Despite a significant decrease in hostilities, populations in Yemen remain at imminent risk of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Since 2015, 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.
The UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on Yemen has reported that since 2015 arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and torture of detainees have been conducted by all parties to the conflict. From 2018-2021 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen also 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 as well as attacks on essential civilian infrastructure including water reservoirs and hospitals. The GEE alleged that Canada, France, Iran, the United Kingdom and 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.
In October 2021, following heavy diplomatic and political pressure from Saudi Arabia, the HRC failed to renew the mandate of the GEE, terminating the only international independent mechanism dedicated to monitoring international law violations in Yemen. The abrupt termination of the GEE was followed by a dramatic escalation in armed hostilities and indiscriminate bombing, with the Saudi/UAE-led coalition carrying out over 200 air raids per month between October and April 2022. Over 2,050 civilians were killed or injured during this period, including over 471 as a result of coalition airstrikes.
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 until it expired on 2 October. The six-month truce – 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. Although there was a significant decrease in civilian casualties during the truce, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project recorded 2,208 incidents of shelling, artillery and missile attacks, 374 air and drone strikes and 369 armed clashes resulting in over 938 civilian casualties. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recorded approximately 1,205 incidents of interference with humanitarian access, including violence against aid workers. Civilians were also still widely subjected to violations and abuses of human rights, including enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence.
The UN has 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 UNSC-mandated Panel of Experts reported in January 2022 that over 2,000 children recruited by the Houthis have died in combat since 2020. In April 2022 the Houthis signed an Action Plan with the UN to commit to end and prevent grave violations against children.
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. There have been several unsuccessful attempts at ceasefires and truces since the start of the conflict.
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.
Although there has not been a significant escalation in hostilities and no airstrikes have occurred since the truce expired, over 1,464 civilians have been killed or injured since October 2022 as occasional clashes continue across several governorates, including Al Jawf, Shabwah, Marib, Hodeidah, Sa’dah and Ta‘izz. Ongoing patterns of violations against minority communities, including followers of the Baha’i faith, demonstrate targeted persecution of religious minorities by Houthi security forces.
Saudi officials and Houthi leadership are currently engaging in negotiations, brokered by Oman and in parallel to the efforts brokered by UN Special Envoy Grundberg. In a step toward reaching a negotiated settlement, 887 conflict-related detainees were released by the Houthis and Saudi/UAE-led coalition from 14-16 April 2023. In July over 60 Yemeni civil society organizations released the Yemen Declaration for Justice and Reconciliation, in which they set forth their common vision for achieving justice and reconciliation in post-conflict Yemen.
While the reduction of hostilities provides tangible relief to civilians, 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. Ongoing political negotiations aimed at a more permanent truce currently lack representation from many parties to the conflict, as well as minority groups and women who have been disproportionately affected by the violence. The lack of inclusive dialogue limits the capacity of these groups to advocate for their protection and risks entrenching violations and abuses.
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 a country-wide truce, as well as make every effort to reach a negotiated end to the protracted conflict. Any political negotiations should 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. All key stakeholders, including the international community, must take urgent steps to implement the Yemen Declaration for Justice and Reconciliation.
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. The UNSC should refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court.