All Parties in Yemen’s War May Have Committed War Crimes: UN Experts
United Nations human rights experts said Tuesday that all parties to the war in Yemen, including the Western-backed, Saudi Arabia-led coalition, may have committed war crimes.
In a report compiled for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, three experts said they have “reasonable grounds to believe” that Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Houthi rebel forces, committed violations that may amount to war crimes, including arbitrary detention, torture and recruitment of child soldiers, some as young as eight years old. They also said that some coalition air strikes may have amounted to war crimes.
The conflict first began in Sept. 2014, when a group of rebels, the Houthis, seized control of Yemen’s capital. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia gathered a coalition to launch a military intervention in support of its ally, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. It saw the Houthis, allied with its regional rival Iran, as a threat along its southern border.
The conflict has devastated Yemen. For the past year and a half, the UN has designated the nation as the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. By April 2018, 22.2 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance.
More than 6,400 civilians have been killed and more than 10,200 injured between March 2015 and June 2018, according to the report, although it said the real figure is likely to be significantly higher.
“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties,” Kamel Jendoubi, the chairperson of the group of experts, said in a statement. The experts said they had submitted a list of individuals “who may be responsible for international crimes” to the UN’s High Commissioner, and called upon the international community to stop providing weapons that could be used in the conflict.
The experts blamed most of the documented civilian casualties on air strikes by the Western-backed Saudi-led coalition. “In the past three years, such air strikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities,” the report said. Some of those attacks violated international humanitarian law designed to protect civilians in conflict — and therefore may amount to war crimes, the experts said.
The UN findings align with what FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith found on the ground in 2017, in a rare visit inside Yemen. He met a man who said he lost 26 members of his family when a Saudi air strike hit a funeral hall. At the time, it was the deadliest attack in the war, killing at least 140 people and injuring hundreds more.
In Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia, Smith asked then-spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, Gen. Ahmed Asseri, why coalition air strikes continued to kill civilians.
Asseri said, “When you conduct a military operation, mistake [sic] will happen.”
The UN report comes weeks after a coalition air strike reportedly hit a school bus in Yemen, killing 40 children between the ages of six and 11. According to a report by CNN, the bomb that killed them was sold to Saudi Arabia by the U.S.
The incident prompted the top American air commander in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, to acknowledge “frustration” in an interview with The New York Times. “They need to come out and say what occurred there,” he said, referring to the coalition. Harrigian is set to step down this week, the report said.
The coalition has also imposed naval and air blockades that have severely restricted the flow of food, fuel and humanitarian aid into Yemen — and which the UN said may also amount to international crimes. “No possible military advantage could justify such sustained and extreme suffering of millions of people,” the report said, noting that 17.8 million people were food insecure in April 2018, and 8.4 million were on the brink of famine.
The Saudi-led coalition referred the UN report for review by its legal team, according to The Wall Street Journal, and said it would respond after that process was complete.
The UN blamed the Houthis, their allies and other parties for killing and injuring civilians in shelling and sniper attacks in violation of international law, as well as for imposing restrictions on residents in Taiz, an area the Houthis besieged in 2015.
A Houthi representative said the report had been forwarded to the rebels’ legal office, but did not comment further, according to the Journal.
The UN also found evidence of widespread arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment throughout Yemen by all parties to the conflict, the report noted. Detainees were beaten, electrocuted, drowned, threatened with violence, suspended upside down and held in solitary confinement for extended periods. Detainees at two prisons reported being sexually assaulted and raped by United Arab Emirates personnel, it said.
The UN also said it had evidence that all parties involved in the conflict had recruited children into their armed forces or groups. “In most cases, the children were between 11 and 17 years old, but there have been consistent reports of the recruitment or use of children as young as 8 years old,” the report said, adding that in some areas witnesses reported Houthi forces forcibly recruiting children in schools and hospitals.
On Aug. 22, Sen. Chris Murphy introduced an amendment that would stop funding U.S. support for the war in Yemen until the secretary of defense could certify that the air campaign was not in violation of international law. On the floor of the Senate, Murphy said, “Over the course of this year, the targeting inside Yemen has gotten more catastrophic and more catastrophic.”
The amendment was rejected.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition would continue. “Our conduct there is to try to keep the human cost of innocents being killed accidentally to the absolute minimum. That is our goal where we engage with the coalition,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “We stay out of the war ourselves.”