GENEVA – Saudi Arabia and allied states balked at efforts to renew work by U.N.-backed "eminent experts" investigating human rights violations in Yemen, setting up a possible diplomatic showdown with some Western countries over scrutiny of a 3-1/2-year war that has killed thousands of civilians and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The standoff comes just three weeks after the experts issued a scathing report saying the governments of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could be responsible for war crimes amid fighting between a Saudi-led coalition that supports the internationally recognized Yemeni government and Shiite rebels aligned with Iran, known as Houthis.
Before a late Thursday deadline at the Human Rights Council, the "Arab Group" led by Tunisia floated a resolution calling for "capacity building and technical assistance" to Yemen's Saudi-backed government, but no extended mandate for the experts.
A rival resolution from Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, among other things, seeks to extend the experts' mandate by a year.
The two sides could bridge their differences before the council session ends on Sept. 28.
"By definition, there are differences," council spokesman Rolando Gomez said Friday. "One speaks to technical assistance. One is slightly more of a condemnatory nature. There are informal consultations that are under way. There are always efforts to meet in the middle."
Mona Sabella, an international advocacy officer at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said independent investigations like those led by the experts were important for the credibility of the council. She said failure to renew or strengthen such mandates would "empower repressive governments that want to destroy the U.N. human rights system."
"The choice is clear for U.N. member states: Support the renewal of independent and international investigations into war crimes in Yemen, or bow to Saudi threats and allow these investigations to be quashed," she wrote in an e-mail. "Nothing would make Saudi Arabia and the UAE happier than to do away with independent investigations into war crimes in Yemen."
The looming faceoff is a familiar one at the 47-member rights body. The Dutch and Canadians have repeatedly sought over the years to ensure that U.N.-backed investigators get access to as much of the country as possible — including areas hit by airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly thwarted such efforts and pushed instead for a national rights commission, supported by the Yemeni government, to carry out such investigations with advice from and consultation with the U.N. rights office. But the commission hasn't had access to rebel-held areas.
Last year, however, Saudi Arabia gave its support to a consensus resolution creating the "eminent experts" group. The change of heart came after a diplomatic letter emerged publicly in which the kingdom warned at least two other countries that any support for international independent investigators could "negatively affect" their trade with Saudi Arabia.
In their first and only report issued on Aug. 28, the experts cited rights violations in Yemen including "deprivation of the right to life," arbitrary detention, rape, torture, enforced disappearances and child recruitment by Yemeni government forces and their Saudi and Emirati allies. It said the Houthis rebels were also responsible for the same abuses.
The Houthis control many population centers in northern and western Yemen.
The coalition, which has received military hardware and support from the United States, Britain and France, has been criticized for airstrikes that have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties.
At least 10,000 have died in fighting in the impoverished country that the U.N. calls home to the world's worst humanitarian crisis.