On 17 January Houthi forces from Yemen carried out a series of missile and drone attacks targeting the Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), causing at least three civilian deaths. The Saudi Arabia and UAE-led international coalition responded by launching a new campaign of airstrikes targeting Yemen’s capital Sana’a, killing at least five civilians so far. This is the latest in a series of escalations that have severely impacted civilians in Yemen. In the last week alone, shelling and airstrikes have caused dozens of civilian casualties across Shabwah, Marib, Taizz and Hodeidah governorates. Coalition airstrikes and Houthi missiles attacks have been used to target and destroy civilian objects and critical infrastructure.
Ravina Shamdasani, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that, “amid this escalation, we call on all parties to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian objects, in line with their obligations under international law… Failure to respect the principles of distinction and proportionality could amount to war crimes.”
The consequences for civilians have steadily worsened as hostilities have intensified across Yemen for months. According to the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, armed violence resulted in 956 civilian casualties from October to December 2021, an 81 percent increase compared to the previous quarter. Meanwhile, the Yemen Data Project reported that air raids by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition increased by 43 percent since October 2021, resulting in the heaviest quarter of bombing in the country since July 2018. These air raids regularly hit civilian objects, including residential areas, farms, schools, healthcare facilities and market places. In December alone, 94 civilians were killed or maimed as a result of airstrikes, marking the highest monthly figure since August 2019.
The surge in civilian casualties and hostilities coincides with the October 2021 UN Human Rights Council vote that abruptly terminated the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen, an independent body that monitored and reported on all alleged violations and abuses of international law in Yemen. From 2018-2021, the GEE documented a pattern of violations and abuses of international law perpetrated by parties to the conflict that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The vote followed heavy diplomatic and political pressure from Saudi Arabia, whose conduct was under investigation by the GEE.
After almost seven years of conflict, it is imperative that all warring parties uphold their obligations under international law. The UN General Assembly should urgently establish a new accountability mechanism for Yemen in order to help break the cycle of impunity, which has enabled parties to the conflict to continue perpetrating atrocities.
In the first 14 days of the year, at least 108 civilians have been killed due to a series of airstrikes in Ethiopia‘s northern Tigray region, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The airstrikes have allegedly been carried out by the Ethiopian air force. The deadliest attack occurred on 7 January and targeted a camp for internally displaced persons in Dedebit, northwestern Tigray, killing at least 59 civilians. Another airstrike hit the Mai Aini refugee camp near the southern Tigrayan town of Mai Tsebri on 5 January, killing three Eritrean refugees, including two children.
Following the strike on Mai Aini, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stated that, “refugees are not and should never be a target… I reiterate UNHCR’s [the UN Refugee Agency] call on all parties to the conflict to respect the rights of all civilians, including refugees. Refugee settlements must always be protected, in line with their international obligations.” Additional strikes were carried out over the last week against civilian objects, including on a vocational school.
These attacks are the latest in the ongoing conflict that began in November 2020 in Tigray and has since spread to neighboring Afar and Amhara regions. Thousands have been killed and more than 2 million people have been displaced in Tigray alone, as well as at least 840,000 in Afar and Amhara regions. All sides to the conflict have likely committed crimes that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The conflict has caused a humanitarian catastrophe to unfold across northern Ethiopia, leaving 9.4 million people in dire need of humanitarian food assistance. Despite calls for a ceasefire, clashes and airstrikes have hampered aid delivery efforts and humanitarian access in the region. Fuel trucks have not been allowed entry to Tigray for more than five months, which has compromised critical and life-saving humanitarian aid. Michael Dunford, Regional Director for Eastern Africa for the World Food Programme, warned that fighting is keeping food distributions at an “all-time low” and said that, “we’re now having to choose who goes hungry to prevent another from starving… We’re on the edge of a humanitarian disaster.”
After 14 months of deadly conflict in northern Ethiopia, the response by the international community has lacked the urgency the crisis demands. All parties to the conflict must agree to a true humanitarian ceasefire and allow the unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid, including fuel and medical supplies, throughout the conflict zone. The international community, including the UN Security Council, European Union and African Union, must also increase pressure to achieve this end. The UN must also ensure the swift staffing, funding and deployment of the UN Human Rights Council-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia to guarantee the documentation and preservation of evidence of atrocity crimes committed across conflict affected areas so that victims may one day see justice.
On 13 January a court in Koblenz, Germany convicted Anwar Raslan, a former member of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, of crimes against humanity. Anwar Raslan was convicted of the crimes against humanity of killing, torture, serious deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual assault in his capacity as head of investigations at the General Intelligence Directorate’s notorious al-Khatib detention facility in Damascus, also known as “Branch 251.” The historic trial marked the first time a high-ranking former Syrian government official has been convicted for international crimes perpetrated in Syria.
The Higher Regional Court in Koblenz began the trial on 23 April 2020 of Anwar Raslan and his co-accused, former intelligence agent and associate Eyad al-Gharib. The case was launched under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which means perpetrators of grave international crimes can be prosecuted domestically irrespective of the citizenship of the perpetrators or victims, or where the crimes were committed. In February 2021 al-Gharib was sentenced to four years and six months in prison for aiding and abetting 30 cases of crimes against humanity in Syria. This was the world’s first criminal trial addressing atrocities, specifically torture, perpetrated by the Syrian state during the country’s ongoing conflict.
The most horrific atrocities have been perpetrated in Syria for over a decade and paths towards accountability and justice have been consistently blocked. Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council has consistently been unable to refer the situation to the Court. Therefore, the convictions at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz demonstrate the critical role that national courts can play in combatting impunity while international paths to justice remain limited. Today, 19 January, the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt, Germany began hearing evidence in a new case under universal jurisdiction for alleged torture and murder by another Syrian state agent, Alaa M.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stressed that the Anwar Raslan verdict “should serve to spur forward all efforts to widen the net of accountability for all perpetrators of the unspeakable crimes that have characterised this brutal conflict… This serves as a powerful deterrent and helps prevent future atrocities.”
The brave work of countless Syrian survivors, lawyers and activists made this landmark conviction possible. However, numerous perpetrators still enjoy impunity and likely war crimes and crimes against humanity are ongoing in Syria. It is essential that additional states continue to pursue accountability for alleged perpetrators of atrocities in Syria. UN member states should support all accountability mechanisms aimed at delivering justice for the victims of atrocities in Syria, including the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria and the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria. UN member states must also work towards the establishment of an independent international mechanism to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the more than 130,000 Syrians who remain missing or disappeared.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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