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.
Despite diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen, populations remain at risk of war crimes. Fighting between Houthi rebels, members of the General People’s Congress, 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 more than 12,000 civilians since March 2015. The actual death toll is likely much higher. At least 3.6 million people have been displaced and the conflict has created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
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 (IHRL). Hostilities are ongoing throughout Yemen, particularly in Al-Dhale, Sa’ada and Taizz governorates. Attacks have regularly targeted non-military objects, including recent strikes against Taizz Central Prison and Al-Thawra General Hospital. February saw the highest number of airstrikes since December 2018.
Violence escalated in mid-January 2020 in districts around Sana’a and Marib. On 28 February the Houthis took control of Hazm, the capital of Al-Jawf governorate. Violence and indiscriminate bombing have continued, and an estimated 60,000 civilians have fled their homes in Al-Jawf and the surrounding governorates since 19 January.
On 8 April the Saudi/UAE-led coalition announced a two-week unilateral ceasefire. The announcement followed a call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a cessation of hostilities in light of the threats from the COVID-19 pandemic. Also on 8 April, the Houthis published their own peace proposal. Since then Saudi Arabia has allegedly resumed indirect talks with the Houthis. Despite a one-month extension of the ceasefire, hostilities persist on numerous fronts.
Since August 2019 clashes have also taken place in southern Yemen between the UAE-supported STC and forces loyal to President Hadi. Mediation resulted in a power-sharing agreement signed in Riyadh on 6 November, allowing the government to formally regain control over Aden and all armed groups in the south. However, very few of the agreement’s provisions have been implemented and parties continue to perpetrate extrajudicial killings. The STC declared self-administration in the south of Yemen on 25 April. The Saudi-led coalition called for this “escalatory action” to be rescinded.
The Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Independent Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen has documented that violations and abuses perpetrated by parties to the conflict may amount to war crimes, including indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, torture, arbitrary detention, and sexual and gender-based violence. The GEE asserts that United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), France and Iran may be complicit in violations due to their provision of military intelligence, arms and logistical support to parties to the conflict.
At least 24.1 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance and the GEE has reported that parties to the conflict may have used starvation of civilians as a military tactic. Essential vaccines have also reportedly been blocked and the UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts reported in February 2020 that arrests and intimidation of humanitarian workers are increasing in Houthi-controlled areas in the north.
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 enables ongoing violations of IHL and IHRL and facilitates increasing risks to civilians in Yemen.
The protracted conflict in Yemen has been characterized by fragmenting coalitions and a multitude of fronts. Continued instability has also allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to intensify their attacks on civilians.
Ongoing fighting threatens to derail progress towards a negotiated settlement in Yemen. The dire humanitarian situation is a direct result of the armed conflict, including the systematic obstruction of humanitarian aid, and requires a political solution. Ongoing humanitarian restrictions and the prior destruction of medical facilities present grave challenges as Yemen tackles the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.
All parties to the conflict 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 against Houthi leaders and some supporters of Saleh and demanded the Houthis withdraw from all areas they had militarily seized. 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 2019 the UNSC established the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement.
On 29 September 2017 the HRC requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish the GEE on Yemen. The government has repeatedly refused entry to the Group.
On 25 October 2019 the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on all European Union member states to halt weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. The US Congress made four attempts during 2019 to end US military support for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, however President Donald Trump vetoed these measures. On 20 June the Court of Appeal in London ruled that the UK government had failed to adequately assess the actions of the Saudi/UAE-led military coalition prior to issuing licenses for arms exports to Saudi Arabia. The UK has suspended arms sales until an appropriate assessment is conducted.
On 12 February complaints were filed under universal jurisdiction in the UK, US and Turkey to indict senior UAE officials on charges of war crimes and torture. The Saudi/UAE-led coalition also commenced unprecedented court martial proceedings in February in relation to airstrikes that killed civilians in Yemen.
All parties to the conflict should fully implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement and extend the Hodeidah ceasefire to other areas, particularly Al-Dhale, Al-Jawf, Marib, Sa’ada, Sana’a and Taizz governorates. 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. Accountability must be prioritized as the warring parties negotiate a potential resolution of the conflict.
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