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FILE PHOTO: People stand past houses destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in an outskirt of the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Naif Rahma(reuters_tickers)
By John Irish and Stephanie Nebehay
PARIS/GENEVA (Reuters) - France is pushing for a compromise over a proposed resolution by the U.N. human rights body that would establish an international inquiry into atrocities in Yemen despite repeated opposition from Saudi Arabia, officials said on Thursday.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has asked for three years running that the 47 countries in the U.N. Human Rights Council set up an independent investigation into Yemen's war, which has killed thousands of people, destroyed the economy and pushed millions to the brink of famine.
Despite his pleas, member states have twice endorsed a Saudi plan to let Yemen investigate by itself. Rights groups fear Saudi pressure is leading France, Britain and the United States to water down the latest effort, due to be voted on Friday.
"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, when asked if Paris would support a Dutch-Canadian resolution calling for an international and independent investigation.
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.
The U.N. human rights office has said Saudi-led air strikes have caused most civilian casualties. Earlier this month, however, a panel set up by the coalition to investigate civilian casualties found a series of deadly air strikes were largely justified, citing the presence of armed militiamen at the homes, schools and clinics that were targeted.
Diplomats said negotiations continued on Thursday to try to strike a consensus between the Dutch-led resolution and a rival Arab group resolution. France is not a voting member but has significant sway on the Geneva-based council.
The French statement appeared to echo Britain and the United States, which want to see consensus around a single resolution.
The second resolution makes no mention of an international investigation, but requests that the U.N. dispatch a team of three experts to "carry out a comprehensive assessment into all alleged violations" and exchange information with the national commission of enquiry.
"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 were under great pressure to back down.
In a letter seen by one of the diplomats, Saudi Arabia - the world's biggest oil exporter - has warned some states of possible consequences should they support the Dutch-Canadian resolution.
The Saudi ambassador in Geneva declined to comment on the negotiations. Saudi Arabia, which leads an international coalition battling the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen, has said the time is not right 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)