Populations in Yemen remain at imminent risk of war crimes and crimes against humanity amidst a fragile truce.
For the past seven years 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.
On 2 April 2022 parties to the conflict commenced a truce brokered by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg. The 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. During the ceasefire, civilian casualties significantly decreased and no coalition airstrikes were recorded, though some ground and artillery attacks continued. Despite the truce, some civilians were subjected to violations and abuses of human rights, including enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence. The truce was renewed twice but expired on 2 October. At the time of publication there has not been a significant escalation in hostilities and airstrikes or increase in civilian casualties from violence since its expiration.
In the months preceding the truce, armed hostilities and indiscriminate bombing had dramatically escalated. Between October 2021 and April 2022, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition perpetrated the highest rate of air raids since before the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which ended a period of rampant atrocities and staggering civilian casualties in and around Hodeidah governorate. Missiles and airstrikes across numerous governorates targeted and destroyed civilian objects, including water reservoirs, hospitals and telecommunications towers. Over 1,100 civilians were killed or maimed between January and the start of the truce.
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 that may amount to war crimes, including indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, torture, arbitrary detention and sexual and gender-based violence. The GEE alleged that Canada, France, Iran, 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. The UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on Yemen has also reported that since 2015 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 reported in January 2022 that over 2,000 children recruited by the Houthis have died in combat since 2020.
While the continued reduction of hostilities provides tangible relief to civilians in Yemen, 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. Previous ceasefires and attempted negotiations between parties to the conflict have been unsuccessful.
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. The dire humanitarian situation is a direct result of the armed conflict.
All parties to the conflict in Yemen have been unable or unwilling to uphold their responsibility to protect and require ongoing support from the international community.
The UNSC imposed financial sanctions and travel bans on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi leaders 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. In April the Houthis signed an Action Plan with the UN to commit to end and prevent grave violations against children.
On 11 February 2021 the European Parliament passed a landmark resolution urging European Union member states to use all available tools to hold accountable perpetrators of violations of international law in Yemen, including through universal jurisdiction.
Following heavy diplomatic and political pressure from Saudi Arabia, on 7 October 2021 the HRC failed to renew the mandate of the GEE, terminating the only international independent mechanism dedicated to monitoring international law violations in Yemen. A surge in civilian casualties and hostilities followed the termination of the GEE.
All parties to the conflict should fully recommit to the terms of the UN-brokered country-wide truce, as well as make every effort to implement the terms of an expanded truce proposal and reach a negotiated end to the protracted conflict. UN Special Envoy Grundberg should broaden the negotiations to 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.
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 for perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UNSC should refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court.