Why Can’t the UN Protect Human Rights in Yemen and Syria?

Why Can’t the UN Protect Human Rights in Yemen and Syria?

By John Weber

Arguably the two worst humanitarian crises in the world, Yemen and Syria, are a result of civil wars fueled by foreign intervention and replete with international law violations. You’d think these are exactly the type of conflicts the UN was designed to solve. After all, the UN’s Charter begins by stating its purpose of “sav[ing] succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.[1]

“Independent investigations” have been created by the UN’s Human Rights Council to address the crises; the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (“GEE”) and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (“IICI”). The bodies are fact-finding missions tasked with monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in their countries, while fully examining all alleged international law violations.[2] They also make recommendations and provide guidance on “access to justice, accountability, [and] reconciliation.”[3] But, due to a lack of cooperation with them, even as both crises worsen, the utility of the mechanisms are questionable.

While the investigations do bring the crises to the attention of the international community, no meaningful progress in stopping the flagrant violations of international law and holding perpetrators accountable has been made. In Yemen, not a single person has been held liable and no reparations have been made, yet the crisis is worse than ever.[4] The Government of Yemen and its allies have continually opposed the work of the GEE because it is a “politicization of the human rights situation in Yemen.”[5] While minimal accountability measures have been taken in Syria, the IICI is repeatedly rejected by Syria and its allies, along with other, seemingly neutral countries, because of the politicization of their work.[6] The result – two investigative mechanisms unable to protect the human rights of those who need it most.

While the West upholds the value of the investigations and their reporting, this is met by demands to allow national bodies within Yemen and Syria to handle this work.[7] So, who’s right? Are these politicized investigations that should be done domestically or are they vital steps in ending the conflicts? Maddeningly, the answer is likely somewhere in between. True, the reports, along with the UN itself, are influenced by the hegemonic powers of the West. Yet, full accountability will never be possible without an accepted body to document and investigate violations. On the other hand, the domestic mechanisms upheld by others also fail to be apolitical, as they decline to implicate their own government, even when clearly responsible.[8] Though there is no clear solution, the outright refusal to recognize the mandate of the GEE and IICI renders them ineffective and suggests that solely relying on these UN mechanisms alone cannot protect human rights in Yemen and Syria.


[1] U.N. Charter preamble, ¶ 1.

[2] See Human Rights Council Res. 45/15, U.N. Doc. A/45/15, ¶ 17(a) (Oct. 12, 2020); Independent International Commission of Inquiry  on the Syrian Arab Republic: Mandate, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, https://ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/CoIMandate.aspx (last visited Mar. 26, 2021).

[3] Human Rights Council Res. 45/15, supra note 2.

[4] Report of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, Yemen: A Pandemic of Impunity in a Tortured Land, 25 U.N. Doc A/HRC/45/6 (2020).

[5] Human Rights Situation in Yemen, UN Watch, https://unwatch.org/database/resoltions/a-hrc-res-45-15/ (last visited Mar. 26, 2021).

[6] See e.g., ID: Commission of Inquiry on Syria – 31st Meeting, 46th Regular Session Human Rights Council, UN Web TV (Mar. 11, 2021) http://webtv.un.org/search/id-commission-of-inquiry-on-syria-31st-meeting-46th-regular-session-human-rights-council-/6239016985001/?term=syria&sort=date&page=2.

[7] Id.

[8] Stephanie Nebehay, Activists cry foul as U.N. decides against Yemen rights probe, Reuters (Sept. 29, 2016), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-un/activists-cry-foul-as-u-n-decides-against-yemen-rights-probe-idUSKCN11Z276.