Populations at Risk Current Crisis


War crimes are being committed in Yemen as pro-government forces and a regional military coalition fight against Houthi rebels who still control much of the country.
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 in Yemen, including over 1,250 children, since March 2015. The actual death toll is considered to be much higher.

Between 6-13 December 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 an initial decrease in violence, on 10 March intense fighting in Hodeidah threatened the future of the "Stockholm Agreement."

Hostilities have also intensified elsewhere. In response to increased Houthi attacks utilizing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles the Saudi/UAE-led military coalition carried out dozens of airstrikes on Sana'a city on 20 January. Fighting has also escalated in Hajjah Governorate since late January. Increased airstrikes, shelling and armed confrontations have resulted in a significant increase in civilian casualties, including the deaths of eight civilians on 26 January due to suspected Houthi shelling of an internally displaced persons camp in Haradh District.

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 involved in 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 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. Throughout the conflict Houthi and government-allied forces have targeted civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and water and sanitation facilities. The UN, media and human rights organizations have also documented the widespread use of torture and sexual violence within both Houthi and government-allied detention centers.

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. 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. At least 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and, according to the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system, as of December an estimated 15.9 million people – over half the population – are severely food insecure. An estimated 240,000 people are in IPC Phase 5, or "catastrophe" level. On 21 November Save the Children reported that 85,000 children under five may have died of starvation since April 2015.

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. 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 the continued and widespread violation of IHL and IHRL.

The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen is a direct result of the ongoing armed conflict and requires a political solution. If the ceasefire in Hodeidah Governorate is not maintained, resumed hostilities would 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.

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 militarily seized. On 26 February 2019 the UNSC renewed sanctions for an additional year 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. The United States Senate also adopted a resolution on 13 December calling for an end to United States military support for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition in Yemen. On 13 February the United States House of Representatives also voted to end military assistance in Yemen.

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 (UNMHA) for an initial period of six months.

All parties to the conflict should uphold the ceasefire in Hodeidah governorate and immediately implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement. The UNSC should facilitate the immediate deployment and operationalization of UNMHA. The Council 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 and facilitate their work. The UNSC should request to be formally briefed on the Group's findings.

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 March 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.