Populations at Risk Current Crisis


Mass atrocity crimes are being committed in Yemen as pro-government forces and a regional military coalition fight against Houthi rebels, who have taken control of much of the country.
Despite several temporary ceasefire agreements and intermittent UN-brokered peace talks between the government and Houthi rebels, the conflict in Yemen continues to leave civilians facing mass atrocity crimes. Violence has escalated since peace talks were suspended on 6 August, with extensive shelling in Taizz, Sana'a and Al Hudaydah since September. The most recent attempted ceasefire, which started on 19 November, collapsed within 48 hours. During January the government launched an offensive to retake Al Mokha in Taizz, resulting in widespread ground fighting and airstrikes. On 10 February the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that since late January both sides have violated international humanitarian (IHL) and human rights law (IHRL) by targeting civilians during clashes.

During 2014, amidst a UN-facilitated political transition process, the Houthis, an armed Shia movement from northeast Yemen, and military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the governorates of Sa'ada, Hodeida, Dhamar, Amran and Sana'a. On 26 March 2015 Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine other countries responded to a government request for regional military intervention. Growing violence forced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to seek temporary refuge in Riyadh. Despite military setbacks, Houthis and pro-Saleh forces still control much of Yemen.

Violence between Houthi rebels and various pro-government forces, as well as Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, have resulted in more than 10,000 people killed, including over 4,150 civilians, since March 2015. More than 3.3 million Yemenis have been forcibly displaced while an estimated 21.2 million people, over 82 percent of the population, require humanitarian assistance.

Throughout the conflict Houthi and government-allied forces have both targeted civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, as well as international humanitarian workers. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, has said that respect for the distinction between civilian and military targets has been "woefully inadequate" by both sides, while his office has reported that since August the majority of civilian casualties have been caused by airstrikes. On 19 December the Saudi-led coalition confirmed that it had used illegal cluster munitions while bombing parts of Yemen, vowing to cease using United Kingdom-made cluster munitions in the future.

Since the start of October the Houthis have been accused of firing missiles at foreign ships in the Red Sea. Houthis have also perpetrated attacks on Saudi Arabia, including firing a ballistic missile towards Mecca on 28 October.

The UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have made numerous attempts to broker peace between parties to the conflict. On 28 November Ansar Allah, the political representation of the Houthis, and the General People's Congress, the party of former President Saleh, unilaterally announced the formation of a new government. Special Envoy Ahmed and the GCC condemned the decision. Amidst increasing violence the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Chekh Ahmed, together with "the Quad" (Saudi Arabia, United States, United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates), has been unable to secure a date for the resumption of peace talks. The Special Envoy traveled throughout the region between 12-23 January to reinvigorate negotiations.

Other armed groups have taken advantage of the conflict to perpetrate violence against civilians. Since March 2015 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on Shia mosques and has detonated car bombs in Sana'a and Aden. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also gained influence during 2015, but has since retreated from several cities it temporarily controlled.

Various parties to the conflict have perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and targeted civilian infrastructure, amounting to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. Failure to abide by the cessation and attempts by the Houthis to subvert the political transition are in violation of various UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. The ongoing conflict has resulted in a nation-wide humanitarian catastrophe that risks killing more civilians than airstrikes and ground fighting and the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs has asserted that, "famine is now a possibility for 2017."

Yemen has become another proxy battlefield between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While Saudi Arabia remains the main force backing the regional military coalition, Iran has allegedly provided military assistance to the Houthis. Former Yemeni President Saleh has also called for direct attacks on Saudi Arabia. Civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have resulted in increased pressure for the United States and United Kingdom to cease selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

Fighting between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces also threatens to further fracture Yemeni society along tribal and sectarian lines. Terrorist groups, such as AQAP and ISIL, are trying to exploit tensions between Shia and Sunni populations to increase their influence.

The Yemeni government is unable to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and requires ongoing international support to negotiate an end to the conflict.

In 2011 the UNSC adopted Resolution 2014, which condemned human rights violations by the government of former President 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 former President Saleh, and demanding the Houthis withdraw from all areas they seized during the conflict. On 24 February 2016 the UNSC renewed sanctions for an additional year. On 8 September the UNSC issued a Press Statement urging all parties to continue working with the Special Envoy and negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

On 30 September the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling upon all parties to respect their obligations under international law, but failed to get the support necessary to approve an independent international commission of inquiry.

On 13 December the United States announced that because of concerns regarding the Yemen conflict, it would halt some arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The distinction between military and civilian targets is central to IHL and must be adhered to at all times. Parties to the conflict must halt the use of illegal and indiscriminate weapons, including cluster munitions. All parties must uphold their responsibility to protect vulnerable populations regardless of their tribal, religious or political affiliations.

All parties to the conflict must respect agreed ceasefires in order to ensure humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians in desperate need of food, water and medical supplies.

The UNSC, GCC and all parties to the conflict need to ensure that Resolution 2216 is fully implemented and that Yemen returns to the political transition process. The government and Houthis should return to substantive peace negotiations. The UN Human Rights Council should establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate serious violations of IHL and international human rights law (IHRL) in Yemen since March 2015.

Last Updated: 15 February 2017