilians in Taiz, including in a statement issued this week in Geneva and that the exiled government appears to have misunderstood “what the role of the U.N. is in a conflict situation.”

“Part of our job is to try to prevent further violations, and [in order] to do so, when security permits, U.N. human rights officials consistently and impartially engage with all sides to a conflict,” Zeid said. “It is a mistake to view this as some sort of endorsement of an opposition movement’s position at the expense of the government.”

But Yemen’s U.N representative stepped into the fray on Friday to settle the dispute. In a telephone interview Friday evening, Alyemany, told FP that his government, he said, “was upset that [Zulof] was meeting with Houthis. I explained to the government this can happen because because he is the representative of the United Nations, not the representative of the government, and he will meet with all parties. Finally, we managed to calm it down.”

hoto credit: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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