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, including over 1,250 children, since March 2015. The actual death toll is considered to be much higher.
During December 2018 the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, hosted the first consultations between the government and Houthi representatives since previous talks were suspended in 2016. During the consultations in Sweden parties to the conflict agreed to 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. Despite a subsequent decrease in violence, intense fighting in Hodeidah during March threatened the future of the "Stockholm Agreement." The ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah has largely held since then, and on 11 May the Houthis withdrew forces from Saleef, Ras Isa and Hodeidah ports.
Hostilities have intensified elsewhere, however, particularly in Al-Dhale, Hajjah, and Taiz governorates. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported more than 250,000 people displaced by fighting this year and there are currently more than 30 active frontlines in Yemen. In addition, during June Houthi forces increased their attacks on targets within Saudi Arabia.
In their 25 January report, the UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on Yemen documented widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) by all parties to the conflict. The Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Independent Eminent Experts on Yemen has also reported that grave human rights violations perpetrated by parties to the conflict may amount to war crimes. In August 2018 the Group of Eminent Experts found that coalition airstrikes have caused most civilian casualties. Arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and widespread use of torture and sexual violence within both Houthi and government-allied detention centers has also been widely documented.
Between April 2013 and January 2019 the UN Office of the Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict verified more than 7,500 cases of the killing and maiming of children, almost half of which were caused by coalition airstrikes. According to the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, the number of incidents that killed or injured children more than tripled between the last quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019. More than 3,000 children were also recruited or used by parties to the conflict between April 2013 and the end of 2018. Schools have been targeted by Houthi and government-allied forces.
The conflict has also been characterized by the obstruction of vital aid by all parties. At least 24 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance. On 21 November Save the Children reported that 85,000 children under five may have died due to starvation since April 2015. Following a 2017 outbreak of cholera that resulted in more than 1 million cases and 2,300 deaths, there is a fear of a renewed epidemic with 460,000 suspected cases reported so far during 2019. Essential vaccines to treat cholera have reportedly been blocked by parties to the conflict.
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 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. A climate of impunity has enabled ongoing violations of IHL and IHRL.
The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen is a direct result of the armed conflict and requires a political solution. 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 besieged city of Taiz is also crucial to the distribution of food imports.
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.
All parties to the conflict appear manifestly unable or unwilling to uphold their responsibility to protect.
The UNSC imposed sanctions on former President Saleh and Houthi leaders in November 2014. On 14 April 2015 the UNSC established an arms embargo against Houthi leaders and some supporters of Saleh, and demanding the Houthis withdraw from all areas they had been militarily seized. On 26 February 2019 the UNSC renewed sanctions and extended the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 28 March 2020.
On 30 September 2018 the HRC voted to extend the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts, 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. Despite votes in the United States Congress calling for an end to military support for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition in Yemen, on 16 April President Donald Trump vetoed the decision. On 20 June the United States Senate voted again to block the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
On 21 December 2018 the UNSC passed its first substantive resolution on the conflict in over three years, endorsing the Stockholm Agreement and authorizing the deployment of a monitoring team to oversee its implementation. On 16 January the UNSC adopted Resolution 2452, establishing the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement.
On 20 June the Court of Appeal in London ruled that the government of the United Kingdom had failed to adequately assess the actions of the Saudi/UAE-led military coalition in Yemen prior to issuing licenses for arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Following the ruling the United Kingdom suspended new arms sales until an appropriate assessment is conducted.
On 8July the UAE announced that it was in the process of drawing down its military presence in Yemen.
All parties to the conflict should uphold the Hodeidah ceasefire and fully implement all the terms of the Stockholm Agreement. Parties to the conflict should extend the ceasefire to other areas, particularly Al-Dhale, Hajjah and Taiz governorates. The UNSC should also adopt targeted sanctions against all those responsible for potential atrocities and the deliberate obstruction of vital humanitarian assistance.
The government of Yemen should allow access to the Group of Eminent Experts and ensure that all potential war crimes and crimes against humanity are properly investigated.
The distinction between military and civilian targets is central to 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 July 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.