Despite diplomatic efforts to end Yemen's four-year war, populations remain at risk of war crimes and are experiencing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Fighting between Houthi rebels, members of the General People's Congress and various pro-government forces, as well as airstrikes by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led international coalition, has resulted in the deaths of at least 16,000 civilians, including over 1,250 children, since March 2015. The actual death toll is considered to be much higher.
During December 2018 the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, hosted the first consultations between the government of Yemen and Houthi representatives since previous talks were suspended in 2016. During the consultations in Sweden parties to the conflict agreed to the establishment of a ceasefire in Hodeidah Governorate and the withdrawal of all forces from the city of Hodeidah; an exchange of prisoners; and a statement of understanding on the besieged city of Taiz. Despite a subsequent decrease in violence, intense fighting in Hodeidah during March threatened the future of the "Stockholm Agreement." The ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah has largely held since then, but deadlines with regards to troop withdrawal have not been met. However, on 11 May the Houthis began withdrawing forces from Saleef, Ras Isa and Hodeidah ports.
Hostilities have also intensified elsewhere, including in Al-Jawf and Al-Dhale governorates. Fighting in Kushar District, Hajjah Governorate, displaced up to 50,000 people during February and March.
In their 25 January report the UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on Yemen documented widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) by all parties to the conflict. The report noted the disproportionate effect on civilians of Saudi/UAE-led coalition airstrikes and the use of explosive ordnance by Houthi forces. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Independent Eminent Experts on Yemen has also reported that grave human rights violations have been perpetrated by all parties to the conflict, possibly amounting to war crimes. In August 2018 the Group of Eminent Experts found that coalition airstrikes have caused most of the documented civilian casualties. Throughout the conflict both Houthi and government-allied forces have also targeted civilian infrastructure. Arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearances, and widespread use of torture and sexual violence within both Houthi and government-allied detention centers has also been widely documented.
The conflict has had a dire effect on children. Between April 2013 and January 2019 the UN Office of the Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict verified more than 7,500 cases of the killing and maiming of children, almost half of which were caused by coalition airstrikes. More than 3,000 children were also recruited or used by parties to the conflict between April 2013 and the end of 2018. An additional 500 children were recruited in the first three months of 2019, mostly by the Houthis. Schools have also been targeted by Houthi and government-allied forces throughout the conflict, including a bombing of a school in Sana'a on 7 April that killed 14 children.
The conflict has been characterized by the obstruction of humanitarian aid by all parties, including the temporary closure of all air and sea ports in November 2017 by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. At least 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and, according to the Integrated Phase Classification system, as of December 2018 an estimated 15.9 million people – over half the population – are severely food insecure. On 21 November Save the Children reported that 85,000 children under five may have died due to starvation since April 2015. Following a 2017 outbreak of cholera that resulted in more than 1 million cases and over 2,300 deaths, there is a fear of a renewed epidemic with 200,000 suspected cases reported so far during 2019. Essential vaccines to treat cholera have reportedly been blocked by parties to the conflict.
Other armed groups continue to take advantage of the conflict to perpetrate violence against civilians, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The conflict has also resulted in increased religious persecution of the country's Bahá'í population.
All parties to the conflict have perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and targeted civilian infrastructure, amounting to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. A climate of impunity has enabled ongoing violations of IHL and IHRL.
The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen is a direct result of the armed conflict and requires a political solution. If the ceasefire in Hodeidah Governorate is not maintained, resumed hostilities could threaten vital civilian infrastructure and leave millions of Yemenis at increased risk of famine. Yemen imports 90 percent of its staple food supplies and Hodeidah serves as the entry point for 80 percent of the country's food and fuel imports. The besieged city of Taiz is also crucial to the distribution of food imports.
While Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain the main forces behind the regional military coalition, Iran has provided some military assistance to the Houthis. Civilian casualties caused by international coalition airstrikes have resulted in public pressure for the United States, United Kingdom and other governments to cease selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Political disputes amongst pro-government forces and coalition members threaten to further fracture Yemeni society. The exclusion of some parties to the conflict, including the Southern Transitional Council, from political consultations could increase the difficulty of establishing a lasting peace.
All parties to the conflict appear manifestly unable or unwilling to uphold their Responsibility to Protect.
During 2011 the UNSC adopted Resolution 2014, which condemned human rights violations by the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and affirmed Yemen's primary responsibility to protect its population. The UNSC imposed sanctions on former President Saleh and Houthi leaders in November 2014. On 14 April 2015 the UNSC passed Resolution 2216, establishing an arms embargo against Houthi leaders and some supporters of Saleh, and demanding the Houthis withdraw from all areas they had been militarily seized. On 26 February 2019 the UNSC renewed sanctions and extended the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 28 March 2020.
On 30 September 2018 the HRC voted to extend the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts authorized to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Yemen, but the government has refused entry to the Group.
On 25 October the European Parliament passed a resolution calling upon European Union member states to halt weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. On 9 November the United States announced it would stop refueling Saudi/UAE-led coalition aircraft. Despite votes in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives calling for an end to military support for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition in Yemen, on 16 April President Donald Trump vetoed the decision. Meanwhile, during March Germany decided to continue its suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
On 21 December the UNSC passed its first substantive resolution on the conflict in over three years, endorsing the Stockholm Agreement and authorizing the deployment of a monitoring team to oversee its implementation. On 16 January the UNSC adopted Resolution 2452, establishing the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement for an initial period of six months.
On 31 December 2018 the World Food Programme demanded that Houthi forces immediately halt the practice of seizing food aid in territories under their control.
All parties to the conflict should uphold the ceasefire in Hodeidah governorate and immediately implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement. The UNSC should also adopt targeted sanctions against all those responsible for potential atrocities, including the deliberate obstruction of vital humanitarian assistance to vulnerable civilians.
The government of Yemen should allow access to the Group of Eminent Experts in order to ensure that perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity are held accountable.
The distinction between military and civilian targets is central to IHL and must be adhered to at all times. In keeping with the Arms Trade Treaty, all UN member states should immediately halt the sale of weapons to parties to the conflict who routinely violate IHL, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Last Updated: 15 May 2019
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Yemen has been featured in the R2P Monitor since the May 2015 issue.