There have been many human rights violations committed by various groups during the Yemeni Civil War. There are two main groups involved in the ongoing conflict: forces loyal to the current Yemeni president, Abh Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and Houthis and other forces supporting Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former Yemeni president. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have also carried out attacks in Yemen. All sides of the conflict have been accused of human rights violations.
Coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States and other nations have also been accused of violating human rights and in some cases, breaking international law. The coalition forces intervened at Hadi’s request, in an attempt to defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi’s government.Coalition attacks, especially airstrikes, have been accused of causing large scale civilian deaths, but Saudi Arabia disputes these claims.
The use of force by these groups has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis situation in Yemen, as critical infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed in attacks. In addition to the attacks, blockades of critical resources, such as fuel, to Yemen by Saudi Arabia have hindered the transport of food in Yemen, and the ability of civilians to travel to locations where there are adequate medical facilities.
The situation in Yemen has been described as “one of the worst crises in the world” by the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen.
Yemen is a party to the Geneva Conventions and an additional Protocol on the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, which is binding on all groups party to a conflict, and seeks to ensure that forces undertake precautions to avoid killing civilians. Under the Protocol on the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, parties to a conflict must take care to “spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects”.
Customary international humanitarian law also prohibits indiscriminate attacks in international and non-international conflicts.
Yemen is also party and therefore bound to some human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Human rights violations by regional groups
Regional groups have been accused of indiscriminate attacks, often resulting in the deaths of civilians, and at times, of limiting the ability of civilians to import goods and arbitrarily detaining protesters. The rights to life and to security of person, not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s property, and not to be arbitrarily detained are protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and can be argued to have been breached by these regional groups.
Pro-Saleh and pro-Hadi forces
Both pro-Saleh and pro-Hadi forces have been accused of indiscriminate attacks against civilians, which have usually occurred when the forces are fighting each other on the ground for control of areas of Yemen. According to Amnesty International, members of the factions have often attacked each other from residential areas, which places civilians in danger of becoming caught up in the fighting. Some victims of these attacks have been children, who were caught up in conflict in Aden, as a result of the forces not ensuring that civilians would not be harmed, and using weapons such as unguided rocket, which can be inaccurate, especially in residential areas. These attacks have been said to violate international law, as the forces have often not taken sufficient precautions to ensure the safety of civilians, particularly in residential areas. In addition to the use of rockets, Houthis have been accused of laying landmines, which can gravely endanger civilians. The use of these mines has alarmed human rights groups, the use of anti-personnel mines was banned in Yemen as a result of the Mine Ban Treaty. Members of local human rights groups have reported finding 1,170 unexploded mines in around a month.
According to Amnesty international annual report 2015-2016, Huthis and allied forces loyal to former President Saleh have expanded their arbitrary arrests, detentions and abductions of government supporters, activists, and human rights defenders. The international organization said that many detainees were held in an inappropriate and unofficial detention center. In October, Armed men belonging to Houthi militia arrested at least 25 men while attending a meeting at Ibb hotel. Most of them were released later after being tortured.
There are concerns around freedom of speech in Houthi controlled areas, after reports of arbitrary detention of protestors and activists emerged. Journalists have also been kidnapped by Houthi and other forces, and the Committee to Protect Journalists has called for an investigation into the treatment of journalists in Yemen.
In addition to accusations of indiscriminately firing on Yemeni civilians, attacks on Saudi Arabian civilians have been attributed to the Houthis. Rockets allegedly fired by Houthis killed two Saudi Arabian girls in late August, 2016, and injured five others.
Some Saudi Arabian locals have expressed the view that these attacks may be the Houthis exerting pressure on the Saudi Arabian government to end the war.
On 17 March 2017, Houthi forces launched a missile at a mosque, which killed at least 22 pro-government worshippers.
Other regional groups
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has carried out indiscriminate attacks in Yemen. In March 2015, the bombing of two mosques in Sana’a which killed around 140 people, were claimed by the Islamic State. This type of attack has continued further into the civil war: in southern Yemen there have been reports of car bombings and published videos of executions of Yemeni Shiite Muslims. According to these reports, the strength of the Islamic State in Yemen has increased since the beginning of the conflict. In May 2016, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Mukalla which killed 25 Yemeni police recruits at a training compound. On 29 August 2016, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a training camp in Aden which was being used by pro-government militia known as Popular Resistance. As of August 2016, reports suggested that at least 54 people were killed and 60 injured in the attack.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has also been using the political situation in Yemen to their advantage: they have captured cities from government groups, and are thought to be using the conflict to gain more recruits. However, United States officials have claimed that Islamic State now presents a higher risk than al-Qaeda.
Involvement and human rights violations by international actors
Various groups have accused the United States-funded coalition forces, led by Saudi Arabia, of human rights violations and some have gone as far as accusing the coalition of war crimes. The majority of these accusations stem from airstrikes undertaken by the coalition, but others, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, have also criticised the coalition’s approach to blockades. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food claimed “the deliberate starvation of civilians in both international and internal armed conflict may constitute a war crime, and could also constitute a crime against humanity in the event of deliberate denial of food and also the deprivation of food sources or supplies.”
Iran has been accused of supporting Houthis by supplying them with military aid and resources. Iran has denied these accusations.
Saudi Arabian involvement in civil war
According to a UN report released in early 2016, it is believed that the Saudi Arabian led coalition could be deliberately targeting civilians. Human Rights Watch has identified several airstrikes which have hit civilian targets: an attack on a camp for displaced people,and a dairy factory. Médecins Sans Frontières claims it was attacked four times in three months by coalition forces. In addition to these targets, the UN panel who worked on the report also claimed that the coalition targeted “civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes”, and concluded this was in violation of international law.
The panel also concluded that airstrikes contributed to 60% of civilian deaths since the beginning of the conflict.
At the end of August 2016, the United Nations revised the number of deaths during the war from around 6,000 to at least 10,000, and the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator noted the difficulty in providing an exact number of people killed during the conflict.
Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen have also attracted condemnation from the United Nations and other human rights groups. The United Nations placed Saudi Arabia on a blacklist in 2016 as a result of the allegations against Saudi Arabia, especially with regards to the deaths of children. The blacklist Saudi Arabia was placed on concerns countries suspected of committing violations of children’s rights. However, in June 2016, Saudi Arabia was removed from the blacklist by the United Nations. The decision by the United Nations to remove Saudi Arabia was met by widespread condemnation by multiple human rights groups: Amnesty International stated it was “blatant pandering”; Oxfam claimed it was “a moral failure”, and Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for global advocacy stated that “Yemen’s children deserve better”.
Saudi Arabia is a major sponsor of the United Nations, and many human rights groups suggested this was the reason for the removal of Saudi Arabia from the blacklist.
In September 2016, it was reported that Saudi Arabian forces had used white phosphorus in Yemen, which was identified as being American in origin. As of September 2016, it is unclear what the phosphorus is being used for in Yemen, but there are several possible breaches raised by the sale: under U.S. regulations, white phosphorus is only to be sold to countries for the purposes of signalling and creating smoke screens.
Under international law, the use of white phosphorus is not prohibited, but there are requirements that it cannot be used near civilians. White phosphorus can burn skin tissue deeply, and this can cause multiple organ failure. If inhaled, it may cause cardiac arrest.
In late September, 2016, it was reported that a Saudi airstrike had hit a residential area in Al Hudaydah, killing at least 25 people and injuring 70. A government official told AFP news agency that the area was probably accidentally hit while Saudi Arabian forces were targeting what they believed to be a Houthi stronghold.
In October 2016, Saudi Arabian forces were accused of being responsible for air strikes on a funeral hall, resulting in the deaths of at least 140 people. Initial reports indicated that a further 525 people were injured in the airstrikes. The funeral was for the father of Houthi-appointed Interior Minister Galal al-Rawishan. Sources in Yemen claimed that due to the number of casualties, the medical staff in Sana’a was overwhelmed and doctors who were off duty had to be called in to assist. As of 9 October 2016, the final number of casualties is unknown, but it is likely the attack is one of the most deadly since the beginning of the Yemeni Civil War in March 2015.
On 29 October 2016, at least 17 civilians were killed in Taiz in airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. It was reported that the area was targeting a suburb allegedly known to be used by Houthis. This attack raises issues of human rights and international law breaches on both sides. The actions by the coalition in striking the civilian area raise issues of distinction, as the harm caused to civilians and their property is possibly out of proportion to the direct military advantage that was gained in carrying out the airstrikes. The fact that the Houthis are fighting in civilian areas could be in breach of the Protocol on the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, as their actions mean civilians are likely to be killed in the conflict.
On 30 October 2016, Saudi Arabian forces carried out airstrikes on a prison in Hudaydah. Initial reports said inmates and rebels were killed, and Houthi media reported that 43 people were killed in the airstrikes.
In mid February 2017, Saudi-led forces were accused of killing at least five people who had been attending a funeral near Sana’a. Many others were also injured.
On 10 March 2017, it was reported that at least 17 people died and 12 were injured in a Saudi-led airstrike on a souk in Al Hudaydah. According to a source close to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, Houthi militants used civilians as human shields while attempting to escape the airstrike.
On 17 March 2017, a boat carrying Somali refugees out of Yemen was attacked by a military helicopter, resulting in the deaths of at least 30 Somalis as of March 18, the circumstances of the attack remain unclear, with some survivors claiming the attack came from a helicopter, and others claiming a battleship, then a helicopter attacked the boat. According to a survivor, 10 of those killed were women, and five were children. Mohammed Abdiker, emergencies director at the International Organization for Migration, said 42 bodies were recovered, and noted that the combatants should have attempted to identify the passengers before deciding whether to attack. The New York Times cited Yemeni officials as saying that Saudi forces were responsible for the attack, but some uncertainty remains as to who carried out the attack. The Saudi-led coalition has not commented on the attack.
Saudi Arabia’s response to accusations
On 16 May 2016, Brigadier General Ahmed Hassan Asiri responded to Human Rights Watch’s accusations, stating that Saudi Arabia’s actions are not motivated by self-interest, but rather “because we saw population undermined and oppressed by the militias”. Ahmed Asiri claimed that Human Rights Watch did not have a team on the ground in Yemen, and when told by Mary Louise Kelly during an interview that Human Rights Watch had visited Yemen, stated “No. No one can get in Yemen without the permission of the coalition”.
Human Rights Watch responded to these statements on 16 May 2016. Belkis Wille stated that “In fact, this two-week trip was the fourth I had made to Yemen since the beginning of the war in March 2015. Given what I go through to get into Yemen, al-Assiri’s statement was laughable”. She stated that on each of her visits to Yemen during this time period her passport has been confiscated, with no reason being given. She claims that this indicates that the coalition know that she is visiting Yemen.
After initially denying responsibility, on the 15th October 2016, Saudi Arabia admitted responsibility for the funeral airstrikes which killed at least 140 and injured 525. Saudi Arabian forces blamed the airstrikes on “wrong information” which was provided by an unnamed party, which had reportedly claimed the funeral was a legitimate target. Human Rights Watch has claimed that the airstrikes likely constitute a war crime, due to the indiscriminate nature of the attack.
Western involvement in civil war
While the coalition is led by Saudi Arabia’s military, other states, including Western forces, have assisted the campaign. In 2015, Saudi Arabia acquired approximately $24.3 billion worth of weapons from the United States and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has also claimed that it is helping to train Saudi Arabian forces in selecting bombing targets. The Saudi Arabian foreign minister has confirmed that British forces are assisting their Saudi Arabian counterparts in choosing targets, but are not involved in the actual attacks.
In September 2016, it was announced that two British select committees had found that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted until an independent investigation into the war in Yemen is carried out.
The sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia has been labelled “illegal and immoral”,and some commentators have claimed that the United Kingdom is breaching its own domestic laws, as well as the Arms Trade Treaty.
These claims have been refuted, with the UK’s Middle East minister claiming that Saudi Arabia was being criticised on the basis of “hearsay and photographs”.
Despite these claims, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently called on the United Kingdom to halt the supply of arms to Saudi Arabia, and suggested that the United Kingdom, as a party to the Arms Trade Treaty, should set an example.
The United States has also been criticised for allegedly supplying cluster munitions to Saudi Arabian forces. While cluster munitions are thought to be unacceptable, due to their indiscriminate function, the United States is not party to the Cluster Munition Coalition, which bans their use. It has been argued that the United States’ direct support of the Saudi forces, in particular in providing intelligence and in in-air refueling has made it a party to the conflict.
In September 2016, Yemen’s Houthi leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, claimed that the United States is providing political cover for Saudi Arabia, including “protection from pressure by human rights groups and the United Nations”.
In October 2016, it was revealed that the British Government has been involved in training the Saudi Air Force. The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon claimed the British Government’s assistance was to “improve their targeting processes” and that this was therefore not in breach of international law. Michael Fallon stated that the United Kingdom has not provided specific operational advice to Saudi Arabia as part of the training.
On the 29th January 2017, the first United States raid authorised by President Donald Trump ended in multiple civilian deaths, including the death of Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter. According to the Guardian, the raid had been planned under the Obama administration, but it had been thought that the underlying intelligence did not justify the risks involved in carrying out the raid. Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command claimed that the United States military forces were neither aware of the presence of Nawar al-Awlaki in the compound, nor that the estimated 14 people killed in the raid were civilians.
According to the human rights organisation Reprieve, as many as 23 civilians were killed in the raid, including a newborn baby boy, and ten children. The baby killed was born as a result of his heavily pregnant mother being shot in the stomach, which left the baby severely injured. Reprieve also highlighted the fact that strikes in countries where the United States is not at war are largely considered to violate international law.
In early February, 2017, Yemen withdrew its permission for United States ground raids in Yemen. The United States acknowledged that the raid which took place on the 29th January resulted in civilian casualties.
In late February, 2017, NBC reported that the raid had yielded no significant information, according to senior U.S. officials. The White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that “the mission was successful in helping prevent a future attack or attacks on this nation”.This claim was disputed by officials who spoke to NBC.
On 2–3 March 2017, U.S. forces carried out dozens of airstrikes on alleged Al-Qaeda targets in southern Yemen. According to locals, the airstrikes, which were carried out in the Shabwa, Abyan and al-Bayda provinces, killed women and children.
It was reported that U.S. forces also engaged in gun fights with suspected Al-Qaeda targets on the 3rd of March, 2017. The Pentagon confirmed that the airstrikes had taken place, but denied that American troops were involved in ground combat.
Adam Baron, visiting fellow at the Europe Council on Foreign Relations in Beirut claimed he believed there was “a huge danger” of civilians being caught in the crossfire of U.S. airstrikes targeting Al-Qaeda.
On 8 March 2017, it was reported that two boys were killed by a US drone while walking along a road in Ghabat Yakla.
On 10 March 2017, The Intercept reported eyewitness accounts about the January 29th, 2017 U.S. raid, including the fact that the first person killed was a 13-year-old neighbour of the alleged target of the strike.
Family members of the injured and killed who spoke to Iona Craig stated that the attack helicopters “fired on anything that moved”. According to a U.S. special operations adviser and a former senior special operations officer who spoke to The Intercept, the target of the raid was Qassim al Rimi, the current leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who was not killed or injured during the raid. The White House has denied that al Rimi was the target of the raid.
On the 25th March, 2017, it was revealed that Australian firms had secured four military export deals with Saudi Arabia in the past year.
The Australian government has refused to provide details of the approved military sales.
The Australian Defence Industry Minister, Christopher Pyne, has outlined that in order to approve the salees, five criteria must be considered; international obligations, national security, human rights, regional security and foreign policy. While Australia has called for a ceasefire, both Christopher Pyne and the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, would not comment on Saudi Arabia’s use of force.
United States’ response to accusations
In late May, 2016, the United States halted the supply of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.
In June 2016, John Kerry, then the United States Secretary of State denied that the Saudi Arabian led campaign had been “indiscriminate, or not sufficiently careful”, and claimed he thought that Saudi Arabia was attempting to act responsibly and avoid endangering civilians. Kerry added that the Houthis “have a pretty good, practiced way of putting civilians into danger.”
Under the Obama administration, weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia were halted due to human rights concerns.
However, in March 2017, under the Trump administration, the weapons shipments resumed. There is also speculation that Yemen may not receive aid, as Donald Trump’s 2017 budget outline released in March 2017 plans to slash 28% of the funding given to United States Agency for International Development.
Iranian involvement in civil war
In March 2017, Reuters published an exclusive story in which it cited regional and Western sources as saying that Iran was sending “advanced weapons and military advisers” to Yemen to assist the Houthis. Sources claimed Iran has stepped up its involvement in the civil war over the last few months, and an Iranian official claimed that Qasem Soleimani discussed ways to “empower” Houthis at a meeting in Tehran in February, 2017.
Blockades imposed by coalition forces, particularly Saudi Arabia, have been extremely detrimental to Yemen, as the country relies heavily on the import of essential items, such as fuel and medicine.
Joanne Liu, the head of Doctors Without Borders, has claimed that the blockades imposed on Yemen “killing as (many people as) the current conflict”.
The blockades imposed could be argued to breach the right to food, especially in a country such as Yemen, which imports 90% of its food.
Secondary impact of attacks on human rights
Right to an adequate standard of living
Yemen has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which provides for an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate food.
The Covenant implicitly provides for the right to water. The Covenant also provides for the right to housing and defines it as: “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity”.It requires “adequate privacy, adequate space, adequate security, adequate lighting and ventilation, adequate basic infrastructure and adequate location with regard to work and basic facilities – all at a reasonable cost”.
Before the civil war began, Yemen was one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, with 61% of the population requiring humanitarian assistance, and widespread violations of human rights reported. The conflict and actions by the coalition, particularly the blockades, have been argued to have crippled the Yemeni economy. At the beginning of 2016 it was reported that 6 of every 10 Yemenis is not food secure, and as access to food is mostly dependent on its ability to be transported, it can be difficult for many Yemenis to buy the food they need. In June 2016, it was reported that 19 out of 22 of Yemen’s governorates face severe food insecurity, and a quarter of the population is living under emergency levels of food insecurity.
On the 2nd March 2017, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, stated that 19 million Yemenis (approximately two-thirds of the total population) are in need of humanitarian assistance or protection assistance.
O’Brien also stated that seven million Yemenis are not food secure, and urged parties to the conflict to allow facilitate humanitarian access to those in need.
The availability of water is an even more urgent need, with only 1 in 4 Yemenis having access to clean water. The number of Yemenis requiring assistance to meet their needs with regards to sanitation and clean water has increased by around 9.8 million people since the beginning of the civil war.
Some areas of Yemen, such as Saada, are almost completely without power: 95% of the electrical sources in the city have been bombed. According to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, one in ten Yemenis has been displaced by the conflict, and 21.2 million people (of Yemen’s population of 26 million) are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.
Right to health
Article 12 of the Covenant gives everybody “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.
According to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), this includes a healthcare system which is available to all. In August 2016, a Doctors without Borders hospital was hit in a Saudi airstrike, resulting in the deaths of at least 15 people and injuring 20. This bombing occurred only two days after a school in Northern Yemen was hit in a Saudi airstrike. Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack, saying “that civilians, including children, continue to bear the brunt of increased fighting and military operations in Yemen”, and calling for a swift investigation.
In October 2016, it was reported that a cholera outbreak was severely affecting many Yemenis.
UNICEF supported struggling health clinics by supplying water, water purifiers, and hygiene kits.
On the 28th October, the World Health Organisation announced that there were 1410 cases of cholera in 10 of Yemen’s 23 governates.
A major concern for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance is the rights of children, who are being extremely adversely affected by the current situation in Yemen. Despite Yemen’s international commitment to uphold the rights of children, UNICEF has claimed that approximately a third of the fighters from various regional groups are children.
The conflict is also having an effect on the health of Yemeni children; the number of children who died from preventable diseases per year increased by around 10,000 since the beginning of the conflict. This is likely due to the closure of around 600 medical facilities in Yemen, and also affects Yemenis of all ages.
Some cancer patients have been unable to access critical treatment such as radiation therapy, due to pressure on the resources of hospitals in some areas. The hospitals and other medical facilities which have remained open often suffer from a lack of staff, equipment, medicine, and power cuts.
Education has also suffered as a result of the conflict, with 1,100 schools unfit to reopen as of April 2016, and 1.8 million children have out of school since the beginning of the conflict. In August 2016, a school was hit by a Saudi Arabian airstrike, resulting in the death of at least 19 people, most of whom were children.
It has been reported that around 180,000 Yemeni children are suffering from malnutrition.As of May 2016, The United Nations claimed it had only been able to reach a third of the children suffering from acute malnutrition. According to UNICEF, as of May 2016, 1.3 million Yemeni children are at risk of malnutrition.
In September 2016, it was claimed that 320,000 children were severely malnourished, with 2.2 million children in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
On 2 March 2017, Stephen O’Brien stated that also 500,000 children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition and that a child dies every 10 minutes due to preventable causes in Yemen.
On 24 March 2017, it was reported that doctors in Yemen were seeing an increase in premature births and birth defects. Doctors in the capital, Sana’a, claim this is a result of the war and the bombs and other weapons being deployed in Yemen by various forces. One doctor, Abdulkarim al-Najjar, said the number of brain, backbone, throat, digestive and nervous system birth deformities was unprecedented. Another doctor, Wafa al-Mamari, said the deformities could be caused by several factors, including diseases and poor nutrition of the mother. Al-Mamari noted that many of the women whose children are suffering from birth defects came from Sa’adah, Sana’a, Ta’izz and Hudaydah, areas which have been heavily bombarded.
Women have also been disproportionately affected by the conflict: they make up 52% of displaced people, and gender based violence has increased since the beginning of the conflict. At the end of 2016, it was estimated that there had been more than 10,000 reported incidents of gender based violence. The Middle East Eye reported the story of a refugee family in al-Shimayateen, who stated that their 13-year-old daughter had been kidnapped, raped and killed by a man who had previously provided the family with food and been considered a “benefactor”.