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, members of the General People’s Congress, the Southern Transitional Council, 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 believed to be much higher. At least 3.6 million people have been displaced and the conflict has created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Armed hostilities and indiscriminate bombing are ongoing throughout Yemen, resulting in over 1,000 civilian casualties in 2020. At least 150,000 civilians were also displaced during 2020, including over 90,000 who fled violence in Marib. There are currently 47 active frontlines across Yemen. 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 October hostilities in Hodeidah, Taizz, Marib and Al-Jawf governorates have all increased, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties amidst renewed indiscriminate shelling.
On 23 May a unilateral ceasefire declared by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition ended after 45 days. Despite the ceasefire, the coalition carried out almost 800 airstrikes, hitting dozens of civilian targets, including a COVID-19 quarantine center in Al-Bayda. Although the overall number of air raids decreased between 2017-2019, 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. The total number of civilians killed or maimed as a result of coalition airstrikes since 2015 is now over 18,500.
The UN Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict documented 1,447 children killed and maimed by Houthi forces during 2019 and a further 222 casualties attributable to the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. Forty-five percent of all civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes in 2020 were children.
The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-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, 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 reported during May that arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and torture of detainees continue to be conducted by the government of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Houthis and forces affiliated with the UAE. On 17 October the government and Houthis completed an exchange of 1,081 detainees and prisoners as a step towards implementing the 2018 Stockholm Agreement.
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. The Panel of Experts warned in May that arrests of humanitarian workers are also increasing in Houthi-controlled areas in the north.
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.
The dire humanitarian situation is a direct result of the armed conflict – including the deliberate starvation of civilians – 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 a COVID-19 outbreak.
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 its first substantive resolution on the conflict in over three years, endorsing the Stockholm Agreement and authorizing the deployment of a monitoring team. On 14 July 2020 the UNSC renewed the mandate of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement for one year.
The HRC mandated the GEE in September 2017. The government has repeatedly refused entry to the Group. 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.
On 25 October 2019 the European Parliament called 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 12 February 2020 complaints were filed under the principle of universal jurisdiction in courts in Turkey, UK and US to indict senior UAE officials on charges of war crimes and torture in relation to acts committed 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.