New UN Report Says All Parties to Yemen Conflict May be Responsible for War Crimes

A damning new United Nations report, published last week, implicates all parties to the conflict in Yemen in possible war crimes. This includes the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the government of Yemen and the Houthi armed group. The report, written by the group of eminent experts (GEE) appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate the conflict in Yemen, calls on the international community to “refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict in Yemen.”

Here, we outline the GEE’s key findings, highlight what is most important and significant about the report, and explain what comes next.

Key findings

The report covers a lot of ground. Some of its key findings include:

  • The Saudi and UAE-led coalition (the coalition) airstrikes have caused “most of the documented civilian casualties” in the Yemen conflict.
  • The coalition’s severe air and naval restrictions on Yemen had a foreseeable and devastating effect on the civilian population. The experts had “reasonable grounds to believe” these restrictions were imposed in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.
  • UAE personnel have arbitrarily detained individuals and subjected detainees to torture, sexual violence, and other forms of cruel-treatment in facilities under their control.
  • The Houthis and the forces aligned with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who was killed in December 2017) are responsible for numerous abuses, including the shelling of civilians, impeding the delivery of humanitarian supplies and commercial goods, subjecting individuals to arbitrary detention, committing acts of cruel treatment and torture, restricting freedom of expression and belief, persecution of the Baha’i minority, and forcibly conscripting and enlisting children under 15.
  • All parties to the conflict have severely restricted freedom of expression by harassing and impeding the work of human rights defenders, journalists and activists.
  • The government of Yemen and UAE-backed forces are responsible for perpetrating acts of sexual and gender based violence.
  • All parties to the conflict are responsible for the forcible conscription or enlistment of children into armed forces or groups, and have used them to participate actively in hostilities. The experts specifically note that they received reports that the Houthi-Saleh forces “forcibly recruited children in schools, hospitals and door-to-door.”

 Reasons Why the GEE Report Matters

The report is important for numerous reasons, some of which are highlighted below.

  1. Firstly, it is highly significant that an independent, impartial, internationally mandated mechanism to investigate the war in Yemen echoes the many concerns raised by other parts of the United Nations, international and Yemeni human rights organizations, and journalists, about the grave abuses committed in Yemen. It is the latest indictment of the conduct of all parties to the war. Those states supporting the Saudi and UAE-led coalition—including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France—should pay very careful heed to its findings.
  2. The report also goes further than previous U.N. reporting by concretely finding (according to the international standard of a “reasonable ground to believe”) that the Saudi and UAE-led coalition’s severe naval and air restrictions on Yemen are in violation of international human rights law and humanitarian law, and may amount to international crimes. Importantly the experts noted how, after three years of restrictions, harm to the civilian population was foreseeable, and that “no possible military advantage could justify such sustained and extreme suffering of millions of people.” The experts further explain the serious ramifications that should follow, noting that “as these restrictions are planned and implemented as the result of State policies, individual criminal responsibility would lie at all responsible levels, including the highest levels, of government [sic] of the member States of the coalition and Yemen.” This is one of the most notable findings of the report, expanding on previous U.N. reporting by specifically tying these restrictions to a violation of the principle of proportionality under international humanitarian law and underscoring the potential need for criminal accountability for these actions. The report’s focus on the impact of severe naval and air restrictions is significant for reinforcing the protection of economic, social, and cultural rights, which continue to apply in situations of armed conflict.
  3. Perhaps predictably—given the extent of documented concerns about coalition airstrikes—the report finds that coalition airstrikes caused the most civilian casualties and may amount to war crimes. However, this finding is still important: It builds on the conclusions of key reports, including those by: a U.N. panel of experts mandated to monitor implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on Yemen (here and here); the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (here); the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights (here and here); Human Rights Watch (here and here); and Amnesty International (here and here). The report also specifically expresses concern about the Saudi and UAE-led targeting process and determines that “individuals at all levels in the coalition and the Government, including civilian officials” could be implicated in war crimes.
  4. The experts also lay out the scale and extent of the epidemic of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearance perpetrated by all sides to the conflict. The scale of this problem, and the involvement of key U.S. allies such as the UAE, only started to become apparent in 2017. The independent investigation of the GEE–which visited detention centers and conducted interviews related to detention by forces affiliated with the Yemeni government and coalition forces—reaffirms the findings of rights groups (see here and here), journalists, and other commentators, and confirms this is a major issue in need of urgent action.
  5. Importantly, the report identified individuals that may be responsible for international crimes and submitted the list to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The list was not included in the public report and does not explicitly mention to which parties to the conflict the individuals on the list belong.
  6. Finally, and crucially, the experts also call on the international community to “refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict in Yemen.” While the report does not go into detail about potential complicity of other countries in legal violations, this recommendation highlights the relevance of its findings to those states supporting and fuelling the war, including the U.S., the UK, France and Iran. These states should read the GEE report very carefully as they are potentially complicit in these war crimes. The recommendation on arms sales is also particularly timely, coming just a few weeks after the appalling Aug. 9 Saudi and UAE- led coalition airstrike on a bus that reportedly killed at least 40 children and was carried out using a U.S.-made weapon. The attack contributed to growing bipartisan concern in Congress about the U.S. role in supporting the conflict, which has been described by the U.N. as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must shortly certify to Congress that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are taking “demonstrable actions” to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure in Yemen. Certification by Pompeo at this time would seem completely blind to the bus bombing, the UN report, and extensive reporting on Saudi wrongdoing by NGOs and international organizations. If Pompeo is unable to certify, then federal funding for the U.S. support for refueling Saudi led coalition aircraft will be curtailed. Notably, other countries appear to have heeded calls by NGOs and the GEE to restrict arms sales: Earlier this week Spain halted the sale of laser-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, reportedly due to concerns about Yemeni civilians.

What next?

The report makes a number of important recommendations to all parties to the conflict. Some of the key recommendations include calling on parties to:

  1. Immediately cease acts of violence against civilians that violate international law.
  2. Remove disproportionate restrictions on the entry of humanitarian supplies and the movement of persons, and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief and unhindered access to medical facilities in Yemen and abroad.
  3. Document all unofficial detention centers and transfer detainees held at these sites to official facilities that meet international standards.
  4. Conduct transparent, independent, impartial and effective gender-sensitive investigations of all violations and crimes to advance Yemenis’ rights to truth and accountability.

The experts also call on the Security Council to emphasize the human rights dimension of the conflict and ensure that there will be no impunity for the most serious crimes—a possible allusion to the need for a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court, now or in the near future, if no action is taken by the parties to end the situation of impunity.

The experts also underscore that they have more work to do: They only had a few months to carry out this investigation and are now asking the U.N. Human Rights Council to renew their mandate to allow them to continue to monitor and investigate abuses.

However, strong opposition may be expected when the Council meets later this month in Geneva to decide what to do. Predictably, members of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition rejected the report’s findings, claiming allegations made against it were based on “misleading reports by some non-governmental organizations,” and accusing it of overlooking the actions of the Houthi armed group. This accusation does not hold water — Houthi violations are extensively covered in the GEE report as well as in detailed investigations by highly credible NGOs (see here, here, and here). However, the coalition response is potentially a signal that the Saudis will act to stop the GEE’s mandate from being renewed, and it should be remembered that the Saudis have been successful in the past at impeding efforts to ensure accountability.

The U.N. experts’ account of the coalition’s responsibility for abuses in Yemen make the calls to renew and strengthen the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts all the more critical. Members of the Human Rights Council must withstand any pressure from the Saudi/UAE coalition to weaken or end the GEE’s mandate. The number of victims and abuses in Yemen are only increasing as the conflict nears its fourth year. Despite the seriousness of abuses, the extremely limited mechanisms employed by the Saudi and UAE-led coalition to investigate abuses have fallen woefully short. With limited time and resources to finish their investigations, the experts also recognized that more information and time would be needed to establish responsibility for specific incidents. U.N. member states have an opportunity this month to act on the gross and systematic human rights violations committed in Yemen and commit to taking concrete steps to provide meaningful redress. A failure to do so will only send a powerful signal to perpetrators that abuses can continue to go unpunished.

 

Photo: A Yemeni boy receives medical attention after surviving an alleged Saudi-led airstrike at a hospital in Sadaa, northern Yemen, August 9, 2018 (Abdulkareem Al-Zarai/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images) 

About the Author(s)

Rahma A. Hussein

Legal Fellow at Columbia Law School’s Project on Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights

Alex Moorehead

Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School, Director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute Follow him on Twitter (@apmoorehead).

Sarah Knuckey

Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Director of the Human Rights Clinic, Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute, Former Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2007-2016) Follow her on Twitter (@SarahKnuckey).

Radhya Almutawakel

Chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights Follow her on Twitter (@RAlmutawakel).