President Biden is set to travel to Saudi Arabia this week. As he does, a truce in Yemen holds. “As a result,” President Biden recently wrote, “the past few months in Yemen have been the most peaceful in seven years.” The last seven, though, were filled with destruction.
“Belques” (a pseudonym) is in her late 30s. She lives in Yemen. In 2015, an airstrike carried out by the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led Coalition killed her husband, destroyed her home, and displaced her and her four children. “Everything was destroyed,” she said. “I lost my entire life… I lost my husband and the person who provided for myself and my children. I lost my… shelter.”
The ongoing truce in Yemen has been a desperately needed reprieve for civilians in Yemen. It does not, however, erase the harms that warring parties have done to civilians throughout the conflict, nor address the burdens that civilians like Belques continue to bear.
What do warring parties in Yemen owe civilian victims? A new 170-page report, “Returned to Zero”: The Case for Reparations to Civilians in Yemen, seeks to answer this question. The report, co-authored by Mwatana for Human Rights and the Allard K. Lowenstein Clinic at Yale Law School, examines the international legal obligations of states and non-state armed groups to provide reparations in Yemen, the promises that warring parties have made to provide assistance or redress to civilians, and the most significant mechanisms that warring parties have set up to respond to civilian harm since the conflict began.
In international law, the right to reparations stems from the legal obligation of the violator to make the victim whole. A century ago, reparations were seen as applying to relations between states. Today, there is growing recognition that individual victims of serious international humanitarian law violations and gross international human rights law violations have a right to receive reparations for harms they have suffered.
The Saudi and U.A.E.-led Coalition, the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, and the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group have all made promises to provide assistance to civilian victims of their abuses. They have acknowledged, at least rhetorically, that it is civilians who are suffering and who should receive assistance, and that the provision of this assistance cannot wait for the fighting to end. But, reparations—in the sense of a remedy for an acknowledged legal wrong—have so far been neglected by the warring parties and under-prioritized by those with influence, including the United States and other U.N. member states.
Since 2016, the Saudi and U.A.E.-led Coalition, as well as the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, have promised to provide monetary assistance to civilian victims of a tiny fraction of their airstrikes. In 2018, right before the U.N. Human Rights Council was set to begin its annual discussions on Yemen justice, the Coalition and the internationally-recognized government of Yemen announced a “voluntary aid” mechanism to grant condolence payments to civilians. By 2021, the Coalition’s investigative mechanism, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (J.I.A.T.), had recommended condolence payments for civilian victims of a few dozen airstrikes.
Mwatana interviewed civilians who lost family members, were injured, or had property destroyed in 20 different airstrikes for which J.I.A.T. recommended assistance. As of 2021, the Coalition and internationally-recognized government of Yemen had made condolence payments in only four of these attacks. Why these four airstrikes? The Coalition and Yemeni government did not explain. By 2021, Mwatana, other human rights groups, and U.N. experts had reported on hundreds of Coalition airstrikes, many of which appeared unlawful, that had caused significant civilian harm.
From the start, the condolence payment process was non-transparent, ineffective, and far from thorough. Some civilian victims received payments, but on wildly different schedules. Others received smaller amounts than government documents said they were meant to receive. Some received no payment at all. Government documents showed irregularities, like duplicate names, including listing people twice for the same type of harm, and disparate approaches to payments in different strikes.
One of these airstrikes killed Belques’s husband. The Coalition and internationally-recognized government of Yemen provided condolence payments to other victims of the airstrike, but, by 2021, Belques had received nothing. After the strike, Belques had to move in with a family member and register for humanitarian aid—she received some sugar, rice, oil, and lentils. “Nobody can fix what has been broken,” she said, “[but] I want a house for me and my children, and a monthly salary that I can spend on them [the children] only.”
In all cases, condolence payments were framed as “voluntary” and “humanitarian.” Some civilian victims had to sign a paper saying they received payment for a Coalition “mistake.” The payments came without an apology or acknowledgment of fault.
Condolence payments alone are not reparations, but they can provide immediate, material assistance after attacks. Many civilians interviewed by Mwatana described direct and indirect physical, social, psychological, and economic costs they bore as a result of attacks. Only a tiny fraction of civilian victims of Coalition airstrikes have received condolence payments. Civilian victims of other types of abuse, like torture, by Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and their allies have been ignored.
The Ansar Allah (Houthi) non-state armed group also has promised to provide civilian victims of its abuses with assistance, including by creating bodies tasked with hearing complaints against the group. Mwatana interviewed civilians and human rights lawyers that petitioned the Ansar Allah bodies for assistance in cases of abusive detentions or disappearances. Most said they received no form of ascertainable assistance at all.
One lawyer told Mwatana, “Although the committee is called the Redress Committee, we did not find redress from it except for those who have personal power against them. Redress is only for people with power.” Another lawyer offered, “All we received back [from the Redress Committee] were promises that never happened…. It was like the previous committees.”
Mwatana found that Ansar Allah’s redress-related bodies, which are made up of Ansar Allah members, exposed petitioners to risk, including abuse related to their original petitions, for example, exposing an abusively detained person to further cruel treatment in detention. Ansar Allah has also retaliated against people who accepted Coalition condolence payments.
A few days after Ansar Allah started a deadly fire in an overcrowded migrant detention facility that killed and wounded scores, Ansar Allah promised to investigate and compensate those harmed. Instead, Ansar Allah attacked people protesting about the fire in Sana’a a few days later. A person who survived the fire said, “They don’t treat us as humans, all of them. That is why we don’t expect reparations from them.”
According to international human rights standards, reparations, awarded through a judicial, administrative or other process, should be proportionate to the harm done, full, effective, adequate, and prompt. Reparations are meant to restore the injured party, as far as possible, to their position before the wrong occurred. They are a form of justice. Reparations, along with prosecutions of alleged perpetrators of grave international crimes, are meant to discourage further aggression and re-enforce the rule of law.
The mechanisms so far set up by the Saudi and U.A.E.-led Coalition, the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, and the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group are wholly inadequate to accomplish the task of ensuring reparations to civilian victims in Yemen, particularly in light of the severity of violations committed by these warring parties and the scale of the resulting civilian harm. None of the existing mechanisms operate effectively or transparently. All are significantly lacking in credibility. None have conducted thorough investigations into alleged violations.
It is unsurprising that those responsible for egregious war-time wrongs have failed to hold themselves accountable. Yet, it is these same actors—the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group, the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, and their regional backers in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Iran—that are actively seeking to dictate the terms of Yemen’s future. In the past two years, civilians in Yemen repeatedly expressed the belief that warring parties were more likely to repeat their wrongs than to remedy them. To date, the warring parties have proven them right.
For nearly a decade, those with the power to ensure or facilitate reparations, even in the face of warring party intransigence, have asked civilians in Yemen to wait. The U.N. Security Council has the authority to refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court and to establish an international reparations mechanism for Yemen. But, since Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. entered the war in 2015, not only has the U.N. Security Council failed to take appropriate action to ensure accountability for grave international law violations in Yemen, it has barely referred to accountability, and never to reparations, in its resolutions on Yemen.
Last fall, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. successfully lobbied states at the U.N. Human Rights Council to disband an international investigation that was reporting on and recommending accountability, including reparations, for war-time abuses. States have so far failed to set-up an alternative Yemen justice mechanism.
In the meantime, wounded civilians have been unable to afford medical treatment. Civilians whose homes were destroyed have been unable to pay rent. Civilians whose loved ones were killed have been left without psychological support or apology. All the while, abuses repeat.
For years, civilians in Yemen have been calling on states to take steps to uphold the international rules regulating warfare, including by facilitating remedy when those rules are egregiously violated. For other conflicts, such as the war in Syria, the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly created international investigative mechanisms to lay the groundwork for accountability. States should urgently work together to create such a mechanism for Yemen.
Reparations for civilian harm in Yemen should be a key priority for states going forward. The international community should call on specific warring parties in Yemen, including Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, and the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group, to meet their reparations obligations to civilians in Yemen. In the meantime, states should support investigations into and documentation of civilian harm at the individual and community-level, consultations with civilian victims, community groups, and civil society, and research and high-level discussions of possible modalities of reparations for Yemen, including the potential of an international reparations mechanism.
Failing to ensure reparations for civilian harm in Yemen is choosing to impose the war’s costs on those who had no say in the decision to go to war and played no role in the fighting. Yemen’s future can and should be determined by Yemenis themselves. But in order to have a meaningful say in that future, states seeking to support Yemen’s peacemakers, rather than its war-mongers, should advocate for reparations for civilians harmed by all parties to the conflict.