Yemen

1 December 2021
Risk Level: Current Crisis
18,500+ civilians killed or maimed by coalition airstrikes since March 2015

War crimes and crimes against humanity 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.

BACKGROUND:

For over six years civilians in Yemen have suffered from ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Fighting between Houthi rebels, 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 thousands of civilians since March 2015. More than 18,500 civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of coalition airstrikes alone, including over 2,300 children. 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 49 active frontlines across the country. More than 1,500 civilians have been killed or maimed during 2021. Hostilities in Taizz, Al Bayda, Haj jah, Aden and Sa’adah have increased. In mid-November hostilities escalated in Hodeidah when forces loyal to the government withdrew and Houthi forces took over, significantly shifting frontlines and causing mass displacement. Since the Houthis launched an offensive in Marib during February, indiscriminate missile and artillery fire has regularly hit markets, displacement camps, residential areas and other civilian objects in and around Marib City, causing dozens of civilian deaths. At least 24,000 people have been displaced in the region by fighting. Hundreds of coalition airstrikes, missile strikes and fierce ground fighting have also occurred across the governorate, particularly in Al-Jubah and Sirwah districts, as well as into Shabwah governorate.

In the south of Yemen, particularly in Shabwah governorate, the government has reportedly perpetrated dozens of targeted assassinations and hundreds of arbitrary detentions of Yemeni citizens they suspect of having collaborated with the Shabwani Elite Forces, a UAE-backed militia. The STC has utilized disproportionate force against people protesting the deteriorating living conditions in the south.

From 2018-2021, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen documented a pattern of 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 has alleged that Canada, France, Iran, the United Kingdom 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 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 has also warned of ongoing arrests of humanitarian workers in Houthi-controlled areas in the north.

More than 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance and 13.5 million are facing acute food insecurity. The GEE and civil society organizations have 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 by the Houthis.

ANALYSIS:

All parties to the conflict have perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and targeted civilian objects, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The protracted conflict is characterized by fragmenting coalitions and a multitude of fronts, as well as a pervasive climate of impunity that has fueled lawlessness and resulted in extensive civilian harm.

Attempted negotiations between parties to the conflict have been unsuccessful. Although parties signed the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, which established a ceasefire for Hodeidah governorate, escalating violence in Hodeidah, Marib and other governorates puts hundreds of thousands of civilians and internally displaced persons at risk.

The dire humanitarian situation is a direct result of the armed conflict and requires a political solution complemented by effective accountability and justice mechanisms. 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.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:

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. On 14 July 2021 the UNSC renewed the mandate of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement.

On 25 October 2019 the European Parliament called on all European Union (EU) member states to halt weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. On 4 February 2021 the US government announced an end to its support for Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen. However, arms transfers to the UAE continue.

On 11 February 2021 the European Parliament passed a landmark resolution urging EU member states to use all available tools to hold accountable perpetrators of violations of international law in Yemen, including through universal jurisdiction.

Following extensive high-level pressure from Saudi Arabia, on 7 October the HRC failed to renew the mandate of the GEE, terminating the only international independent mechanism dedicated to monitoring international law violations in Yemen.

NECESSARY ACTION:

All parties to the conflict should fully implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement and extend the Hodeidah ceasefire to all conflict-affected areas. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, should broaden negotiations to include all relevant parties to the conflict 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.

The distinction between military and civilian targets is central to International Humanitarian Law (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 HRC should reinstate the mandate of the GEE during its March 2022 session. The UN General Assembly should consider the establishment of a criminal justice-focused mechanism to advance accountability.

The UNSC should adopt a new substantive resolution on Yemen that better addresses the wide-ranging violations and abuses endured by Yemenis. The UNSC should also adopt targeted sanctions against all those responsible for potential atrocities and the deliberate obstruction of vital humanitarian assistance, as well as refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court.

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