Fighting between Houthi rebels, members of the General People's Congress (GPC) and various pro-government forces, as well as airstrikes by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led international coalition, has killed more than 10,000 people in Yemen since March 2015, although the actual death toll is considered to be much higher.
As a result of the ongoing conflict, Yemen is now the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. At least 8.4 million people are at risk of famine while an estimated 22.2 million people – over three quarters of the population – require humanitarian assistance. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that if humanitarian conditions do not improve a further 10 million people will be at risk of famine by the end of 2018. Since a cholera outbreak began in May 2017, over 1.1 million cases have been reported and at least 2,300 people have died.
During 2014, amidst a UN-facilitated political transition process, the Houthis – an armed movement originating amongst the Shia population in northeast Yemen – and military units loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the GPC, took control of the governorates of Sa'ada, Hodeida, Dhamar, Amran and Sana'a. On 26 March 2015 Saudi Arabia, the UAE and a coalition of eight other countries responded to a government request for regional military intervention.
After a breakdown of the alliance between troops loyal to former President Saleh and Houthi forces, on 2 December 2017 Saleh announced his willingness to cooperate with the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. Following intense fighting in Sana'a, Saleh was killed on 4 December.
On 12 June Yemeni government forces, supported by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, launched an offensive on the port city of Hodeidah. Yemen imports 90 percent of its staple food supplies and Hodeidah serves as the entry point for 70 percent of the country's humanitarian aid. In advance of the offensive OCHA warned that a sustained battle or siege of the city could endanger the lives of as many as 250,000 civilians. Government-allied forces captured Hodeidah airport on 21 June, but at the time of publication they had not made further advances into the city.
Despite several temporary ceasefire agreements during 2015 and 2016 and intermittent UN-brokered peace talks, the conflict in Yemen continues to leave civilians facing mass atrocity crimes. The last attempted ceasefire, on 19 November 2016, collapsed within 48 hours and political negotiations have been suspended for two years.
Throughout the conflict Houthi and government-allied forces have targeted civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, as well as humanitarian workers. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that respect for the distinction between civilian and military targets has been "woefully inadequate" by all sides. Additionally, the conflict has been characterized by the obstruction of humanitarian aid by all parties to the conflict, including the temporary closure of all air and sea ports in November 2018 by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition.
The UN Secretary-General's annual report on children and armed conflict documented the deaths of 552 children in Yemen during 2017, noting that the Saudi/UAE-led coalition was responsible for killing or wounding at least 670 children, while the Houthis were responsible for 324 casualties. The Saudi/UAE-led coalition was also responsible for attacks on five hospitals during 2017. On 27 March The UN Children's Fund reported that at least 2,419 child soldiers have been recruited in Yemen since March 2015.
Other armed groups continue to take advantage of the conflict to perpetrate violence against civilians, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Since March 2015 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has also claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on Shia mosques and car bombings in Sana'a and Aden. 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. Despite the magnitude of the crisis, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has failed to adequately respond to the conflict in Yemen. A substantive UNSC resolution has not been passed since April 2015.
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 and United Kingdom to cease selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The dissolution of the alliance between Houthi and pro-Saleh forces, as well as political disputes amongst pro-government forces, threatens to further fracture Yemeni society. Terrorist groups, such as AQAP and ISIL, are also trying to exploit the conflict to increase their influence.
All sides of the conflict appear manifestly unwilling or unable to uphold their Responsibility to Protect.
During 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 had militarily seized. On 26 February 2018 the UNSC renewed sanctions for an additional year.
On 29 September 2017 the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing a Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Yemen.
On 15 March the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement calling for unhindered humanitarian and commercial access, and calling upon all parties to uphold their obligations under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). On 18 June the UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, presented a plan for political negotiations to the UNSC.
On 14 June the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide expressed grave concern regarding the potential impact of a military offensive on Hodeidah.
The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen is a direct result of the ongoing armed conflict and requires a political solution. The UNSC and regional powers need to facilitate a sustained ceasefire and ensure that parties to the conflict return to substantive peace negotiations. The UNSC should immediately adopt a resolution demanding all parties cease attacks against civilians and ensure accountability for all atrocities committed during the conflict.
The distinction between military and civilian targets is central to IHL and must be adhered to at all times. 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.
The UNSC should immediately impose sanctions on any party responsible for the deliberate obstruction of vital humanitarian assistance to civilians.
Last Updated: 16 July 2018
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.