Saudi-UAE Coalition “Absolves” Itself of War Crimes Against Yemen’s Children

Thousands of Yemenis gathered on Monday, August 13, for the funeral of dozens of children killed in last week’s airstrike by the Saudi-UAE coalition that torched a school bus in Saada, in the north of Yemen.

The airstrike killed 51 civilians, of whom 40 were children, and wounded a further 79, according to a press statement by Taha al-Mutawakil, the health minister of the Houthi government. This was confirmed later by The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Thursday, August 9.

In a speech delivered during the funeral organized by the Houthis, the head of Yemen’s Revolutionary Committee, Mohammad Ali Al-Houthi, said he holds “the American regime responsible for this crime and all the crimes committed against the Yemeni people.”

Al-Masirah, the TV channel of the Houthis, broadcast a video of the Yemeni children, reporting that the video had belonged to one of the victims of the airstrike. The video shows children getting onto the bus and a father saying goodbye to his child a few meters away from the bus. The children then recite verses from the Koran before visiting a cemetery described by the reporter as the resting place of the children’s “martyrs”, or relatives.

The Washington Post quoted the executive director of the Red Crescent office in Saada, Hassan Muwlef, who witnessed the gruesome aftermath of the strike on Thursday: “Body parts were scattered all over the area, and the sounds of moaning and crying were everywhere . . . . The school bus was totally burned and destroyed.” Such scenes have triggered anger and anti-war reactions from international humanitarian organizations.

While the United Nations has not yet confirmed whether it will issue an order to investigate the attack, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has condemned it, and called for “a prompt, effective and transparent investigation.” The U.S. State Department also urged the coalition to “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation.”

On Friday, August 10, the coalition announced the start of an investigation into the attack and into a number of other operations that have allegedly targeted civilians. However, two days later, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team set up by Saudi Arabia cleared the coalition of culpability for those crimes. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Joint Incidents Assessment Team has not carried out “credible investigations,” nor has it published comprehensive reports. It also has not handed over detailed information on its methodology, “including how to determine which strikes are being investigated.”

The coalition has acknowledged its responsibility for some violations claiming that they were “unintended mistakes,” but in its “defense” it continued to accuse Houthis of using civilians as human shields.

In a letter sent to Guterres, Saudi Arabia reiterated that the targeting of the school bus was a “legitimate military action,” and that it “targeted the Houthi leaders who were responsible for the recruitment and training of young children,” Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported on Saturday, August 11.

A researcher on Yemen and UAE, Kristine Beckerle, criticized the U.N. for being too lenient on Saudi Arabia and for excluding it from the U.N. “list of shame” which documents violations against children in wartime. She said that “the U.N. Secretary-General’s report suggests, once again, that states with money and power can skirt UN scrutiny, regardless of how egregious their abuses.”

In September 2017, European countries called for an independent commission, similar to the one in Syria, to document the crimes committed over the course of the three-year-old conflict between the government of president Hadi, backed by the Saudi-UAE coalition, and the Houthi rebels. Canada and the Netherlands suggested a draft resolution to encourage the Yemeni authorities to work with the United Nations in order to establish a Joint Commission for Inquiry.

Saudi Arabia has resisted all calls to form a commission to investigate the crimes committed against civilians in Yemen. It has warned countries in favor of the resolution that their support for this resolution could “negatively affect” trade and diplomatic ties with the oil-rich kingdom. A written letter from Saudi Arabia seen by the news agency AFP stated: “Adopting The Netherlands/Canadian draft resolution in the Human Rights Council may negatively affect the bilateral political economic relations with Saudi Arabia.”

The trade threat against countries that supported the UN investigation of alleged war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen were described by HRW as “disgraceful.” The U.K. government succumbed to those economic threats and decided to withdraw its support for the resolution. The International Business Times quoted the U.K.’s Middle East Minister as saying: “The UK government is set to turn its back on a United Nations investigation into human rights abuses committed in Yemen after Saudi Arabia threatened allies with economic retaliation.”

The coalition has been conducting military operations since late March 2015 against the Houthis in Yemen, claiming that they were aimed at restoring the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the internationally recognized Yemeni president.

More than 10,000 have been killed over the course of the war in Yemen. The U.N. considers it to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at present. Human rights groups and international reports accuse the conflicting parties of violations against civilians, especially the recruitment of children under 18 into combat.

Thousands of Yemeni civilians are suffering not only from indiscriminate airstrikes but also from food insecurity, a cholera epidemic, and lack of clean drinking water and medicine. “11 million children in Yemen . . . need help,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore in a press release. Failure to achieve peace will prevent assistance from reaching those children.