Today, 13 June, a major military offensive on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah began following an intensification of fighting between Yemeni government forces – backed by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led military coalition – and Houthi fighters. Saudi and UAE-backed government forces are on the southern outskirts of the Houthi-controlled city of 600,000 people. On Monday, 11 June, it was reported that an estimated 600 people had been killed during fighting in the al-Durayhmi and Bayt al-Faqih areas. The UAE reportedly gave all humanitarian workers in Hodeidah three-days to evacuate prior to launching today’s offensive.
Yemen is currently the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with 10.4 million people at risk of famine. Hodeidah is the entry point for 70 percent of the aid upon which over 22 million Yemenis depend. The attack on Hodeidah places millions more people at risk of starvation and could violate UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 2140 and 2216, regarding obstruction of the delivery of humanitarian assistance. On Friday, 8 June, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned that a sustained battle or siege of Hodeidah could lead to the deaths of as many as 250,000 civilians.
Since 2015 all parties to the conflict in Yemen have used indiscriminate weapons in civilian populated areas and targeted civilian infrastructure, amounting to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UN estimates that at least 10,000 people have been killed since 2015, although the actual death toll is assumed to be much higher.
The new UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is expected to present a plan for political negotiations to the UNSC later this month. However, Griffiths previously warned the Council that an attack on Hodeidah could “in a single stroke, take peace off the table.” Griffiths was negotiating with the Houthis regarding the possible hand-over of Hodeidah port to a neutral third-party in order to avoid the potential destruction of crucial facilities.
The UNSC should immediately condemn the attack on Hodeidah, demand all parties uphold their obligations under International Humanitarian Law, and immediately impose sanctions on those responsible for any obstruction of vital humanitarian aid.
Governments with strong military and economic ties to parties to the conflict should immediately end all support – including the sale and transfer of weapons – to those involved in violating UNSC resolutions and international law.
Last Thursday, 7 June, the UN Security Council imposed targeted sanctions on six individuals accused of human trafficking and people smuggling in Libya. The unanimous decision marks the first time that the Council has imposed targeted sanctions on individuals for human trafficking.
The four sanctioned Libyans and two Eritreans include Ermias Ghermay, who the UN Sanctions Committee called “one of the most important sub-Saharan actors involved in the illicit trafficking of people,” and Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, the head of the Zawiya regional coast guard in Libya. Al-Milad is accused of intentionally sinking boats carrying migrants from rival human trafficking networks and of subjecting detainees to inhumane conditions.
Fueled by political instability and pervasive insecurity, human trafficking has become a multi-million dollar business in Libya as migrants and asylum seekers are smuggled into the country before attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Since the beginning of 2017 an estimated 135,000 people have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean, and over 2,700 are believed to have drowned. The African Union estimates that more than 400,000 people who were trying to reach Europe are being held at forty detention camps in Libya, where many are subject to a range of abuses, including sexual violence. A widely-seen video released in December 2017 also showed African men being sold for as little as $400 at an apparent slave auction in Libya.
Slavery and human trafficking constitute crimes against humanity under international law. The sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council are an attempt to deny human traffickers the ability to profit from their crimes.
Last Thursday, 7 June, airstrikes on a market in the town of Zardana, Idlib governorate, killed over 47 people, including nine children. Russian warplanes are suspected of being responsible for the airstrikes, but this was denied by the Russian foreign ministry. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a full investigation to establish accountability.
Despite the formal designation of Idlib governorate as a “de-escalation zone” during May 2017, the Syrian government has been carrying out a military offensive there since December. Idlib is the largest remaining opposition-held territory within Syria with a population of approximately 2.3 million people, over one million of whom are displaced. Another attack on 9 June targeted a pediatric hospital in Taftanaz, killing at least 10 people.
Despite seven years of armed conflict and a death toll of more than half a million people, mass atrocities continue in Syria. Although international attention has waned, the risk of a major offensive on densely-populated Idlib governorate is growing. During previous offensives against major opposition-held territory, Syrian government forces and their allies routinely used indiscriminate weapons, targeted medical facilities and other civilian infrastructure, and demonstrated total disregard for International Humanitarian Law.
The UN Security Council remains incapable of taking action to halt atrocities in Syria, with twelve Russian vetoes since 2011. Those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, regardless of position or affiliation, must be held accountable for their actions, including via the UN General Assembly’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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