Monday, 26 March, marked three years since the escalation of the armed conflict in Yemen, where violence between Houthi rebels, members of the General People’s Congress (GPC) and various pro-government forces, backed by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led military coalition, has created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
The UN has estimated that at least 5,974 civilians have been killed over the past three years due to indiscriminate airstrikes, shelling and ongoing fighting, although accurate reporting is almost impossible and the actual death toll is considered to be much higher. All parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate indiscriminate attacks on civilians and target civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. These violations amount to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
As a direct result of the conflict, at least 22.2 million Yemenis are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. At least 8.4 million people in Yemen are at risk of famine.
The conflict has also become increasingly complex and fractured. Following a breakdown of the military alliance between GPC forces and the Houthis, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed on 4 December. During January fighting erupted in Aden between the Yemeni government’s Southern Transitional Council and separatists closely aligned with the UAE. Houthi forces have also indiscriminately fired missiles into Saudi Arabia, including seven ballistic missiles this past Sunday, 25 March, resulting in the death of a civilian in Riyadh.
Despite the 15 March adoption by the UN Security Council of a Presidential Statement demanding increased humanitarian access and for all parties to comply with their obligations under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the Council has not adopted a substantive and binding resolution on Yemen since April 2015.
Security Council members should support the work of the newly appointed Special Envoy on Yemen, Martin Griffiths, through the adoption of a resolution calling upon all parties to urgently reengage with formal political negotiations, without preconditions. Any Security Council resolution must also reaffirm that those responsible for potential mass atrocity crimes in Yemen must be brought to justice.
In addition to supporting existing sanctions directed at members of the Houthi forces, all UN member states should immediately halt the sale of weapons to parties to the conflict who violate IHL, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Since 24 March the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO) have publicly accused each other of violating the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) signed in December 2017. Throughout the past two weeks fighting has erupted in the towns of Nasir, Latjor and Fasoda in the Greater Upper Nile, and in the region of Kajo-Keji in Central Equatoria, with both parties allegedly using heavy artillery. These clashes are occurring in the midst of ongoing preparations for the High-Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF), an attempt to reinvigorate the 2015 Peace Agreement.
The second round of the HLRF took place during February, but was suspended after a failure by the parties to reach agreement over key issues. It has been estimated that more than 50,000 people were killed during the 2013-2015 civil war, with both sides committing atrocities and targeting civilians on the basis of their ethnicity and presumed political loyalties. An estimated 4 million South Sudanese have been forced to flee their homes since December 2013. The third round of the HLRF is scheduled to start on 26 April.
On 26 March the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) Council of Ministers announced that they would take measures in response to the most recent violence, “including targeted sanctions against violators of the COHA as well as spoilers of the peace process.” They also called for an end to the house arrest of SPLM-IO leader Riek Machar.
The UN Security Council, African Union and IGAD should support the HLRF by immediately imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan and expanding targeted sanctions against all senior military officers and politicians responsible for atrocities, or of violating the cessation of hostilities.
On 22 March the Associated Press reported that the government of Iraq has detained at least 19,000 people accused of having connections to the armed extremist group, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The government has reportedly sentenced more than 3,000 of these individuals to death. Mass executions of convicted ISIL members – including the hanging of 42 prisoners on 25 September and 38 prisoners on 14 December – raise grave concerns regarding a lack of due process.
Since anti-ISIL military operations came to an end in November 2017, there have been reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and other reprisals against suspected ISIL members and their families by members of Iraqi and Kurdish government forces.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly called for accelerated death sentences for ISIL prisoners charged with terrorism. However, many of the crimes committed by ISIL members following their 2014 declaration of a “caliphate” spanning Syria and Iraq are not just terrorist offenses, but may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes under international law. ISIL fighters have also perpetrated a potential genocide against the minority Yazidi population in Ninevah province.
During September 2017 the UN Security Council established an Investigative Team to support domestic accountability efforts in Iraq by collecting evidence regarding potential ISIL atrocities. UN member states should continue to support the Investigative Team by providing financial and technical assistance. The government of Iraq should also adopt enabling legislation to incorporate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity into domestic law.
In order to end the cycle of armed conflict in Iraq, the government must take active steps to facilitate reconciliation between the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish populations, especially in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for 12 May. The government should investigate and prosecute all perpetrators of mass atrocity crimes in Iraq, ensuring that justice is not denied to any victims.
In the long-term interests of countering violent extremism, however, it is also essential that all trials of suspected ISIL members be conducted in a manner that strengthens justice, due process and the rule of law in Iraq.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA