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 since March 2015, although 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 establish 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. Although both Houthi and government forces have already accused one another of violating the "Stockholm Agreement," the preliminary withdrawal of Houthi forces from the Hodeidah began on 29 December. Participants agreed to reconvene in January.
On 28 August the Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Independent Eminent Experts on Yemen 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. On 11 October the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported that at least 1,248 children have been killed since March 2015. The UN Children's Fund has also reported more than 2,400 child soldiers have been recruited by both Houthi and government forces. 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.
Prior to the December consultations, Yemeni government forces, supported by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, were conducting a military offensive on Hodeidah. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 1,460 civilian casualties due to fighting during November and the UN Refugee Agency has reported that over 570,000 people have been displaced since the start of the offensive in June 2018. Since the ceasefire went into effect on 18 December hostilities have significantly decreased. 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 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 2017 by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. On 31 December 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. For the first time since the start of the conflict, 65,000 Yemenis are in IPC Phase 5, or "catastrophe" level. That number will increase to 240,000 during January if humanitarian assistance is not sustained. 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. 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.
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 from political consultations could increase the difficulty of establishing a lasting peace.
All sides of the conflict appear manifestly unable or unwilling to uphold their Responsibility to Protect.
During 2011 the UN Security Council (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 2018 the UNSC renewed sanctions for an additional year.
On 30 September 2018 the HRC voted to extend the mandate of the Group of Eminent International and Regional 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 adopted a resolution on 13 December calling for an end to United States military support for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition in Yemen.
On 21 December the UNSC adopted Resolution 2451, endorsing the Stockholm Agreement and authorizing the deployment of a monitoring team to oversee its implementation.
All parties to the conflict must uphold the ceasefire in Hodeidah governorate and immediately implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement, including the withdrawal of troops from Hodeidah city by 21 January. The UNSC should facilitate the immediate operationalization of a monitoring force, as stipulated in Resolution 2451. 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 International Humanitarian Law (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 January 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.