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, have killed more than 6,600 civilians in Yemen since March 2015, although the actual death toll is considered to be much higher. On 28 April 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 and hospitals. The Saudi/UAE-led coalition was responsible for attacks on five hospitals during 2017. On 9 August a coalition airstrike targeting a school bus in Sa'ada Province killed at least 40 children. The former 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 all sides.
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. 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. On 6 September the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that a further 3.5 million people may become food insecure if conditions do not improve. Since a cholera outbreak began in May 2017, over 1.1 million cases have been reported and at least 2,300 people have died.
On 27 July Yemeni government forces, supported by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, resumed their military 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. On 2 August an alleged airstrike on a fish market within the city and the entrance to Al-Thawra hospital – the largest in Yemen – killed at least 55 people. The UN Refugee Agency has reported that over 500,000 people have been displaced by fighting in Hodeidah, and over 450 civilians were killed in the first nine days of August, making it one of the deadliest periods since the start of the conflict.
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. On 27 March the UN Children's Fund reported that at least 2,419 child soldiers have been recruited by both Houthi and government forces 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 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.
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. Political consultations facilitated by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, were scheduled for 6 September, but Houthi representatives failed to attend due to alleged travel restrictions.
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.
Political disputes amongst pro-government forces threaten 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 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 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 HRC adopted a resolution establishing the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Yemen.
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 HRC should renew and strengthen the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts during its 39th session, including by enabling the Experts to identify individuals responsible for possible atrocities in Yemen.
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.
The UNSC should immediately impose sanctions on any party responsible for the deliberate obstruction of vital humanitarian assistance to civilians.
Last Updated: 15 September 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.