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.
Despite diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen, populations continue to face war crimes. Fighting between Houthi rebels, members of the General People’s Congress, 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 reportedly 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 so far during 2020. 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 (IHRL). Despite a decrease in air raids between 2017-2019, escalations in Sana’a, Marib and Al-Jawf governorates in the first half of 2020 resulted in more than 1,000 air raids by the coalition.
On 23 May a unilateral ceasefire declared by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition ended after 45 days. The ceasefire was announced following a call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a cessation of hostilities in light of the threats from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the ceasefire, the coalition carried out almost 800 airstrikes, hitting dozens of civilian targets, including a COVID-19 quarantine center in Al-Bayda. The Saudi/UAE-led coalition launched a new military offensive on 1 July conducting over 40 airstrikes, bringing the total number of civilians killed or maimed as a result of coalition airstrikes since 2015 to over 18,500.
Since August 2019 clashes have also taken place in southern Yemen between the UAE-supported STC and forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Mediation resulted in a November 2019 “Riyadh Agreement,” allowing the government to formally regain control over Aden. However, very few of the agreement’s provisions have been implemented and parties continue to perpetrate extrajudicial killings. The STC declared self-administration in the south of Yemen on 25 April and withdrew from the Riyadh Agreement at the end of August.
The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Independent Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen has documented that violations and abuses perpetrated by parties to the conflict may amount to war crimes, including indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, torture, arbitrary detention, and sexual and gender-based violence. The GEE asserts that the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), France and Iran may be complicit in these violations due to their provision of military intelligence, arms and logistical support to parties to the conflict. The UNSC-mandated Panel of Experts on Yemen reported during May that arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and the torture of detainees continue to be conducted by the government of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Houthis and forces affiliated with the UAE.
The UN Secretary-General’s report on children and armed conflict documented 1,447 children killed and maimed by Houthis during 2019 and a further 222 casualties attributable to the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. Coalition airstrikes on civilian areas in Al-Jawf governorate throughout July and August killed at least 17 children.
More than 24 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance and 2 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. Essential vaccines have also been blocked and the Panel of Experts warned in May that the arrest of humanitarian workers is increasing in Houthi-controlled areas in the north. Funding for aid operations in Yemen is reportedly on the verge of collapse and almost one-third of the UN’s major humanitarian programs in Yemen have either been shut down or drastically reduced.
All parties to the conflict have perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and targeted civilian infrastructure, amounting to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. A climate of impunity enables ongoing violations of IHL and IHRL.
The protracted conflict has been characterized by fragmenting coalitions and a multitude of fronts. Continued instability has also allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to conduct sporadic attacks on civilians.
The dire humanitarian situation is a direct result of the armed conflict, including the systematic obstruction of humanitarian aid, and requires a political solution. Humanitarian restrictions and the destruction of medical facilities present grave challenges as Yemen also tackles a COVID-19 outbreak.
All parties to the conflict 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 to oversee its implementation. On 16 January 2019 the UNSC established the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement.
On 29 September 2017 the HRC requested that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights establish the GEE. The government has repeatedly refused entry to the Group. In its September 2020 report the GEE recommended the UNSC refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court and expand the list of persons subjected 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 20 June 2019 the Court of Appeal in London ruled that the UK government had failed to adequately assess the actions of the Saudi/UAE-led military coalition prior to issuing licenses for arms exports to Saudi Arabia. The UK temporarily suspended arms sales, but concluded that there was “no clear risk” of future breaches of international law.
On 12 February complaints were filed under the principle of universal jurisdiction in courts in Turkey, the UK and the US to indict senior UAE officials on charges of war crimes and torture. The Saudi/UAE-led coalition also commenced unprecedented court martial proceedings in February in relation to airstrikes that killed civilians in Yemen.
All parties to the conflict should fully implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement and extend the Hodeidah ceasefire to other conflict-affected governorates. The government of Yemen should allow access to the GEE, as well as representatives from the UN Office of the 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.
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