Six years since the Saudi/UAE-led coalition military campaign started in Yemen, and the conflict escalated
Sanaa – On the sixth anniversary of the start of Saudi/UAE-led coalition military operations in Yemen, Mwatana calls on all parties to the conflict to immediately stop their violations and abuses, and calls on the global community to end impunity, including by using existing international routes, or establishing them, to hold violators to account and provide reparations to victims.
Since March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led a military coalition against the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group, which took over the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, by force on September 21, 2014. In early 2021, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group escalated its attacks on Marib governorate. Escalations in fighting quickly followed in other parts of the country.
“After years of war in Yemen, instead of the conflict ending as civilians desperately need, the conflict is evolving and escalating, and the warring parties continue to grievously harm civilians,” Radhya Al-Mutawakel, Chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights. “States must make clear to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes.”
Six years after the conflict in Yemen escalated, Mwatana for Human Rights continues to document violations and abuses by all parties to the conflict, including Saudi/UAE-led coalition forces, UAE-backed armed groups, Ansar Allah (Houthi) forces, and forces of the internationally recognized government of Yemen. Since late March 2015, Mwatana has documented immense civilian harm from the Coalition air campaign, including indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes that have killed and wounded civilians, including women and children, and damaged and destroyed civilian objects. Mwatana has also documented immense civilian harm during ground fighting in Yemen, including Ansar Allah, Coalition and Yemeni government forces indiscriminately shelling densely populated civilian areas.
The conflict has cast a shadow over civilians and has had a devastating impact on vital civilian infrastructure across the country. Throughout the war, civilians have suffered displacement, fuel shortages, and the interruption of salaries and basic services. The restrictions imposed by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, the armed groups it backs, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group and the Yemeni government on humanitarian supplies and humanitarian access have increased the risk of famine, severely impacted Yemenis’ right to health, and contributed to pushing Yemen, which the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, further into humanitarian catastrophe. Uninterrupted warring party abuse continues to threaten the lives of millions of Yemenis, already grappling with widespread hunger and the spread of diseases, including COVID-19. There are growing concerns that the continuation of the conflict will lead to the collapse of what remains of the fragile structure of state institutions.
“The fact that warring party abuses have continued for so many years shows why it is so important for states to activate independent, international routes towards accountability,” Al-Mutawakel said. “The most obvious path is for the UN Security Council to refer the Yemen file to the International Criminal Court, which means the US, UK and France need to finally move from fueling the conflict by arming warring parties and move towards helping end the conflict by supporting justice efforts.”
The Saudi/UAE-led coalition has carried out hundreds of airstrikes that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians, and hit vital infrastructure, including hospitals and health centers. Mwatana has documented repeated indiscriminate and disproportionate Coalition airstrikes, many of which may amount to war crimes.
Between March 2015 and March 2021, Mwatana documented at least 577 airstrikes impacting civilians or civilian objects, which killed about 3,820 civilians, including 966 women and 405 children, and wounded about 3,000 civilians, including 764 women and 356 children. The airstrikes hit residential neighborhoods, villages, markets, bridges, schools, and service and commercial facilities.
Among Coalition airstrikes impacting civilians documented by Mwatana, Mwatana documented the use of US weapons in (25) airstrikes, UK weapons in (5) air strikes, and an Italian weapon in one airstrike.
Despite this, a number of states, such as the US, UK, and France, have continued to provide weapons and/or other forms of support to members of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. Throughout the war, these states have also impeded efforts aimed at ensuring international investigations and accountability efforts are sufficient to respond to the gravity, severity and volume of violations being committed in Yemen.
On December 11, 2019, Mwatana, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and other partners filed a petition of more than 300 pages, containing detailed investigations into 26 airstrikes that may amount to war crimes, supported by evidence collected by Mwatana. The petition called on the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate the role of corporate and political actors in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK for their potential involvement in Saudi/UAE-led coalition war crimes.
On 11 August 2019, Mwatana and the Global Legal Action Network submitted a letter and substantial body of information to the Secretary of State for International Trade in the United Kingdom, explaining the importance of an immediate suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The information included detailed witness evidence, comprehensive photographic documentation of attack sites and munition remnants. It also addressed specific patterns of coalition attacks, and the failures of the coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team.
In March 2016, Mwatana submitted a written evidence to the Arms Export Control Committee in the UK Parliament about the coalition’s use of UK-made weapons against civilian objects in Yemen.
International humanitarian law obliges warring parties to distinguish between civilian and military objectives, to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects, and to refrain from carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.
“The Biden Administration took an important step by announcing it would end some military support to the Coalition and invest in diplomatic efforts to end the war,” al-Mutawakel said, “But this doesn’t erase the last six years, and the US must commit to supporting justice for Yemen, including investigating and providing remedies for its own role in civilian harm.”
During ground fighting, Mwatana has repeatedly documented the warring parties firing artillery indiscriminately at densely populated civilian areas. Ansar Allah has repeatedly carried out shelling attacks on densely populated Yemeni areas across the country, with a particularly severe impact on Taiz. While Ansar Allah “Houthis” also carried out 10 incidents of ground shelling on the densely populated city of Marib since the escalation of violence in the governorate in 2020.
Saudi forces have shelled Yemeni cities, villages and markets near the land border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and Coalition-backed ground forces, such as UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council forces and UAE-backed Joint Forces on the Western coast, have also caried out ground attacks that killed and wounded civilians and destroyed civilian objects.
Between March 2015 to March 2021, Mwatana documented at least 418 ground attacks that killed 219 civilians, including 116 children and 39 women, and wounded at least 575 others, including 273 children and 96 women. Ansar Allah (Houthi) was responsible for 285 of ground attacks. Coalition forces and Coalition-backed armed groups were responsible for 76, respectively, while Hadi government forces were responsible for 57 of the documented ground attacks.
International humanitarian law prohibits indiscriminate attacks, including those using mortars, artillery projectiles and unguided rockets where the weapons cannot be directed at a specific military target.
Child Recruitment and Use
Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, Mwatana has documented warring parties recruiting and using children during the conflict, including using children as fighters, as well as in security and logistical roles. Between March 2015 and March 2021, Mwatana documented at least 359 incidents of children recruited and used by armed groups backed by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. During the same period, Mwatana documented 1324 incidents of child recruitment and use by the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group, and 294 incidents of child recruitment and use by the internationally recognized government.
International law sets 18 as the minimum age for participation in direct hostilities. Recruiting and using children under the age of 15 as fighters is a war crime.
Arbitrary Detention, Enforced Disappearance, and Torture
Since the war began, Mwatana has documented incidents of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture in secret or unofficial prisons run by the parties to the conflict, as well as rampant detention-related abuse across Yemen.
Between March 2015 and March 2021, Mwatana documented 449 incidents of arbitrary detention, including some cases of health workers arbitrarily detained, 233 incidents of enforced disappearance, and 137 incidents of mistreatment and torture by the Coalition and the UAE-backed forces. Mwatana also documented 342 incidents of arbitrary detention, 104 incidents of enforced disappearance, and 71 incidents of torture and mistreatment by internationally recognized government forces.
Over the same time period, Mwatana documented the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group in the governorates under its control committing 1051 incidents of arbitrary detention, 433 incidents of enforced disappearance, and 149 incidents of torture.
In October 2020, Mwatana and the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School submitted a joint letter to the UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups, stating that the Ansar Allah (Houthis) continued to arbitrarily detain nine journalists in Sana’a, and that another journalist who was disappeared in April 2015 remained missing. Mwatana and the Human Rights Clinic asked the UN to call on Ansar Allah to immediately release the detained journalists and to vacate the death sentence four of them face. Mwatana and the Clinic also call for accountability for the abuses the journalists faced in custody.
In February 2021, Mwatana and Human Rights Watch called on the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) to immediately and unconditionally release the journalist Adel al-Hasani. Al-Hasani was detained in September 2020, chained, threatened, and beat him to confess to using his work as a journalist to spy for foreign countries. Al-Hasani was released later this month.
Both international human rights law and international humanitarian law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It is not justified under any circumstances. Disappearances are also prohibited.
Blocking Humanitarian Supplies
Between March 2015 and March 2021, Mwatana documented at least 274 incidents of humanitarian obstruction by the Ansar Allah (Houthis) group, 17 incidents of humanitarian obstruction by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition and the UAE-backed armed groups. Mwatana also, and internationally recognized government forces as responsible for 19 incidents.
The Coalition’s closure of air, land and sea ports has impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid, and impacted the ability of Yemeni civilians to access food, medicine and fuel, which are essential for the survival of the civilian population. Yemen relies heavily on imported goods and commodities. The coalition has kept Sana’a international airport shut to commercial flights since 2016.
Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict must facilitate the rapid passage of humanitarian aid for civilians in need and not arbitrarily interfere with it.
Attacks on Health Facilities
Between March 2015 and March 2021, Mwatana documented repeated attacks impacting hospitals, health facilities, and medical staff. Mwatana has documented the Saudi/UAE-led coalition conducing 35 airstrikes and one ground attack on or impacting health facilities, and 9 incidents of UAE-backed forces attacking medical staff, or storming and looting health facilities. Ansar Allah (Houthi) were responsible for 88 attacks on or impacting health facilities documented by Mwatana, with IRG forces for 55 attacks.
In 2020, Mwatana and the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School submitted a joint report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which aimed to inform the Committee about patterns of violations and abuses, based on field research and supporting data, impacting Yemenis’ economic, social and cultural rights. The submission described how the warring parties have impeded the access of humanitarian aid and essential goods; attacked hospitals, food warehouses and transport, water facilities and schools; recruited children and occupied schools. The authorities have also failed to pay civil servants’ salaries, affecting Yemenis’ right to an adequate standard of living.
Mwatana for Human Rights renews its calls to the warring parties to abide by international humanitarian law, including the fundamental principles of distinction and proportionality, and to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. For yet another year in a row, Mwatana reiterates its calls on the warring parties to cease their attacks on civilians and civilian objects, including on hospitals, schools, and densely populated areas.