The federal government is speaking out after the United Nations Human Rights Council, including such countries as Russia, China and Venezuela, shut down the only independent and international probe into Yemen’s long and deadly civil war.
A UN-appointed panel of experts on Yemen has since 2017 documented incidents of indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, as well as torture, detention and killings, which it said may constitute war crimes. It was recently disbanded after 21 countries voted down a resolution to extend its mandate.
The Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, which included Ardi Imseis, a professor of law at Queen’s University, had produced four reports into the alleged breaches of international human-rights laws.
The conflict has pitted a coalition led by Saudi Arabia against Houthi rebels backed by Iran.
Only 47 countries sit on the UN Human Rights Council at any given time and their memberships are for periods of three years.
Canada is not a member of the rights council at the moment, but the Netherlands is, and the two countries, together with Ireland, Belgium and Luxembourg, have been behind the resolutions that have kept the expert panel alive, until now.
“Canada is deeply disappointed by the failure of the UN Human Rights Council to adopt the resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Yemen,” Grantly Franklin, a spokesman for the Department of Global Affairs, said in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail.
“The resolution would have enabled the continuation of the work of the Group of Eminent Experts, which was vital to promoting transparency and reporting into the facts and circumstances surrounding alleged human-rights violations and abuses in the conflict in Yemen.”
Ottawa said it would work with key diplomatic allies to “explore other possibilities for ongoing human-rights monitoring in Yemen.”
Western countries including Canada have sold arms to Saudi Arabia during the war in Yemen – and Iran has armed the Houthis. The conflict has led to what the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and an estimated 233,000 deaths since 2014 – including 131,000 from indirect causes such as a lack of food, health services and infrastructure.
The UN-appointed panel warned in a parting statement that the vote demonstrates the lack of political will to address what has befallen Yemen.
“Now is the time for more action, rather than less. By ending the only United Nations independent entity investigating and issuing detailed public reports on human-rights violations committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, the council appears to be abandoning the people of Yemen,” the panel said.
Canada itself came under criticism in the UN-appointed panel’s previous two reports because of Ottawa’s massive sale of armoured vehicles to Riyadh. It was named as one of six countries – including the United States, Iran, Britain – helping to fuel the war in Yemen by selling arms to those waging the conflict.
Saudi Arabia is Canada’s largest export market for military goods after the U.S. Figures for 2020, the most recent available, show more than $1.3-billion worth of Canadian defence equipment – chiefly armoured vehicles equipped with machine guns or cannons – was shipped to Riyadh. A major driver of the exports is a $15-billion deal brokered by Ottawa to sell the combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in the war in Yemen since 2015 as the leader of a coalition of Mideast and African countries supporting the Yemeni government against Houthi rebels backed by Iran. Human-rights groups and Western political leaders – including the European Parliament – have urged a freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Countries who voted against the UNHRC resolution this month to renew the Yemen panel’s work include many with poor human-rights records: not only China, Russia and Venezuela, but also Cuba and Eritrea.
Saudi Arabia reportedly lobbied the human-rights council members before the vote, according to Human Rights Watch, a global rights group. Saudi allies such as Pakistan and Indonesia helped defeat the resolution.
Eighteen countries including Britain, France and Germany, voted to support it. Japan, a major trading partner of Saudi Arabia, was one of eight countries that abstained from the vote.
With reports from Reuters
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