The war in Yemen, especially since the commencement of the intervention by the Saudi and UAE-Led Coalition, has been marked by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The Coalition has used airstrikes on a massive scale. Houthi forces have routinely shelled urban areas, both in Yemen and across the border in Saudi Arabia. The conflict has also seen the common use of artillery rockets, mortars, rocketpropelled grenades and, increasingly, many types of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The use of explosive weapons in Yemen has a gendered impact, affecting men and women differently, and serious consequences for all civilians. Restrictions on delivery of food, fuel and medicines by sea and air have also contributed very significantly to civilian harm in the conflict, and continue to do so. This paper focuses on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas as this causes a huge proportion of the damage to infrastructure and services such as transport, power, water distribution, education and food supply, as well as causing the majority of displacements of Yemeni people. Controlling the supply and use of these weapons is the best way to prevent further human suffering in Yemen.
In considering the transfer of explosive weapons, some States are obliged by the Arms Trade Treaty to consider the risk of violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and all States have a legal obligation not to facilitate breaches of IHL. Direct attacks on civilians are war crimes. Indiscriminate attacks – where there is no effort to distinguish between civilians and military targets, or where such distinction is impossible because of the indiscriminate nature of the weapons being used, the size of the explosive yield or the proximity of civilians to military targets – can amount to a violation of international law. Under the Arms Trade Treaty, States must also consider the risk of gender-based violence (GBV). This requires a risk assessment that goes beyond violations of International Humanitarian Law and considers potential uses of explosive weapons which may not constitute illegal attacks, but which do constitute or result in serious incidents of GBV. The widespread use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas of Yemen, even when targeted against military objectives, has contributed to high levels of civilian death and injury, and damage to civilian infrastructure and services including housing, schools, hospitals and medical facilities. In most cases this will be disproportionate to the military advantage achieved, and has contributed to a pattern of harm that has seen the conflict become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
All of this runs directly counter to the principle of the Protection of Civilians in conflict, which goes beyond not committing war crimes or other violations of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law to require positive action to ensure that all feasible precautions are taken to avoid and minimize civilian harm in the conduct of military operations. In Yemen, this principle is not adhered to.
• Combatants should avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
• Governments should support the development of an international political declaration to clarify International Humanitarian Law and reduce the use of explosive weapons.
• Arms suppliers must assess the risk of GBV and violence against women and children, including in combat, as per Arms Trade Treaty obligations.
• The UN Security Council and combatant parties must develop a fully inclusive peace process, based on the model of the National Dialogue.
• All arms suppliers must ensure that civilian casualty reporting is integral to assessments of explosive weapons use, feeding into risk assessments for future weapons transfers.
• States not party to the Arms Trade Treaty must abide by their obligations under International Humanitarian Law regarding civilian harm.
• Combatant parties must keep better records of civilian casualties and harm, and make this part of a fuller investigation of potential violations of international law to enhance accountability.
• The UN and donors must provide assistance to survivors, including gender- and age-sensitive mental health and psychosocial support.