Since the outbreak of the current war in Yemen in 2014, thousands of civilians have been killed or injured. Air strikes and ground operations have destroyed hospitals, schools and critical infrastructure. Millions more suffer and die from hunger and disease due to restrictions on humanitarian access, commercial imports and access to essential services. This is not, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres explained, a natural disaster, but a ‘man-made’ crisis. While the warring parties have it within their power to minimise civilian suffering resulting from hostilities, they have, to date, failed to do so, and urgent action is needed. Civil society, international organisations and third-party states have tried to get the warring parties to improve civilian protection, with varying degrees of success.+This article addresses civilian harm, civilian protection and civilian harm mitigation broadly, not just conduct resulting in civilian harm that may be unlawful under international law.
Civilian harm in the war in Yemen
The current conflict began in 2014, when the Ansar Allah armed group (the Houthis) and forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh took up arms against the government. Hostilities escalated significantly when a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intervened on the government side. The coalition has been supplied and supported by a number of Western governments, including the United States, the UK and France, while the Houthis have received support from Iran.
Parties to the conflict have caused harm to civilians in multiple ways. The below presents merely a snapshot.
In March 2015, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition began a devastating air campaign. Concerns were quickly raised regarding the scale of civilian harm resulting from airstrikes, with the UN Human Rights Office reporting thousands killed and injured by September 2015. Despite repeated and sustained reporting on the civilian impact, airstrikes causing significant civilian harm have continued. In October 2016, the coalition hit a funeral. In April 2018, a wedding. In August 2019, more than four years after the air campaign began, a Houthi detention facility holding civilians and detained combatants on the coalition side was hit. Each of these attacks killed or injured more than 100 people.
The air campaign has had a far-reaching impact on civilian life. Schools, hospitals, markets, mosques and homes have all been hit. The coalition hit a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-run cholera treatment centre in June 2018. MSF said they had shared the coordinates with the coalition a dozen times, and there were clear markings on the roof.+Ryan Goodman, ‘Saudi Arabia’s misleading email to Congress after bombing of MSF cholera hospital’, Just Security, 25 June 2018) (https://www.justsecurity.org/58437/saudis-deceptive-email-congress-bombing-msf-cholera-hospital/). According to MSF, the airstrike left more than a million people with no recourse to treatment during a cholera outbreak.
Mortar and artillery shelling and landmines
Fierce ground fighting between the Houthis, Saudi- and UAE-backed proxy forces, Yemeni armed forces and other armed groups has resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties. Taiz in particular has been extremely badly affected. Fighters (primarily Houthis) have used heavy weaponry in attacks on the city in densely populated areas, killing and wounding civilians.+Mwatana for Human Rights, ‘Withering Life’, July 2019 (http://mwatana.org/en/withering-life/); Mwatana for Human Rights, ‘The Woes of Arabia Felix’, December 2018 (http://mwatana.org/en/the-woes-of-arabia-felix/executive-summary/). Shelling by the Houthis and Yemeni government and coalition-aligned forces has also been a major cause of civilian harm during the battle for Yemen’s western coast.+Ibid.; Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, Annual Report 2018, March 2019 (https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/civilian_impact_monitoring_report_annual_2018_2.pdf/). Landmines and other remnants of war, with their indiscriminate impacts, pose a major threat to civilians. The Houthis have used landmines – including banned anti-personnel mines – which have killed and wounded scores. The coalition used widely banned cluster munitions until at least 2017, but appeared to cease their use in Yemen in the face of public and allies’ objections.
Detention, enforced disappearances and torture
The Houthis, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, UAE-backed proxy forces and Yemeni government forces have all engaged in serious detention-related abuse, ranging from arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture.+The Houthi armed group (along with Saleh-aligned forces, their then-allies) quickly began cracking down in areas under its control, including arbitrarily detaining and disappearing perceived opponents. In the south of Yemen, UAE-backed proxy forces ran informal detention facilities, and arbitrarily detained, disappeared and abused dozens, often in the name of counter-terrorism. The US works closely with the UAE in southern Yemen. Yemeni government forces and loyalist armed groups have also arbitrarily detained and abused people. Saudi Arabia has transferred fishermen from Yemen to a detention facility in southern Saudi Arabia, where former detainees have alleged torture. Yemeni and international human rights groups, as well as UN investigators, have documented hundreds of cases of detention-related abuse since 2014,+In 2018 alone, Mwatana documented about 500 such cases and, while no accurate count exists, it is estimated thousands have been arbitrarily detained or disappeared since the conflict began (see https://mwatana.org/en/withering-life/). including death in detention as a result of abuse and hostage-taking for the purpose of extracting money from families or using the person in a prisoner exchange.+Human Rights Watch, ‘Yemen: Houthi hostage-taking’, 25 September 2018 (https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/09/25/yemen-houthi-hostage-taking). Detainees have been transferred outside Yemen to Saudi Arabia, and possibly elsewhere, including Eritrea. People, primarily men and boys, have disappeared across the country.
Blocking, obstructing, delaying and otherwise impeding humanitarian access
The coalition has impeded the delivery of humanitarian and commercial imports through its control of Yemen’s land, air and sea ports. A complete shutdown of Yemen’s most important entry points, including Hodeida port, in November 2017 after the Houthis fired a ballistic missile towards Riyadh airport led to millions of Yemenis being deprived of clean water and sanitation at a time when the country was just emerging from the world’s worst cholera outbreak.+ICRC, ‘Yemen: border closure shuts down water, sewage systems, raising cholera risk’, 17 November 2017 (https://www.icrc.org/en/document/yemen-border-closure-shuts-down-water-sewage-systems-raising-cholera-risk?amp); Human Rights Watch, ‘Yemen: coalition blockade imperils civilians’, 7 December 2017 (https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/07/yemen-coalition-blockade-imperils-civilians). Although the total shutdown was eventually lifted, severe restrictions remained. The challenges the Yemeni population face in accessing essential services such as healthcare were compounded by the coalition’s closure of Sana’a airport in August 2016. The Houthis have also limited the supply of essential humanitarian aid to populations in need. Houthi forces have stolen aid, blocked it from reaching areas outside their control and imposed arbitrary and excessive delays on humanitarian work, movement and access. The cumulative impact of these restrictions has been significant.
Efforts to improve protection of civilians in Yemen
It became clear relatively early on in the conflict that the warring parties were not only causing extensive civilian harm, but also failing to take credible steps to significantly reduce that harm. A range of actors, including civil society, international organisations and third-party states, have worked to increase civilian protection. Their tactics have included direct engagement with or technical support to the warring parties, monitoring and reporting on compliance with international law and advocacy and campaigning.
The restrictions imposed by the warring parties – including through the coalition’s blockade and Houthi obstruction – have meant a prominent focus on ensuring aid and critical life-saving commercial imports are allowed into the country and reach their destinations. A number of humanitarian actors, including the UN and humanitarian NGOs, have sought to deliver humanitarian aid and commercial goods, including coordinating clearance for humanitarian movements (into and around the country) and providing technical support to warring parties related to supply chains.
States have also sought to engage on civilian protection, including through direct engagement with or technical support to the warring parties. US advisors have trained coalition forces on the laws of war, tracking civilian harm and how to develop systems to learn from past ‘mistakes’.+Larry Lewis, ‘Promoting civilian protection during security assistance: learning from Yemen’, CNA Analysis and Solutions, May 2019 (https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IRM-2019-U-019749-Final.pdf).
As civilian harm has continued, however, the US has been reluctant to take steps such as withholding material support (including weapons or other assistance), even as former officials have pointed out that more robust measures were the most promising avenue for positive change.+International Crisis Group, Ending the Yemen quagmire: lessons for Washington from four years of war, 15 April 2019 (https://www.crisisgroup.org/united-states/003-ending-yemen-quagmire-lessons-washington-four-years-war).
States pointedly and publicly criticising coalition members appears to have had an effect. For example, the US, the UK and others raised significant concerns after the bombing of a crowded funeral hall in Sana’a, prompting an almost immediate pledge by the coalition to investigate. In some cases, the coalition has admitted that attacks were the result of ‘mistakes’, and has promised a variety of measures to better protect civilians, including tightening rules of engagement, but the fact that airstrikes continue to harm civilians, and that overall patterns of harm remain similar, indicates that these have not been sufficiently effective.
Throughout the conflict, Yemeni groups, international NGOs and UN bodies+The two most relevant UN bodies are the UN Human Rights Council Group of Eminent Experts and the UN Security Council Sanctions Panel of Experts on Yemen. The UN Security Council established a panel of experts to monitor the implementation of a sanctions regime set up in 2014. The panel’s annual reports have included detailed sections on human rights and humanitarian law compliance, as well as aid obstruction. Sanctions could theoretically be imposed on individuals and entities engaged in abuse, but politics within the UN Security Council have stymied these efforts. have monitored, investigated and documented civilian harm. The focus is often on conflict parties’ international legal obligations, publishing reports into apparent abuses and violations and putting forward recommendations on ways to minimise civilian harm. Some civil society groups have also started to build an evidence base to lay the foundation for future efforts at accountability and redress. In 2017, the Human Rights Council – after three years of advocacy by civil society – created the Group of Eminent Experts, an independent inquiry into abuses. The Group’s second report, published in September 2019, attracted significant attention, particularly for its listing of individuals and units engaged in the military campaign, its highlighting of the warring parties’ role in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and its recommendation to states to stop arming parties to the conflict.
Arguably most success in garnering attention and action on civilian harm in Yemen has come through a focus on potentially complicit actors. Civil society groups expanded their work to include research, advocacy and campaigning, highlighting those that contribute to abuse – primarily through arms sales or other forms of military and security assistance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As a result of this work, a number of countries have suspended weapons sales to members of the coalition, and pressured the coalition to create an investigative mechanism. These measures, while insufficient, are meaningful.+After significant public pressure, the coalition created an investigative mechanism, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, but the body is significantly flawed; it operates non-transparently, often whitewashes coalition violations, fails to provide public assessments of civilian harm and has focused exclusively on airstrikes, rather than including other coalition-side practices causing civilian harm. Human Rights Watch, ‘Yemen: coalition blockade imperils civilians’.
Efforts to encourage change with armed groups has proved more difficult. Activists and other actors have struggled to develop concrete tactics for pushing civilian protection with non-state actors, notably the Houthis. While Yemeni lawyers and activists have secured important successes (for example on individual detention cases), clear routes to effective levers of influence have been less apparent or effective.
Essential measures to improve civilian protection in Yemen
The warring parties could significantly and immediately improve the situation for civilians by simply abiding by the rules already defined by international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Accountability and better lesson-learning mechanisms are sorely needed. The repetition of the same types of abuse throughout the conflict underscores the real need for thorough and effective investigations into allegations of abuse, processes to punish perpetrators or hold them to account, mechanisms to offer meaningful redress and amends to civilians for harm caused, and effective feedback loops to ensure that lessons are properly learned.
The warring parties have proved unwilling to make these changes in the absence of pressure or incentive. In order to ensure that changes are not only undertaken, but are also credible and effective, states should set clear benchmarks: for example an end to indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks; improvement of conditions (including release of the arbitrarily held) in detention sites; observable facilitation of humanitarian aid flows and commercial imports; and the start of credible investigation, accountability, redress and lessons learned and mitigation processes.+In and of itself, monitoring ensures that civilian protection is on the agenda, and creates a structure for repeated interactions and discussions on how to achieve it. Monitoring itself, however, is not enough, given the severity of the crisis in Yemen and the egregiousness of the parties’ conduct. Halting arms sales and other forms of military support to the warring parties, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, would be an effective way of pressuring the coalition to make real changes to minimise civilian harm.
Given the civilian harm intrinsic to conflict, the single most important thing the warring parties and their supporters could do to increase civilian protection would be to take concrete steps towards peace.
Kristine Beckerle is the Legal Director, Accountability and Redress, at Mwatana for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni human rights organisation. She was previously Human Rights Watch’s Yemen researcher. Osamah Al-Fakih is the Director of Media, Communications and Advocacy at Mwatana for Human Rights. He previously led Mwatana’s Research Unit.