Grave Abuses Continue Since Council Considered Yemen Last September
Years of Impunity Endangering Civilians, Normalizing War Crimes
(Sana’a, September 29, 2020)
The overwhelming cloud of impunity surrounding the Yemen conflict endangers civilians, normalizes war crimes and ultimately facilitates warring party abuse, Mwatana for Human Rights said today. The Human Rights Council should heed calls to pave the way towards credible accountability and redress for Yemen, including by renewing and strengthening the mandate of the UN Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) during the ongoing 45th session.
From September 2019, when the UN Human Rights Council last considered Yemen, and the beginning of the Council’s current session, Mwatana for Human Rights documented the warring parties killing and wounding civilians, recruiting and using children, attacking and occupying schools and health facilities, arbitrarily detaining and forcibly disappearing hundreds, restricting aid, persecuting religious minorities, and strangling the limited amount of civic space left in the country.
“Impunity has helped the warring parties abuse Yemen’s people and push the country further into the humanitarian abyss,” Radhya Al-Mutawakel, Chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, said. “Six years into this unnecessary war, we need states to take practical and resolute steps to advance the cause of accountability, including renewing and strengthening the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts.”
In its third report, released this month, “Yemen: A Pandemic of Impunity in a Tortured Land,” the GEE concluded that parties to the conflict continued to commit serious international humanitarian law violations, grave human rights abuses, and acts likely amounting to international crimes. The UN experts said that the international community “can and should” do more to “help bridge the acute accountability gap” in Yemen. The experts offered a series of concrete recommendations to the warring parties, to states, and to UN bodies, including the Security Council and the Human Rights Council.
“Leaders of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, Ansar Allah, Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadiforces and other groups wage war as though atrocities can be committed without consequence,” Al-Mutawakel added. “The UN experts’ accountability recommendations moved the conversation beyond what’s convenient for the warring parties and their backers and towards what’s needed to give Yemen any shot at sustainable peace.”
Given political dynamics at the Security Council, the Human Rights Council holds tremendous responsibility on questions related to Yemen, accountability and redress. The Council has the opportunity to begin paving the way towards justice this session, Mwatana said.
Mwatana urged the Council to endorse the GEE’s report, including its findings on accountability. The Council should renew and strengthen the GEE’s mandate, including to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence related to, and clarify responsibility for, the most serious crimes under international law and violations of international law committed in Yemen since 2014. The Council should also task the GEE with issuing a report advising states on practical steps to help ensure justice and redress. More broadly, states, including those on the Council, should immediately begin pursuing concrete steps to advance a holistic and credible accountability and redress strategy for Yemen, including exploring the recommendations put forward by the expert group, Mwatana said.
“More than half a decade of conflict and the UN experts’ report was one of the first to heed the crystal clear calls coming from those most impacted by this war for credible accountability and redress, and for international solidarity in that pursuit,” Kristine Beckerle, Legal Director, Accountability and Redress at Mwatana, said. “The question of whether to pursue justice is not theoretical for Yemenis, it will determine decades of what’s possible in their state. It’s long past time that states stopped shrugging as war crimes are committed and began standing instead with those working towards a rights-respecting Yemen.”
An Avoidable Tragedy
Yemen has a long and recent history with the costs of impunity. On September 21, 2014, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group took control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa by force, with the support of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The conflict escalated with the military intervention of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition on March 26, 2015. Since that time, fighting has continued, with each new round of violence increasing the suffering of civilians.
Mwatana has documented the harm done to civilians, their property and critical civilian infrastructure since the war began. Mwatana’s staff has interviewed thousands of witnesses, survivors, and families of victims, in addition to health, education and humanitarian workers, and collected other forms of evidence, including photos and videos from attack sites, including weapon remnants.
Between September 1, 2019 and August 31, 2020 alone, Mwatana conducted at least 1,304 interviews in Yemen.
Since the Human Rights Council last took up the rights crisis in Yemen, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition has continued its indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes impacting civilians and civilian objects, and warring parties have continued to carry out indiscriminate ground attacks. Ansar Allah-laid landmines have taken the lives of dozens, while children continue to be recruited and used, particularly by Ansar Allah. Arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and torture are rampant. Over the last year, the warring parties, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, have gravely exacerbated Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Rather than minimizing their impact on Yemen’s already collapsed health and education systems, warring parties attacked, occupied and militarily used health and education facilities. Attacks impacting objects essential for the survival of the civilian population and repeated, blatant obstruction of humanitarian relief once again raised concerns the warring parties are using starvation as a method of warfare. Yemenis are facing a torn societal fabric, with expression, speech, peaceful protest, religious practice and movement increasingly restricted and political and other identity-based divisions weaponized by those in power.
Credible Accountability and Redress Absent
Yemen’s warring parties have shown themselves again and again to be uninterested in pursuing credible accountability or redress.
In Yemen, institutions have disintegrated. The judicial system has splintered. Courts in Yemen are at best ineffective against warring parties and, at worst, captured by those same parties. Even if the national court system were to be rehabilitated, significant reforms, likely extending over many years, would be required to align substantive and procedural rules with international standards. Significantly, some perpetrators, including key commanders and civilian leaders implicated in some of the war’s worst abuses, reside outside Yemen. While many Yemenis are implicated in violations, so too are Saudi, Emirati and other regional actors. Any credible accountability and redress processes would necessarily incorporate these and other non-Yemeni actors within their remit.
Yemen, as well as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran and other key states, have yet to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In their third report, the GEE called on the Security Council to refer the situation in Yemen to the ICC, as well as to expand the list of persons subject to Security Council sanctions. Mwatana has also called on the Security Council to refer the situation in Yemen to the ICC, to clearly state that accountability and redress are non-negotiable aspects of sustainable peace, and to work to ensure human rights are centered in the Security Council’s approach to Yemen, including inviting the GEE to regularly brief. While the gravity of the situation in Yemen clearly merits each of these steps, the likelihood is currently remote given Security Council dynamics. After the Saudi/UAE-led coalition intervened in the conflict, accountability-related language disappeared from Security Council resolutions. The US, which backs the coalition, holds a Security Council veto.
For these and other reasons, the Human Rights Council holds tremendous responsibility on questions related to Yemen, accountability and redress.
An Opportunity to Pave the Way
Since 2014, human rights organizations as well as UN entities have documented and published on a wide range of abuses. In 2017, after years of coordinated advocacy, the Human Rights Council created the GEE to investigate abuses in Yemen. Each year, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition has sought to weaken or dismantle the GEE, but civil society and a core group of committed states ensured the GEE’s work continued. Much of the information already collected indicates that officials on all sides of the conflict are implicated in a host of potential international crimes, ranging from war crimes to torture to starvation.
In their third report, the GEE said the international community “can and should” do more to “help bridge the acute accountability gap” in Yemen. The GEE supported the establishment of an investigative body, similar to the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria. In addition to an ICC referral, the GEE encouraged third countries to collaborate and undertake universal jurisdiction prosecutions where appropriate. In the longer term, the Group encouraged “further dialogue about the creation of a special tribunal such as a ‘hybrid tribunal’ to prosecute cases of those most responsible.” The GEE also reiterated the importance of victims’ right to a remedy, including reparations, and called for human rights to be “at the heart of any future peace negotiations,” including that “no steps are taken that would undermine respect for human rights and accountability, such as granting blanket amnesties.”
The Council should endorse the GEE’s report, immediately begin pursuing concrete steps to advance a holistic and credible accountability and redress agenda for Yemen, and renew and strengthen the GEE’s mandate this session.
September 2019 to this Council Session: Grave Civilian Harm Continues
Since 2015, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition has continued to carry out indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes, killing and wounding civilians and damaging and destroying civilian objects, including objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. In many cases, these attacks have been carried out using Western weaponry. In their third report, the GEE reiterated concerns that states supplying arms to parties to the conflict may be violating their obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty, and that this support may amount to aiding and assisting internationally wrongful acts.
Between September 1, 2019 and August 31, 2020, Mwatana documented about 28 airstrikes impacting civilians and civilian objects in nine Yemeni governorates. Most of these strikes were in Saada and Al-Jawf governorates. The strikes killed about 109 civilians, including 47 children and 21 women, and wounded 80 others, including 37 children and 18 women.
On the morning of Wednesday, July 15, 2020, at around 7:00 a.m., the Saudi/UAE-led coalition dropped two bombs on civilians who had gathered to celebrate a family occasion in Al-Masa`fa village, Al-Hazm District of Al-Jawf Governorate. The attack killed 12 civilians, including 7 children and two women, and wounded six others, including five children and a woman. Mwatana did not identify any military targets near the site of the attack.
The first bomb landed on the home of 30-year-old civilian Naji Marej. A tent about four meters east of the house, where women and children had been sleeping at the time of the attack, was destroyed. The house’s eastern façade and the living room’s southern side and roof were also destroyed. Naji Marei, who survived, said, “We were celebrating the circumcision of my nephew. The next morning, the crime took place. There is no justification for them bombing our children and women! I wished for death a thousand times after witnessing this heinous crime that happened to my family.”
About three minutes after the first bomb, the second landed on the home of 45-year-old civilian Hamad Hassan Marei. His home, about 100 meters north of the first home and fortunately empty at the time of the strike, was completely destroyed. A 23-year-old family member said, “I woke up with the sound of the explosion and immediately went out of the house to see the source of that sound. I saw smoke and dust covering the village coming up from the direction of my relative Naji’s house. I ran quickly, fearing for my mother, who was there with all the family members and relatives. When I arrived, I saw dead bodies and body parts. I screamed at the top of my voice, ‘Where is my mother?’ I found her… but in pieces.
About a month after the strike on the family gathering in Al-Jawf, the coalition again carried out an attack that killed and wounded civilians in the governorate. On Thursday, August 6, 2020, at about 9:30 a.m., a coalition airstrike, apparently involving at least six bombs, hit three cars on the road linking Khub Washa`f district and Burat al-Anan district. Eight children were killed in the attack, and fifteen civilians wounded, including seven children and four women.
According to survivors, several families from the Al-Maatara tribe were driving in the three vehicles on an Eid holiday to visit their relatives. Survivors said paramedics were delayed by nearly three hours due to an interruption of the telecommunications network. Mwatana did not identify any potential military targets in the area, which is remote and far away from population centers. For six years, people in Al-Jawf have relied on remote roads, as main roads have been closed by warring parties and laden with landmines.
Since the outbreak of the armed conflict, the warring parties have continued to launch indiscriminate ground attacks, using imprecise weapons with wide-area effects, and killing and wounding civilians and damaging and destroying civilian objects. Many of the attacks have hit residential neighborhoods and crowded markets.
Between September 2019 and August 2020, Mwatana documented at least 78 ground attacks that killed at least 84 civilians, including 25 children and 24 women, and wounded at least 198 civilians, including 55 children and 42 women. The documented attacks happened in 12 Yemeni governorates, but were concentrated in Hodeidah, Taizz and Saada. The Ansar Allah (Houthi) group carried out 47 of these attacks, Saudi/UAE-led coalition forces and allied armed groups carried out 23, and forces affiliated with the Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi carried out eight.
On Sunday, April 5, 2020, at around 4:30 pm, at least five shells landed on the Central Prison complex and the surrounding area in al-Dhabab area in Saber Al-Mawadim district of Taizz governorate, killing five female prisoners, two little girls, and a policewoman, and wounding nine civilians, including six women and two little girls. According to witnesses, the shells came from the area north of the prison complex, where a group of Ansar Allah (Houthi) fighters were stationed about three kilometers away. Two shells landed on the Correctional Facility in the complex’s southern side, another landed on the eastern side of the prison, and two shells landed on the road leading to the Correctional Facility.
A 31-year-old female prisoner said, “During the explosions, when the dust and smoke began to diminish, I saw the prison had turned into a pool of blood and body parts. Everyone in the prison were screaming and running. As we are prisoners, all doors were closed. We had no safe resort to run to. Death surrounded us from every direction, inside and outside the prison. No glimmer of hope was left for us.”
Mwatana’s statement on the incident, released on April 16, 2020, contains more details.
On Sunday, June 14, 2020, at around 3:00 pm, a projectile landed next to a home in al-Koura in Nissab district of Shabwah governorate, wounding four civilians, including three children. According to witnesses, the projectile came from the east, where Hadi-affiliated forces were stationed during clashes with the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council and tribal groups. The clashes took place against the background of killing a young man from the tribes, who also belonged to the Shabwani elite backed by the UAE, by the Special Security Forces of Hadi forces.
In November and December 2019, the Saudi Border Guards launched three ground attacks on Al-Raqou market in Manbeh district of Saada governorate. Mwatana has verified the death of 11 people, including five Ethiopians and a child, and wounded 35, including 29 Ethiopians and five children, during those ground attacks. Al-Raqou market, which is near the Saudi-Yemen border, is considered a gathering point for those transiting between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, particularly Ethiopians. Refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers have faced significant danger and abuse during their journey.
Between September 2019 and August 2020, Mwatana documented at least 37 cases of mine explosions, all of which were laid by the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group, in eight Yemeni governorates: Taizz, Al-Dhale’e, Hodeidah, Al-Jawf, Ma’rib, Sanaa, Shabwah, and Hajjah. The mines killed at least 17 civilians, including nine children and two women, and wounded at least 50 civilians, including 25 children and 11 women.
On Wednesday, January 8, 2020, at around 3:30 pm, a child, who was grazing sheep in Al-Ribi village in Qa’atabah district of Al-Dhale’e governorate, was wounded when a landmine exploded. His right leg had to be amputated. According to witnesses, the exploded mine was one of dozens that Ansar Allah laid in the area after they took control of it in early May 2019 and before their withdrawal on October 8, 2019.
Recruitment and Use of Children
Between September 2019 and August 2020, Mwatana documented at least 201 incidents of recruitment and use of children. The incidents involved 349 children, including five girls. The Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group was responsible for the largest percentage of these incidents, 76%, with cases concentrated in Hajjah, Saada, and Dhamar governorates. Hadi forces were responsible for 13% of the incidents, and the coalition and affiliated armed groups forces for 11%.
Arbitrary Detention, Enforced Disappearance and Torture
Between September 2019 and August 2020, Mwatana documented 105 cases of arbitrary detention, 98 cases of enforced disappearance, and three cases of torture by the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group. In one case in Hodeida, a person died in detention after mistreatment.
During the same period, Mwatana documented 75 cases of arbitrary detention, 32 cases of enforced disappearance, and one case of torture by forces affiliated with President Hadi. One person detained in Taizz governorate died in detention.
The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council was responsible for 45 documented cases of arbitrary detention, 56 cases of enforced disappearance, and 16 cases of torture. Two people in Abyan and Lahj died in detention after mistreatment. Mwatana also documented the UAE-backed Joint Forces arbitrarily detaining two people in Hodeidah governorate.
In August, Mwatana released “In the Darkness,” a report examining arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and torture by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, particularly in unofficial detention sites across the country, between May 2016 and April 2020.
Attacks on Schools
For more than six years, warring parties have militarily occupied, used and attacked schools in Yemen. Many schools have been damaged, destroyed and forced to shut down. The education system has crumbled.
Between September 2019 and August 2020, Mwatana documented 55 attacks on or impacting schools and educational facilities, including 45 cases of military occupation and use of schools, three ground attacks, one airstrike and seven other cases of teachers being assaulted or schools being stormed and looted. The Ansar Allah (Houthi) group was responsible for 44 of these cases, Hadi forces for eight, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council for two, and the coalition one.
In a recently published report, “Undermining Future,” Mwatana documented dozens of attacks impacting schools and educational facilities, including military occupation and use of schools, airstrikes and ground attacks, between 2015 and 2019.
Attacks on Health
Between September 2019 and August 2020, Mwatana verified 22 attacks impacting health facilities and personnel. Most of these attacks included armed fighters storming medical facilities or threatening and assaulting medical personnel, in addition to ground attacks impacting facilities. Hadi forces were responsible for 13 of the documented attacks and Ansar Allah for eight. In one, Mwatana was unable to determine the responsible party.
Earlier this year, Mwatana and Physicians for Human Rights released a detailed report on attacks on health in Yemen, entitled “I ripped the IV out of my arm and started running.” The report looks at 120 attacks on and impacting medical facilities and health workers in Yemen between 2015 and 2018, most of which were in Taizz and Saada governorates.
Freedom of Faith
The Ansar Allah (Houthi) group continued its repression of and restrictions on the Baha’i community, whose members Ansar Allah has detained, confiscated property from, subjected to unfair trials, and sentenced to death.
On Saturday, August 22, 2020, the Ansar Allah-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in Sana’a continued court hearings against 24 members of the Baha’i community, including a female child. The hearings began in secret in 2018. The lawyers, families, and even some of those subjected to the trial were not informed. The court also continued the trial of six Baha’i leaders, including Hamid Haydara, who was sentenced to death. On July 30, 2020, Ansar Allah released these six leaders and allowed them to leave the country through Sana’a airport on a UN plane. Mwatana, which has attended most of the Specialized Criminal Court hearings in Sana’a, documented at least 70 instances of abuse against the Baha’i community since the conflict began, and issued a number of statements calling on Ansar Allah to cease their patently unfair treatment of, and proceedings against, members of the Baha’i community.
Ansar Allah has also persecuted members of the Jewish community. A number of Jewish families have fled Yemen as a result of this persecution since the war began. Some continue to do so. Mwatana documented another Jewish family of seven leaving Sana’a in July 2020.
For six years, journalism has been a target of the warring parties. Journalists’ movement has been restricted and many newspapers and websites shut down. Media workers have been murdered, arbitrarily detained, disappeared, tortured, subjected to unfair trials and otherwise abused and degraded. Some journalists, fearing for their lives, left the country, while many who stayed were forced to leave media work. Yemen was 168 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index, and is considered one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.
This continues. Between September 2019 and August 2020, Mwatana documented another six incidents of abuse of journalists and media workers by the coalition, Hadi forces and Ansar Allah.
On April 11, 2020, in a particularly shocking development, the Ansar Allah-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in Sana’a sentenced four journalists to death. The other journalists on trial were sentenced to time-served, yet only one of them, Salah al-Qaedi, was actually released. Ansar Allah arbitrarily arrested the journalists in June 2015, During the past five years, they have been disappeared, tortured and otherwise mistreated. Their trial was patently unfair—including failing to inform their lawyers of the dates of hearings, and refusing to provide them copies of the case files.
Between September 2019 and August 2020, Mwatana documented at least 69 incidents of humanitarian aid obstruction. Most included obstructing access for humanitarian aid and humanitarian workers, preventing relief organizations from, or interfering with, the implementation of projects, looting aid and threatening those distributing it. The majority of these incidents occurred in Saada Governorate. The Ansar Allah (Houthi) group was responsible for 59 of them. Forces affiliated with President Hadi were responsible for five, the coalition and affiliated forces responsible for four, and UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council forces responsible for one. These repeated, blatant obstructions of humanitarian relief, in addition to attacks damaging and destroying objects essential for the survival of the civilian population, once again raised concerns the warring parties are using starvation as a method of warfare.
The vast majority of Yemenis depend on aid, particularly given the severance, then irregular payment of, civil servant salaries since 2016. Yemen is dependent on imports, and the coalition continues to control, and impose restrictions on, Yemen’s seaports, airports, and border entries. In 2020, as needs significantly increased due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a reduction in humanitarian aid, and program cuts. Mwatana continued to call on the warring parties to take immediate steps to arrest the pandemic-aggravated humanitarian spiral, including agreeing to an immediate, overdue ceasefire in response to the UN Secretary-General’s call in March.