The report issued by the UN on Tuesday, August 28, documents a startling array of potential war crimes and human rights violations perpetrated by both sides in the ongoing civil war in Yemen that began in March, 2015. The report is the result of pressure by numerous human rights organizations and foreign governments calling upon the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an international mechanism to investigate human rights violations.
The UN Human Rights Council authorized the commissioner to form a committee of international experts who investigated, through site visits and other means, the circumstances both on the ground in Yemen and in the air in terms of airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians over a period of 4 years from September 2014 to June 2018.
The report found evidence that all the warring parties in Yemen—both the Saudi-led coalition and sitting government forces as well as the Yemeni Houthi rebels seeking overthrow of the current government—are implicated in possible war crimes. The scathing report, the first since the beginning of the war in Yemen, criticized the warring factions and concluded: “Individuals in the Yemeni government and the coalition, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and in the de facto authorities have committed acts that may, subject to determination by an independent and competent court, amount to international crimes.”
In the three years since the start of war, all parties to the conflict have been involved in human rights violations “such as child recruitment, targeting of civilians, arbitrary detention, degrading and cruel treatment, and torture and violation of freedom of expression and belief,” according to the report.
Coalition airstrikes have been the cause of most civilian casualties through deliberately targeted attacks on “residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.”
The experts investigated “13 such incidents by interviewing victims, witnesses and other credible sources, [and] analyzing satellite imagery.” The group investigated 60 cases of “air strikes that hit residential areas, killing more than 500 civilians, including 84 women and 233 children.”
Notably, the experts cast doubt on findings from the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), formed by the coalition in 2016 to review and assess the coalition’s actions. The JIAT remains closely affiliated with the coalition and has not conducted any impartial investigations to date. For example, the JIAT supposedly investigated claims of the coalition using “military targets” as justification for their activities in civilian areas; however, there are no such targets in residential areas. In fact, JIAT was formed as an attempt to immunize the coalition against being held accountable for any possible war crimes. Saudi Arabia issued a royal pardon in July lifting any “military and disciplinary” penalties for soldiers fighting in Yemen.
The report also listed a number of bombings and attacks by mortar, artillery, and light weapons carried out by al-Houthi and the forces of the former President Saleh, especially in Taiz. Assessing civilian casualties in Taiz “require[s] further investigation,” but the team was blocked from gaining access to the city due to “security concerns.”
Yemen has been suffering the effects of war between the Houthis and pro-government forces since 2014. In March 2015, tensions escalated after the Saudi-UAE-led coalition launched an intervention in response to Houthis capturing control of Sanaa and other areas, in support of the internationally recognized government.
Some estimates say that the conflict has caused as many as 50,000 deaths. The UN report estimates that total casualties as of June 2018 were around 16,700 deaths; 6,756 of those deaths were civilians and non-combatants. The report states, however, that the actual figures are likely much higher.
The investigations into reports of sexual violence implicate the “Security Belt Forces and United Arab Emirates personnel [for] persistent and pervasive aggressive behavior. Examples include rape of men and women, and sexual violence against displaced persons, migrants and other vulnerable groups.”
The Yemeni Ministry of Human Rights expressed shock at the UN report. Discrediting the methods of the experts, a statement published by the Yemeni news agency Saba claimed that the report lacks accuracy and impartiality. The same day the report issued, the Saudi-led coalition spokesperson, Turki al-Maliki, said that the coalition is “following with interest” “all UN reports on the crisis” and that Saudi Arabia would review the report and respond to it “legally.”
UAE Foreign Minister, Anwar Gargash, responded to the UN report with a tweet: “We should review and respond to the (UN) experts’ report [that was] published today.”
“Wars bring pain. Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are evidence of this, but in the end we are responsible for our security and stability, and here is our priority.”
Focussing on the reported violations committed by the Houthis, he tweeted that this requires “special review.” He said in the tweet, “Wars bring pain. Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are evidence of this, but in the end we are responsible for our security and stability, and here is our priority.”
In mid-August, 55 local and international non-governmental organizations submitted a letter to the Permanent Representatives of Member States and Observer States to the UN Human Rights Council, requesting them to renew and strengthen the mandate of the group of eminent experts on Yemen.
The letter stated:
“[S]hould the Council fail to renew the mandate of the group of eminent experts, this would send a dangerous signal to parties to the conflict that violations of international law may be perpetrated in Yemen with impunity.”
Radia al-Mutawakil, one of the leading activists for an investigative committee, says, “Civilian victims in Yemen deserve nothing less than an independent international inquiry mechanism . . . Yemenis are alone in facing the fierce conflicting parties and the international allies who are defending their economic interests such as the US, Britain and France.”
Al-Mutawakil is the head of Mowatana, a human rights organization, and she considers this UN report to be “one of the most important human rights documents that shed light on a number of patterns of grave violations against civilians in Yemen.”
In an email to Inside Arabia, she went on to say: “The formation of this [investigatory] group and its entry into Yemen represented a success for the human rights movement and the countries supporting human rights, especially the Netherlands. Still, it needs more time and authority to widen its coverage of the violations, identify those responsible for them, contribute to pressure to stop those violations, and bring justice to the civilian victims.”
Despite humanitarian calls for the U.S. to stop supporting Saudi Arabia with weapons, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis affirmed the same day the report was released that the United States “intends to continue backing the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen despite civilian casualties.”
During a press conference at the Pentagon on Tuesday, August 28, Mattis asserted: “American influence on the Arab air campaign has made a difference in reducing instances of errant bombing and the targeting of civilians.”
He defended the coalition, saying that while America recognized tragic mistakes, that it had not observed “callous disregard” on behalf of their work partners, and that they will continue to work with them. Human rights activists disagree.
As a result of the UN experts’ report, the coalition has been forced to admit its responsibility for targeting a bus full of children in Saada which earlier they claimed was “a legitimate military action.” On September 1, the legal adviser to the JIAT, Mansour al-Mansour, announced that the team had concluded that the raid should have been carried out in a civilian-free location to avoid civilian casualties. The legal adviser also stated that the airstrike on the bus was not needed to prevent an imminent attack on the coalition forces and that the strike should have been carried out when the bus was “in an open area to avoid such collateral damage.” The coalition expressed regret and promised to “take legal action to punish those who made these mistakes.”
Human Rights Watch issued a report on August 23 that concluded: “JIAT’s work has fallen far short of international standards regarding transparency, impartiality, and independence [since its establishment in 2016.]” The report stated that “Coalition bus bombing [is an] apparent war crime” and that “[c]ountries with knowledge of this record that are supplying more bombs to the Saudis will be complicit in future deadly attacks on civilians.” The countries referred to in the report are the United States and the United Kingdom.
The coalition’s acknowledgment of culpability comes after international pressure to end the war and cease the gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian as documented in the UN report. However, more international involvement and pressure is needed. To date, the Saudis have not responded “legally” or otherwise to the report, and are not expected to acknowledge any wrongdoing if they do respond. Likewise, after the initial tweets from the Emirati Foreign Minister, the UAE has been silent.
The key to stopping the war may be in halting U.S. support for the coalition engagement. Public opinion in the U.S. will likely change as more information comes to light that what the U.S. is supporting in Yemen is the perpetuation of the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” More than 20 million people are expected to die in Yemen this year from starvation and disease resulting from the total land, sea, and air blockade of Yemen that has been preventing food, medicine, and other humanitarian assistance from reaching the country since early 2015.
“With the lack of food, clean water, and medicines, there have been outbreaks of diseases some of which Yemen has not seen in decades: cholera, diphtheria, and now measles. Children are dying.”
“The blockade is the thing that is most devastating to the country right now,” said Dr. Aisha Jumaan, an epidemiologist who returned recently to the U.S. from Yemen. “With the lack of food, clean water, and medicines, there have been outbreaks of diseases some of which Yemen has not seen in decades: cholera, diphtheria, and now measles. Children are dying.”
Activists have said that the American public needs to know what is going on to put pressure on the U.S. government to stop selling arms and providing the support to Saudi Arabia, the primary perpetrator of this “unconscionable war.”
Activists and human rights organizations have urged the UN to take up the issue of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis during its meeting of the General Assembly that starts Tuesday in New York.