September 28, 2017 / 6:41 PM / 22 days ago

Compromise sought on U.N. Yemen inquiry as Saudi pressure mounts

PARIS/GENEVA (Reuters) - Seeking to win Saudi Arabia’s agreement to a U.N. investigation into alleged war crimes in Yemen, the Netherlands revised a proposed resolution late on Thursday, the eve of a crucial vote that will determine if there is tough outside scrutiny of Yemen’s war.

People look at the damage on a bridge hit by a Saudi-led air strike near the northwestern city of Harad, Yemen September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

The Dutch revision submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council, circulated just in time for debate on Friday morning, called for an “international eminent group of experts” to carry out an inquiry.

The earlier version had asked for an “international commission of inquiry,” the gold standard for U.N. human rights investigations since a landmark report by a U.N. commission of inquiry into North Korea in 2014.

It was not immediately clear if the call for an eminent group of experts would be accepted by Saudi Arabia, which has in previous years convinced the U.N. Human Rights Council that an internal Yemeni investigation is more appropriate.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been bombing the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen since the Houthis seized much of the country’s north in 2015.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein has pleaded with the council’s 47 member countries to launch an independent investigation into the war, which has killed thousands, ruined the economy and pushed millions to the brink of famine.

Riyadh says the coalition is fighting terrorists and supporting Yemen’s legitimate government, but Zeid’s office has said Saudi-led air strikes cause the majority of civilian casualties.

A panel set up by the Saudi-led coalition to investigate civilian casualties found its air strikes were largely justified.

The last-minute Dutch amendment came after France, not currently a member of the council, pushed for a compromise.

“We are working in particular to narrow positions on the international dimension of the investigation mechanism on the violation of human rights committed in Yemen,” French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Romatet-Espagne told reporters.

The French statement appeared to echo Britain and the United States, which want to see consensus around a single resolution.

“We believe that there is room to satisfy everybody,” said a French diplomatic source, denying that Paris was seeking to weaken the text. Two diplomatic sources said the Dutch had been under great pressure to back down.

SAUDI PRESSURE

In a letter seen by one of the diplomats, Saudi Arabia - the world’s biggest oil exporter - had warned some states of possible consequences should they support the Dutch resolution, submitted jointly with Canada, calling for a full commission.

The Saudi ambassador in Geneva declined to comment on the negotiations. Earlier in the three-week council session, he said the time was not ripe for an international inquiry.

The new French administration has drawn criticism over its stance in light of a ringing appeal by President Emmanuel Macron to defend human rights during his inaugural speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20.

Six major international groups, including Amnesty International, have published columns in the French press over the last week calling on Macron to do more on Yemen.

“By refraining from supporting efforts to advance justice in Yemen, President Macron would betray his own pledge to uphold human rights values and place lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arabia above the shattered lives of ordinary Yemenis who have endured years of war crimes, cholera and near famine,” Louis Charbonneau, United Nations-based director at Human Rights Watch, said by phone.

“It’s not too late...to finally support an international investigation on Yemen and show Macron’s commitment to human rights is more than mere words.”

Additional reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Mark Heinrich and Cynthia Osterman

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