Despite a significant decrease in hostilities, populations in Yemen remain at imminent risk of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
For the past seven years civilians in Yemen have suffered from recurrent war crimes and crimes against humanity. Fighting between Houthi forces, 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 – have resulted in the death of thousands of civilians since March 2015. More than 19,200 civilians, including over 2,300 children, have been killed or maimed as a result of coalition airstrikes alone. The conflict has displaced at least 4 million people and created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with more than 23.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance and 19 million facing food insecurity.
On 2 April 2022 parties to the conflict commenced a truce brokered by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, which was renewed twice but expired on 2 October. In the months preceding the truce, armed hostilities and indiscriminate bombing had dramatically escalated. Between October 2021 and April 2022 the Saudi/UAE-led coalition perpetrated the highest rate of air raids since before the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement. Missiles and airstrikes across numerous governorates targeted and destroyed civilian objects, including water reservoirs, hospitals and telecommunications towers. Over 1,100 civilians were killed or injured between January 2022 and the start of the truce, including 471 as a result of coalition airstrikes.
This surge in civilian casualties and hostilities immediately followed the UN Human Rights Council’s failure to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on 7 October 2021, terminating the only international independent mechanism dedicated to monitoring international law violations in Yemen. From 2018-2021 the GEE documented a pattern of violations and abuses of international law perpetrated by all 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 alleged that Canada, France, Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States may be complicit in these violations due to their provision of military intelligence, arms and logistical support to some parties to the conflict. The abrupt termination of the GEE followed heavy diplomatic and political pressure from Saudi Arabia.
The UN has also recorded evidence of parties to the conflict perpetrating grave violations against children, including recruitment and use of children in armed hostilities, killing and maiming of children and attacks on schools. The UN recorded 2,748 grave violations affecting over 800 children in Yemen in 2021, consistent with patterns of violations from previous years. In April 2022 the Houthis signed an Action Plan with the UN to commit to end and prevent grave violations against children.
The UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on Yemen has also reported that since 2015 arbitrary arrests and detention, 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 reported in January 2022 that over 2,000 children recruited by the Houthis have died in combat since 2020. The UNSC imposed financial sanctions and travel bans on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi leaders for the first time in November 2014. On 14 April 2015 the UNSC established an arms embargo on Houthi leaders and individuals acting on their behalf or under their direction. On 28 February 2022 the UNSC altered the arms embargo to include the Houthis as an entity subject to the embargo measures.
The crisis in Yemen has been ongoing for over 20 years, but dramatically escalated during 2014 when, amidst a UN-facilitated political transition process, Houthi forces and military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh took control of numerous governorates in Yemen, including the capital Sana’a, and forced then President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government to resign. On 26 March 2015 the Saudi/UAE-led coalition launched a military intervention in Yemen to restore the internationally recognized government of President Hadi, who had fled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but rescinded his resignation in September 2015 and returned to Aden. There have been several unsuccessful attempts at ceasefires and truces since the start of the conflict. The only successful negotiated settlement throughout the crisis is the Stockholm Agreement, which ended a period of rampant atrocities and staggering civilian casualties in and around Hodeidah governorate following an offensive led by the Yemeni government and the Saudi/UAE-led coalition.
The six-month truce from April to October 2022 – the first negotiated country-wide ceasefire since 2016 – included a cessation of all attacks, the entry of fuel ships in Hodeidah ports and the operation of commercial flights in and out of Sana’a airport. During the ceasefire, civilian casualties significantly decreased and no coalition airstrikes were recorded, though some ground and artillery attacks continued. Despite the truce, civilians were still subjected to violations and abuses of human rights, including enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence.
At the time of publication there has not been a significant escalation in hostilities and airstrikes since the truce expired, however, hundreds of civilians have still been killed or injured since October.
While the reduction of hostilities provides tangible relief to civilians in Yemen, large-scale atrocity risks remain until a permanent truce and inclusive negotiated peace settlement are reached and extensive justice and accountability efforts, including reparations to victims, are advanced. Previous ceasefires and attempted negotiations between parties to the conflict have been unsuccessful.
All parties to the conflict have perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and targeted civilian objects, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The protracted crisis in Yemen has been exacerbated by pervasive impunity that has fueled lawlessness and resulted in extensive civilian harm. There is currently no international independent body paving the way toward justice and accountability in Yemen. The dire humanitarian situation is a direct result of the armed conflict and likely atrocity crimes perpetrated by warring parties.
All parties to the conflict should fully recommit to the terms of the UN-brokered country-wide truce, as well as make every effort to implement the terms of an expanded truce proposal and reach a negotiated end to the protracted conflict. UN Special Envoy Grundberg should broaden the negotiations to include all relevant parties to the conflict and other key groups in Yemen, as well as ensure that accountability and justice feature prominently in the peace process.
The government of Yemen should allow access to 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. All parties to the conflict – with assistance from the international community – must ensure the provision of reparations to all victims of international crimes. UN member states should urgently work to establish a new criminal justice-focused mechanism to advance accountability and reparations for perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UNSC should refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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