Despite ongoing diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen, populations remain at risk of war crimes and are experiencing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Fighting between Houthi rebels, members of the General People’s Congress, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), and various forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government – as well as airstrikes by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led international coalition – has resulted in the deaths of more than 16,000 civilians since March 2015. The actual death toll is likely much higher. At least 3.6 million people have been displaced.
The UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on Yemen has documented widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) by all parties to the conflict. The Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Independent Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen has also documented violations and abuses that may amount to war crimes committed by parties to the conflict, including indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, use of landmines, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and impeding humanitarian access. The GEE asserts that the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), France and Iran may also be complicit in violations due to their provision of military intelligence, arms and logistical support to parties to the conflict.
During December 2018 the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, hosted the first consultations between the government and Houthi representatives since 2016. Parties to the conflict negotiated the “Stockholm Agreement,” which included a ceasefire in Hodeidah Governorate and the withdrawal of all forces from the city of Hodeidah; an exchange of prisoners; and a statement of understanding on the besieged city of Taiz. Since then, the ceasefire in Hodeidah has largely held and on 11 May the Houthis withdrew forces from Saleef, Ras Isa and Hodeidah ports. Nevertheless, there have been almost 800 civilian casualties in Hodeidah since the Stockholm Agreement was signed. Coalition airstrikes also resumed near Yemen’s Red Sea port of Ras Isa at the end of November.
Meanwhile, hostilities continue in Al-Dhale, Hajjah, Sa’ada and Taiz governorates and airstrikes by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition continue to result in the death of civilians. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, 2019 was the second-most lethal year of the conflict.
During August clashes also increased in southern Yemen between the UAE-supported STC and forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi. Mediation between the STC and the government resulted in a power-sharing agreement signed on 6 November, allowing the government to formally regain control over Aden and all armed groups in the south. However, clashes continue with reports of ongoing extrajudicial killings and summary executions in Aden.
At least 24.1 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance. A renewed cholera epidemic has resulted in more than 1 million suspected cases since January 2018. Essential vaccines have reportedly been blocked by parties to the conflict.
Between April 2013 and January 2019 the UN Secretary-General reported more than 7,500 cases of the killing and maiming of Yemeni children, almost half of which were caused by coalition airstrikes, as well as the recruitment or use of more than 3,000 children by parties to the conflict. Save the Children reported that 85,000 children under five may have died due to starvation between April 2015 and November 2018.
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 has enabled ongoing violations of IHL and IHRL.
The protracted conflict in Yemen, characterized by fragmenting coalitions and a multitude of fronts, endangers civilians throughout the country. Continued instability has also allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to exploit the situation and intensify attacks on civilians.
The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen is a direct result of the armed conflict and requires a political solution. Yemen imports 90 percent of its staple food supplies and the port city of Hodeidah serves as the entry point for 80 percent of the country’s food and fuel imports. The besieged city of Taiz is also crucial to the distribution of food imports.
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 against Houthi leaders and some supporters of Saleh and demanded the Houthis withdraw from all areas they had militarily seized. On 26 February 2019 the UNSC renewed sanctions and extended the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 28 March 2020.
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 the UNSC adopted Resolution 2452, establishing the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement.
Civilian casualties caused by airstrikes have resulted in public pressure for the US, UK and other governments to cease selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. On 25 October the European Parliament passed a resolution calling 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 in Yemen, however President Trump vetoed all of these measures.
On 20 June 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 in Yemen prior to issuing licenses for arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Following the ruling the UK suspended arms sales until an appropriate assessment is conducted.
On 26 September 2019 the HRC voted to extend the mandate of the GEE, but the government has refused entry to the Group.
All parties to the conflict should fully implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement and extend the Hodeidah ceasefire to other areas, particularly Al-Dhale, Hajjah, Sa’ada and Taiz governorates. The government of Yemen should allow access to the GEE, as well as 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.
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.