YEMEN WAR: NO END IN SIGHT
The Yemen conflict shows no real signs of abating as it enters its fourth year, and all sides continue to commit violations.
A spiralling conflict
Updated: 14 March 2019
The 2011 popular revolts that erupted in Yemen in the midst of the region-wide uprisings forced then President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power after 33 years of rule, against accusations of corruption and failed governance, and the backdrop of an unresolved, long-standing conflict with the Huthis, an armed group based in the north of the country, whose members follow Zaidism, an off-shoot of Shi’a Islam.
Saleh was replaced by his deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, setting up the stage for the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a transitional national consultation process that attempted to address issues of state governance, structure and reform and addressing the grievances raised during the protests. After two years of consultations, the NDC presented a blueprint for a new federal map that partitioned Yemen into regions without considering socio-economic or regional grievances regarding the division of natural resources, commercial and agricultural regions, or port access. The map received minimal popular support and was staunchly opposed by different factions, including the Huthis.
The Huthis then capitalized on popular discontent and consolidated their control over the governorate of Sa’da and neighbouring areas in the northern parts of Yemen. In September 2014, the Huthis managed to extend their territorial control, taking over a number of army and security positions in the capital Sana’a – this was facilitated to a certain extent by the newly forged alliance of convenience with former President Saleh, against whom they had fought for decades.
Following the Huthis’ takeover of Sana’a in early 2015, President Hadi and the members of his government were forced to flee.
By 25 March 2015, a Coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intervened at the request of President Hadi, with the aim of restoring the internationally recognized government to power.
This marked the beginning of a full-blown armed conflict as the Coalition launched an aerial bombing campaign against Huthi forces. Over the following four years, the conflict spread to engulf the entire country and saw a proliferation in the parties to the conflict, including a number of Coalition-backed armed groups. The UAE for instance, has been actively training, funding and arming different armed groups since mid- to late 2015, supporting as such the proliferation of unaccountable militias such as the Security Belt, the Giants and the Elite Forces.
In December 2017, the Huthis further consolidated their control after assassinating their ally and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and currently remain in control of most population centres, including Sana’a.
After over one year of intermittent fighting in and around Hodeidah that resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties, UN-backed talks in Sweden concluded in late 2018, resulting in agreements on several confidence-building measures, including prisoner exchanges and a precarious ceasefire in Hodeidah.
Gross human rights violations, including what could amount to war crimes, were committed and continue throughout the country to this day. Civilians are trapped in the middle. More than 17,640 have been killed and injured and a man-made humanitarian crisis has spiralled with approximately 14 million people in the country suffering from food insecurity.
We left because of the bombardment and the war around us. They would fire mortars over our head. Every day people would die, every day we would see ripped bodies around us, blown to smithereens. Can we stay there? We had to leave to escape alive. We couldn’t live in such danger.
Until recently, much of the world ignored this raging conflict and heard little about its devastating impact on those trapped in its midst. This past year however, the conflict gained more visibility and pressure has been mounting on all parties to the conflict. Several countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, and Greece responded to public pressure by partly or totally suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Coalition members. In the aftermath of the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, several European states announced they would be suspending arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, including Norway, Finland and Denmark.
Civilians' Struggle for Survival
Civilians bear the brunt of the violence in Yemen. As well as causing the deaths and injuries of thousands of civilians, the parties to the conflict have exacerbated an already severe humanitarian crisis resulting from years of poverty and poor governance causing immense human suffering.
Given the protracted nature of the conflict, the coping mechanisms of the civilian population are exacerbated and stretched thin. 22 million Yemenis today require humanitarian assistance to survive. According to UNICEF, the conflict has left 1 million workers in the public sector without pay for two years, and the organization estimates that 12 million Yemenis including children will depend on food assistance in 2019.
The dire economic conditions have worsened the already catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the country. With the inflation of the Yemeni Riyal and the government unable to pay public sector salaries, September 2018 saw a wave of demonstrations spreading across the south of Yemen, with people protesting against corruption and blaming the government for the deterioration of the economy, which has left the vast majority of Yemenis unable to buy basic commodities.
In the intervening time, the on-off battle for Hodeidah that started in late 2017 resulted in hundreds of civilian causalities; the UN reported that nearly a million people fled the governorate during the year. According to people who fled, mined roads, Huthi checkpoints and the hazards along the way meant that, for some, what should be on average a six-hour drive from Hodeidah to Aden became a terrifying ordeal lasting up to three days.
It was a really difficult trip. By God we suffered. There were rockets flying above us. Someone would stop us and say there are projectiles and then someone else would stop us and say there are landmines, and we would just scream. All the way from when we left until we arrived we were screaming and crying. We saw dead bodies and we saw others ripped to pieces.
Human toll of the conflict
children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition
people forced from their homes by the fighting
people in need of humanitarian assistance
Human rights violations and abuses by all sides
On 28 August the United Nations Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen published its first report, which concluded that all parties to the conflict may be guilty of war crimes. Their findings add to the catalogue of evidence showing that all parties to the conflict in Yemen have acted with utter disregard for civilian lives in the past four years.
Since 2015, the Saudi and UAE-led Coalition carried out scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate air strikes on civilians and civilians’ objects, hitting homes, schools, hospitals, markets, mosques, weddings and funerals. Amnesty International documented 41 coalition air strikes that appear to have violated international humanitarian law, many of which amount to war crimes. These have resulted in 512 civilian deaths and 433 civilian injured.
In one case documented by Amnesty, on August 25, 2017, a US-manufactured Raytheon Paveway laser-guided bomb struck civilian homes in Yemen’s largest city, Sana’a. Five-year old Buthaina was the sole survivor in her family; she lost five siblings aged two to 10 and both her parents.
The Coalition has also used cluster munitions, lethal explosive weapons banned under international law. When launched cluster bombs release dozens – sometimes hundreds – of small “bomblets,” which often lie unexploded and can cause horrific injuries long after initial attack. Amnesty International has documented the Coalition’s use of six different types of cluster munitions, including US, UK, Brazilian-manufactured models in Sana’a, Hajjah, Amran and Sa’da governorates.
Imprecise weapons are used on daily basis in residential areas, causing civilian causalities such indiscriminate attack violate the laws of war.
We were headed out en route for Umra [pilgrimage], then we were stopped at a check point. [The person manning the checkpoint] asked for our ID cards and within a few minutes the strike happened. It landed between our bus and another one next to us. All of a sudden, we were in the middle of an explosion. There were victims everywhere, including my mother who died and one of our neighbours. Some lost their hands, other lost their legs. Everybody was injured.
Armed groups also stand accused of a variety of human rights abuses, including the use of imprecise weapons in residential areas. Since 2015, Amnesty International has documented the impact of the continuing armed conflict in Ta’iz, including indiscriminate shelling by Huthi forces as well as other militias that have led to hundreds of casualties.
Similarly, in May 2018, Amnesty International interviewed 34 civilians who arrived in Aden after the clashes displaced them from several villages and towns in Hodeidah governorate. They spoke of terrifying mortar attacks, air strikes, landmines and other dangers amid the new Hodeidah offensive. Huthi forces also deliberately militarized hospitals by positioning fighters on the roof of a fully functioning hospital in Hodeidah, placing numerous civilians inside the building in danger.
I also saw a man walking as fast as he could while carrying a bag of his own urine. He was still attached to a urinary catheter while making his escape. The scene will stay with me for the rest of my life. There were many children too. Some parents were carrying their children. I saw 10 or 12 children among everyone else trying to flee.
Notwithstanding the military operations, all parties to the conflict have also actively contributed to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Coalition has imposed restrictions on the entry of essential goods and aid such as food, fuel and medical supplies into Yemen, while the Huthi de facto authorities have obstructed the movement of humanitarian aid within the country. These restrictions have adversely impacted Yemeni civilians’ access to basic and necessary services, including food and clean water. They have severely impacted provision of health care, partly as a result of the lack of availability of fuel to run hospitals.
The continued conflict led to a political and security vacuum and the establishment of a safe haven for armed groups and militias, assisted by outside states. An investigation by Amnesty International revealed that children as young as eight years old were raped in the Yemeni city of Ta’iz. The suspected perpetrators, including members of militias backed by the Coalition, are yet to be held to account.
He hit me with the back of his rifle and said: I want to rape you. I started to cry. He grabbed me by the neck and pushed me to the ground. I started screaming. He hit me again and raped me.
All parties to the conflict engaged in illegal practices, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture and other ill-treatment. Huthi forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained critics and opponents as well as journalists, human rights defenders and members of the Baha’i community, subjecting scores to unfair trials, incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance. Amnesty International documented the case of 10 journalists who have been arbitrarily detained by the Huthis without charge or trial since 2015. They have been held incommunicado, tortured and have had limited access to counsel, families and health care. In February 2019, the Huthi de facto authorities accused the group of journalists with charges carrying the death penalty. The internationally recognized Yemeni government harassed, threatened and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders and other activists. UAE-backed Yemeni forces in southern Yemen conducted a campaign of arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances. In May, Amnesty International investigated in Yemen the cases of 51 men held in a network of secret prisons by UAE and Yemeni forces operating outside the command of their own government; the cases involved egregious violations, including enforced disappearances and torture and other ill-treatment amounting to war crimes.
Arms Fuelling the Crisis
Since the outbreak of the conflict, a consortium of states has supplied members of the Saudi Arabia and UAE-led Coalition with more than $15 billion worth of military equipment. While the main recipient has been Saudi Arabia, Western states have also supplied the UAE with more than $3.5 billion worth of warships, combat aircrafts, tanks, armoured vehicles, small arms, light weapons, and associated parts and ammunition.
Despite overwhelming evidence that these arms are being used in war crimes and other serious violations in Yemen, states such as the USA, UK, France and other European countries continue to supply arms to Coalition members, in breach of obligations including the Global Arms Trade Treaty for states parties as well as EU law and domestic laws.
An open source investigation carried out by Amnesty International highlighted the growing danger in Yemen’s conflict as the UAE recklessly arms militias with a range of advanced weapons. The investigation shows how the UAE has become a major conduit for armoured vehicles, mortar systems, rifles, pistols, and machine guns, which are being illicitly diverted to unaccountable militias accused of war crimes and other serious violations.
Only a handful of countries have stopped selling and transferring weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Coalition members, including the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland.
Amnesty International is urging all states to ensure that no party to the conflict in Yemen is supplied – either directly or indirectly – with weapons, munitions, military equipment or technology that could be used in the conflict until they end such serious violations. This also applies to logistical and financial support for such transfers.