War crimes are being committed in Yemen as pro-government forces and a regional military coalition fight against Houthi rebels who still control much of the country.
For over six years civilians in Yemen have suffered from ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Fighting between Houthi rebels, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), and forces loyal to the internationally recognized government – as well as airstrikes by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led international coalition – has resulted in the deaths of thousands oof civilians since March 2015. More than 18,500 civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of coalition airstrikes alone, including over 2,300 children. The conflict has displaced at least 4 million people and created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Armed hostilities and indiscriminate bombing are ongoing throughout Yemen, with at least 49 active frontlines across the country. Hostilities in Hodeidah, Taizz, Al Jawf and Hajjah have increased and the Houthis launched a new offensive in Marib in early February 2021. Since January over 600 civilians have been killed or maimed across Yemen. Indiscriminate missile and artillery fire has hit markets, displacement camps and other civilian objects in and around Marib City. Hundreds of coalition airstrikes and fierce ground fighting have also occurred across the governorate, particularly in Sirwah District. Houthi forces are also allegedly recruiting and deploying child soldiers. Since violence renewed in Marib, 25,000 civilians have fled the area.
On 22 March 2021 the coalition submitted a ceasefire proposal to the Houthis. While the Houthis dismissed the offer, the UN Secretary-General and UN Security Council (UNSC) formally welcomed the initiative.
Since its first report in 2018, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen has documented violations and abuses of international law perpetrated by parties to the conflict that may amount to war crimes, including indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, torture, arbitrary detention, and sexual and gender-based violence. The GEE alleges that Canada, France, Iran, United Kingdom and United States (US) may be complicit in these violations due to their provision of military intelligence, arms and logistical support to some parties to the conflict.
The UNSC-mandated Panel of Experts on Yemen has reported since 2015 that arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and torture of detainees have been conducted by the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Houthis, STC and forces affiliated with the UAE. The Panel has also warned of ongoing arrests of humanitarian workers in Houthi-controlled areas in the north.
More than 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance and 13.5 million are facing acute food insecurity. The GEE has reported that parties to the conflict may have used starvation of civilians as a military tactic. The distribution of essential vaccines and other humanitarian aid has been systematically blocked by parties to the conflict, particularly the Houthis.
All parties to the conflict have perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and targeted civilian infrastructure, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Although parties to the conflict signed the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, which established a ceasefire for Hodeidah Governorate, they continue to perpetrate widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law. The protracted conflict has been characterized by fragmenting coalitions and a multitude of fronts, as well as a pervasive climate of impunity. Hostilities have escalated over the past year with the recent Houthi offensive in Marib putting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons at risk.
The dire humanitarian situation is a direct result of the armed conflict and requires a political solution. Escalating violence in Hodeidah, Marib and other governorates threatens the delivery of life-saving aid to millions of vulnerable Yemenis. Humanitarian restrictions and the destruction of medical facilities present grave challenges as Yemen continues to confront the COVID-19 pandemic.
All parties to the conflict in Yemen appear manifestly unable or unwilling to uphold their responsibility to protect.
The UNSC imposed sanctions on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi leaders in November 2014. On 14 April 2015 the UNSC established an arms embargo and demanded the Houthis withdraw from all areas they had militarily seized. On 21 December 2018 the UNSC passed a resolution endorsing the Stockholm Agreement and authorizing the deployment of a monitoring team. The UNSC has not passed any substantive resolution related to the situation in Yemen since. On 14 July 2020 the UNSC renewed the mandate of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement for one year.
In its September 2020 report, the GEE recommended that the UNSC refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and expand the list of persons subject to sanctions. The UN Panel of Experts has also recommended that the UNSC explore mechanisms for justice and accountability for violations of international law.
On 25 October 2019 the European Parliament called on all European Union member states to halt weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. On 4 February 2021 the US government announced an end to its support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen. However, arms transfers to the UAE will continue.
All parties to the conflict should fully implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement and extend the Hodeidah ceasefire to all conflict-affected areas. The government of Yemen should allow access to the GEE, as well as representatives from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and ensure that all potential war crimes and crimes against humanity are properly investigated and prosecuted.
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.
The UNSC should adopt targeted sanctions against all those responsible for potential atrocities and the deliberate obstruction of vital humanitarian assistance. The UNSC should refer the situation in Yemen to the ICC.