UK to block UN probe into Yemen war after Saudi Arabia threatens to cut trade ties

Revelation comes ahead of UN resolution calling for a commission investigating war crimes in Yemen.

Yemenis rally in Sana'a to mark second anniversary of warIBTimesUK/Wochit

The UK government is set to turn its back on a United Nations investigation into human rights abuses committed in Yemen after Saudi Arabia threatened allies with economic retaliation, the UK's Middle East minister has said.

The revelation comes ahead of the UN debate on Thursday (28 September). Several European countries intend to call for a commission, similar to the one in Syria, to document crimes that have been committed during the three-year conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi military forces from northern Yemen.

Canada and the Netherlands have proposed a draft resolution encouraging Yemeni authorities to work with the UN to establish a three-member commission investigating the conflict.

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Alistair Burt, minister for Middle East and North Africa, told reporters that the UK government would not support the proposal for a UN probe into the conflict, but stressed that "finding a resolution for the conflict in Yemen was a high priority".

"Our view is that it is for the Coalition itself, in the first instance, to conduct such investigations. They have the best insight into their own military procedures and will be able to conduct the most thorough and conclusive investigations," he said on 21 September.

Saudi Arabia warned countries earlier this week that their support for the resolution could "negatively affect" trade and diplomatic ties with the oil-rich kingdom, leaked letters obtained by AP revealed.

"Adopting the Netherlands/Canadian draft resolution in the Human Rights Council may negatively affect the bilateral political and economic relations with Saudi Arabia," the letter stated, while emphasising the "importance of adopting a unified stance to face the conflict in Yemen".

Two Western diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed to AP that they had received the letter.

Abdulaziz Alwasil, the Saudi ambassador in Geneva, told AP he was not aware of such a letter.

People carry the body of Muhammad Mansour recovered from under the rubble of a house destroyed by a Saudi-led air strike in Sanaa, Yemen on 25 August 2017REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Two years ago, Saudi Arabia killed a similar bill and halted an inquiry into human rights violations in Yemen. At least 5,000 civilians have been killed and 8,700 wounded in the conflict, the majority in Saudi-led airstrikes, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

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The Labour Party barred Saudi Arabia from attending its annual conference this week, with leader Jeremy Corbyn calling on the government to stop selling arms to the kingdom given their use in the Yemen war.

"We are selling arms to Saudi Arabia... and at the same time we are sending aid in, we should not be doing both," he said.

A man carries Buthaina Muhammad Mansour, believed to be four or five, rescued from the site of a Saudi-led air strike that killed eight of her family members in Sanaa, Yemen on 25 August 2017REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Human rights activists have condemned the UK government for abandoning the UN investigation, citing email exchanges between British diplomats, obtained under Freedom of Information Act, which describe the findings of a previous Saudi investigation as "controversial".

Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), told IBTimes UK: "The UK is insistent on backing Saudi's whitewash investigations and obstruction of UN probes into the war crimes."

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"These efforts to bury war crimes without accountability not only smashes the UK government's credibility in Yemen, but also its credibility when it calls for accountability elsewhere. It reveals the Government's true colours, using human rights only for political gain," he said.

HRW's UK director David Mepham described Burt's comments as "absurd" and said the British government has made "extraordinary excuses for the Saudi-led coalition" and suggesting that the Saudis "half-hearted investigation" into airstrikes in Yemen "mitigate the need for "an impartial, independent inquiry".

"Yemen is Boris Johnson's chance to step up – to match the gravity of events on the ground with a strong British policy, rooted in justice and compassion, which can help build a better future for ordinary Yemenis," Mepham said.

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