Groups urge U.N. to suspend Saudi Arabia from rights council

By Michelle Nichols UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday to suspend Saudi Arabia from the U.N. Human Rights Council until a Saudi-led military coalition stops killing civilians in Yemen. "Saudi Arabia has amassed an appalling record of violations in Yemen while a Human Rights Council member," said Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch. "U.N. member countries should stand with Yemeni civilians and suspend Saudi Arabia immediately." A Saudi-led coalition began an air campaign in Yemen in March 2015 to defeat Iran-allied Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia is in its final year of a three-year term on the 47-member Human Rights Council. The Saudi mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A two-third majority vote by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly can suspend a state from the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council for persistently committing gross and systematic violations of human rights during its membership. A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the push to suspend Saudi Arabia: "I'm not anticipating that movement going anywhere." Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said they had documented 69 unlawful air strikes, some of which may amount to war crimes, in Yemen by the coalition in which at least 913 civilians were killed. The U.N. briefly blacklisted the Saudi coalition this month for killing children in Yemen. However, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon succumbed to what he described as unacceptable pressure and removed the coalition from the blacklist pending a joint review. U.N. sanctions monitors said in January that the coalition had targeted civilians in Yemen and that some of the attacks could be crimes against humanity. Sarah Leah Watson, head of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, said the United States may be complicit in war crimes because of targeting assistance the U.S. military is providing the Saudi-led coalition. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to comment on the accusation or say how Washington might vote in any push to remove Saudi Arabia from the Human Rights Council. "We continue to urge all sides in the conflict to protect civilians," Toner told reporters. The U.N. General Assembly has previously suspended a country from the Human Rights Council. In March 2011, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously suspended Libya because of violence against protesters by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. (Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Tom Brown)