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YEMEN 2021

All parties to the conflict in Yemen continued to commit violations of international humanitarian and human rights law with impunity. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition, supporting the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and Huthi forces continued to carry out attacks that unlawfully killed and injured civilians and destroyed civilian objects, including food infrastructure. Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces carried out summary killings. Parties to the conflict carried out harassment, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, and unfair trials, against individuals on the basis of their political, religious or professional affiliations, their peaceful activism or their gender. All parties perpetrated gender-based violence and discrimination. The government and STC used lethal violence to repress largely peaceful protests demanding measures to address the deteriorating economic situation. Parties to the conflict impeded the flow of food, medicine, fuel and humanitarian aid. The Huthi de facto authorities prevented Covid-19 vaccinations. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain lobbied state members of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) against renewing the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (UN GEE), forcing the termination of the only international, impartial investigative mechanism for Yemen. All parties to the conflict contributed to environmental degradation. Death sentences were handed down and executions carried out.


The armed conflict continued throughout 2021, markedly escalating in February and September when Huthi forces launched offensives against government forces in Ma’arib, Dahle’, al-Bayda and Shabwa governorates. This resulted in unprecedented territorial gains for Huthi forces, who by the end of 2021 were closing in on Ma’arib city. These and other fronts witnessed displacement of 573,362 people, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Fighting also continued in Aden, Abyan and Shabwa governorates, including in heavily populated areas, between the United Arab Emirates-backed STC and government forces, between STC factions, and between STC forces and local tribes. Although STC and government representatives restated their commitment to the Riyadh power-sharing agreement, it was still not fully implemented and STC forces remained outside of government control.

Despite promising signs of a breakthrough in political talks between the parties in 2020, by the end of 2021 the newly appointed UN Special Envoy for Yemen noted that discord between the parties was deepening.

Unlawful attacks

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition and Huthi forces continued to conduct indiscriminate attacks, which killed and injured civilians and destroyed and damaged civilian objects, including food distribution facilities.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition carried out air strikes that killed or injured civilians and damaged civilian objects. On 21 March, in Hodeidah governorate, two air strikes hit Salif grain port, damaging facilities and injuring five employees. On 14 June, in Khamir district, Amran governorate, two poultry farms were hit by missiles that the UN GEE concluded were likely fired by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. The UN GEE expressed concern that the coalition was failing to take all feasible measures to protect civilians.

Huthi forces continued to use imprecise heavy weaponry. Throughout March, they regularly fired such weaponry into the Meel, Tawasol and Kheir camps for internally displaced people, close to Ma’arib city, 1-3km from the front line. This killed six women and three children. On 3 April, in Rawda neighbourhood, Ma’arib city, a rocket launched from a Huthi-controlled area killed one boy and one man and injured three boys. The UN GEE concluded that these attacks amounted to war crimes.

In Hodeidah, government forces occupied the Thabit Brothers food production facility, using it for military purposes and therefore rendering it a military target. On 6 and 19 June, Huthi forces shelled the facility, causing civilian casualties and damaging food production and water supply.

Unlawful killings

In Aden, a governorate controlled by STC forces, there were 38 assassinations or attempted assassinations of civilians in 2021, according to SAM for Rights and Liberties.

On 8 September, at al-Farsha checkpoint, Tur al-Bahah, Lahij governorate, STC forces stopped and killed a doctor. On 4 October, unidentified armed men at another checkpoint in Tur al-Bahah, in an area controlled by STC forces, stopped and killed a nurse working for Doctors Without Borders.

Arbitrary detention, torture and unfair trials

All parties to the conflict continued to detain, forcibly disappear and torture individuals on the basis of their political, religious or professional affiliations, their peaceful activism or their gender.

Huthi de facto authorities

Huthi de facto authorities continued to arbitrarily detain hundreds of migrant men, women and children, mostly Ethiopian and Somali nationals, in poor conditions for indefinite periods in Sana’a city. On 7 March, detainees conducted a hunger strike in protest. Authorities responded by corralling 350 detainees in a locked hangar and firing projectiles into the building, igniting a fire that killed 46 detainees and injured 202 others. The Huthi Ministry of Interior stated that they had started an investigation, found the police were responsible and arrested 11 personnel.

Huthi de facto authorities continued to detain four journalists on death row. Amnesty International documented how journalists from the same group of detainees, but who were released in 2020 along with men from the Baha’i community, were subjected to enforced disappearance and torture during their detention, before being forced into exile as a condition of their release.1

Huthi de facto authorities continued legal proceedings targeted against Baha’i on the basis of their religion, and froze or confiscated assets belonging to 70 members of the community. They also continued to arbitrarily detain, since March 2016, a Jewish man on the basis of his religion, despite judicial rulings requiring his release.

STC forces

In early 2021, in Aden, STC forces arbitrarily detained two men for criticizing the STC. In May, in Aden, STC counter-terrorism forces detained a man whose fate remained unclear at the end of the year. In September, they abducted four university students returning from a trip abroad, while they were transiting Aden airport. They were released at the end of September.

Gender-based violence and discrimination

All parties to the conflict continued to impose and exploit patriarchal gender norms, used gender-based violence and discrimination to further their objectives, and maintained a wide range of discriminatory and oppressive customary and statutory legal provisions. Yemen was ranked second to worst in the 2021 Global Gender Gap Index.

Huthi de facto authorities

Huthi de facto authorities continued their campaign of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance of women and girls, particularly women human rights defenders and those perceived to be challenging Huthi-enforced gender norms. In 2021 alone, they detained at least 233 women and girls in facilities in Sana’a, accusing them of supporting the coalition, “sex work” or crimes of “immoral acts”. Women, girls and LGBTI people in these facilities have in the past been subjected to systematic torture, including rape and other forms of sexual violence; cruel and inhuman treatment; and forced recruitment.

In February in Sana’a, Huthi de facto authorities arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared actress and model Intisar al-Hammadi.2 During her detention, she was interrogated while blindfolded, and physically and verbally abused. On 5 May, Huthi de facto authorities asked her to take a “virginity test”, which she refused. In November, she was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of committing an “indecent act”.

In January, the Huthis restricted permission to purchase contraceptives to “husbands”, congruent with the stated aim of increasing the birth rate to serve their military cause.

Government of Yemen

In January, the government’s political security forces in Ma’arib arbitrarily arrested a woman because her brother had worked for the Huthis and she later died in custody, according to the Women’s Solidarity Network.

In July and August, government armed forces in Ta’iz harassed and assaulted two women human rights defenders, one of them living with disabilities, and accused them of “prostitution” as well as working for the Huthis. In September, according to Mwatana for Human Rights, political security forces in Ma’arib arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared another woman, a human rights activist and humanitarian worker, for a month.

Freedom of expression and assembly

All parties continued to curtail free speech and assembly of human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents and perceived critics.

Throughout September, peaceful protests were staged against the government and STC in Aden, Ta’iz and southern governorates, demanding they address the economic crisis and deteriorating living conditions. According to Mwatana for Human Rights, the government and STC violently repressed these protests, including with gunfire and grenades. This resulted in STC forces in Aden killing one man and injuring three boys, and government forces killing a man and a boy and injuring another boy in Hadramout governorate, as well injuring a man in Ta’iz. The survivors all sustained life-changing injuries.

Right to food

The economy continued to collapse. Devaluation of the Yemeni rial resulted in a 36-45% rise in the cost of living. Prior to this rise, around 47,000 Yemenis were already living in famine-like conditions, with 2021 being the first time such conditions emerged since the beginning of the conflict. More than 50% of the population – around 16.2 million people – were estimated to be food insecure, according to the World Food Programme.

All parties to the conflict continued to impose siege-like conditions, blockades, obstructions on imports and unnecessary bureaucracy or restrictions on movement, which inflated the cost of food, impeded humanitarian aid and fuelled food insecurity. The actions undermined famine prevention and contributed to famine-like conditions.

Between March and June, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition denied entry to 13 vessels carrying 350,000 tonnes of fuel derivatives. During 2021, two vessels carrying fuel derivatives were left waiting for clearance for approximately 200 days. In addition to contributing to fuel shortages, which impacted food production and distribution, the loss of revenue threatened authorities’ capacity to pay public sector salaries.

Right to health

The health system continued to be severely impacted by the armed conflict, economic and institutional crises, and exacerbated by Covid-19. Only 50% of health facilities were fully functional and over 80% of the population faced difficulties in accessing healthcare services.

Restrictions by all parties to the conflict impeded access to medication and medical treatment, including Covid-19 vaccines and treatment. The continued closure of Sana’a airport by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition denied Yemenis life-saving medical treatment. Covid-19 health surveillance was limited throughout Yemen, compounded by Huthi authorities’ refusal to collect or disseminate data on cases and deaths, despite healthcare providers identifying waves of infections and deaths. Huthi authorities publicly denied the existence of Covid-19 and spread disinformation about its seriousness. They refused to carry out vaccinations and rejected COVAX-initiative vaccines allocated to them by the government.

The spread of Covid-19, and inaction or mismanaged preventative measures by all parties, compounded structural inequalities, disproportionately impacting women, girls and those from marginalized communities.

Only 20% of maternal and child health services were functioning, according to the UN Population Fund, leaving 48,000 women and girls at risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth.

Right to truth, justice and reparation

Intensive Saudi-led lobbying throughout 2021, as well as Bahraini-led opposition to the renewal of the UN GEE’s mandate at the HRC in October, resulted in the termination of the only international, impartial investigative mechanism for international humanitarian law violations in Yemen. The final report of the UN GEE urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Yemen to the ICC, and called for the creation of an international criminal investigative body on the conflict in Yemen.3

In January, the Italian government permanently stopped issuing export licences for armaments to be used in Yemen, and cancelled shipments to Saudi Arabia. The Rome Public Prosecutor recommenced investigations into the complicity of the Italian National Authority for Export of Armaments and arms manufacturer RWM Italia SpA in a 2016 Saudi Arabia-led coalition air strike that killed six civilians.

In August, lawyers filed a submission on behalf of Yemeni complainants to the ICC, requesting an investigation into the criminal liability of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition leadership and mercenaries employed by a US military contractor, for unlawful air strikes that killed civilians, torture and murder. In October, they filed the same complaint to the UK’s Metropolitan Police.

Environmental degradation

Parties to the conflict were responsible for environmental degradation across Yemen through poor governance, cancelling programming, neglect of legally protected areas, mismanagement of oil infrastructure, and placing economic pressure on civilians. Yemenis resorted to environmentally damaging coping mechanisms, including reliance on charcoal, unsustainable fishing and unsustainable development. This resulted in increased pollution, deforestation, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity, which adversely impacted enjoyment of the rights to health, food and water.

In June, at Bir Ali oil terminal, Shabwa governorate, mismanagement of oil infrastructure led to a pipeline discharging oil into the sea for four days, close to an environmentally sensitive coastline. Also in June, Huthi authorities refused to grant security assurances to the UN-led technical assistance team for the tanker FSO Safer. This left the tanker off the coast of Hodeidah at increasing risk of spilling its cargo of 1.14m barrels of oil, which would have devastating consequences for the biologically sensitive Red Sea coastline, as well as water scarcity, health, and the food security and livelihoods of millions of Yemenis and Eritreans reliant on Red Sea fishing.

Death penalty

Death sentences were handed down and executions took place, including public executions.

  1. Yemen: Released and Exiled: Torture, Unfair Trials and Forcible Exile of Yemenis under Huthi Rule (Index: MDE 31/3907/2021), 27 May
  2. “Yemen: Actress arbitrarily detained at risk of forced ‘virginity testing’”, 7 May
  3. “Yemen: Saudi Arabia forces an end to mandate of only international mechanism to investigate HR abuses”, 7 October