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, have killed at least 16,000 civilians 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.
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 and hospitals.
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 80 percent of the country's food and fuel imports. Hundreds of civilians have been killed by fighting in Hodeidah and the UN Refugee Agency has reported that over 570,000 people have been displaced. On 24 October airstrikes on a vegetable market killed at least 24 civilians in Al-Masoudi, Hodeidah Governorate. Hostilities continued to escalate in the city of Hodeidah throughout November.
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 15 October the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen reported that up to 14 million civilians are at risk of severe food insecurity, and that if the conflict continues famine could engulf the country within the next three months. An estimated 22.2 million people – over three quarters of the population – currently require humanitarian assistance. Since a cholera outbreak began in May 2017, over 1.2 million cases have been reported and more than 2,500 people have died.
On 11 October the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported at least 1,248 children have been killed in Yemen since March 2015. The Committee noted that no case involving child casualties has led to prosecution or disciplinary action against Saudi/UAE-led officials. 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) remains has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on Shia mosques and bombings in Sana'a and Aden. The conflict has also resulted in increased religious persecution of the country's Bahá'í population. During September charges of apostasy and espionage were brought by Houthi forces against 24 individuals, at least 22 of whom are members of the Bahá'í community.
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 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, allegedly due to travel restrictions.
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. The escalation of hostilities in Hodeidah Governorate not only endangers the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, but places vital civilian infrastructure at risk and leaves millions of Yemenis at increased risk of famine.
Despite the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis and the drastic increase in civilian casualties, a substantive UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution has not been adopted 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 and coalition members 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 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 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 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. The government of Yemen has announced they will refuse 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 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 a ceasefire in Hodeidah, calling upon all parties to uphold their obligations under international law, and adopting 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 November 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.