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 almost six years civilians in Yemen have suffered from ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by parties to the conflict. Fighting between Houthi rebels, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), members of the General People’s Congress, 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 of civilians since March 2015. 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 47 active frontlines across the country. Over 2,000 civilians were killed or maimed in 2020 according to the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, with children accounting for one quarter of all civilian casualties. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, September saw the highest number of casualties, as civilian infrastructure – including markets, schools and farms – were hit by missiles and artillery. Since then, hostilities in Hodeidah, Taizz, and Sa’adah have increased, and Houthis renewed offensives in Marib and Al-Jawf governorates. At least 150,000 civilians were displaced during 2020, including over 90,000 who fled violence in Marib.
The coalition carried out more than 1,000 air raids during escalations in Sana’a, Marib and Al-Jawf governorates in the first half of 2020, reversing a downward trend observed from 2017 to 2019. Air raids killed approximately 212 civilians in 2020, bringing the total number of civilians killed or maimed as a result of coalition airstrikes to over 18,500 since 2015. During their 45-day “ceasefire” from 9 April to 23 May, the coalition carried out almost 800 airstrikes, hitting dozens of civilian targets, including a COVID-19 quarantine center in Al-Bayda. Forty-five percent of all civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes in 2020 were children.
Since its first report in 2018, the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen has consistently 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, the United Kingdom (UK) 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 UN Security Council (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 24 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance and 10 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 climate of impunity that enables ongoing crimes. Hostilities have escalated over the past year with increased coalition air raids, ground offensives and atrocity crimes, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas. The recent Houthi offensive in Marib puts 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 and other governorates not only threatens the viability of the ceasefire but also the delivery of life-saving aid to millions of vulnerable Yemenis. Humanitarian restrictions and the destruction of medical facilities present grave challenges as Yemen confronts 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 then. 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 12 February 2020 complaints were filed under the principle of universal jurisdiction in Turkey, UK and US to indict senior UAE officials on charges of war crimes and torture in relation to acts committed in Yemen.
On 4 February 2021 the US government announced an end to its support for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen.
All parties to the conflict should fully implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement and extend the Hodeidah ceasefire to all conflict-affected 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. The UNSC should refer the situation in Yemen to the ICC.