Both sides in Yemen’s war are committing war crimes, says report

The UN estimates the death toll in the Yemeni war at 377,000

Both sides prosecuting Yemen’s devastating war have committed war crimes and human rights violations, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Yemen’s Mwatana for Human Rights state in their latest report.

It describes a series of violations following a rebel Houthi missile attack on January 17th on Emirati oil facilities that killed three and wounded six. In response, the Saudis mounted aerial attacks on civilian residences, killing nine in the rebel Houthi-held capital, Sana’a, its airport, and the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, the chief entry port for food, medicine and fuel.

The report then cites a deadly example in which both sides were involved in abuses. On January 21st, Saudi and Emirati air strikes on a Houthi migrant detention centre resulted in at least 80 civilian deaths and 156 injuries. The attackers claimed without evidence this was a military objective, say the authors.

Rebel Houthi fighters guarding the facility fired on fleeing detainees killing and wounding “dozens” and contributing to overall casualties, the report states.

“Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, warring parties may target only military objectives. They must take all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians,” HRW and Mwatana say. “Deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited.”

The UN estimates the death toll in the Yemeni war at 377,000.

“After eight years of conflict that has turned life for Yemen’s civilians into a disaster zone, the situation only seems to get worse,” says HRW regional director Lama Fakih. “For UN-backed peace negotiations to be successful, the results need to be durable, which requires placing justice for past atrocities at the core of any peace agreement.”

On April 1st, the UN imposed a two-month ceasefire to coincide with the beginning of the Muslim fasting and peacemaking month of Ramadan. A week later, president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was expelled from Sana’a in 2015 by the Houthis, resigned and handed over power to a presidential council representing eight factions.

The Houthis, the report states, have acknowledged this was “a step toward a political agreement to end the conflict”.

"The US, the UK, France and others should suspend all weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE until they not only curtail their unlawful airstrikes in Yemen but also credibly investigate alleged violations," the report says.

Call for inquiry

HRW and Mwatana call for the establishment of a new international commission of inquiry to replace an investigation terminated in 2021 “to pursue accountability for human rights violations and war crimes in Yemen through prosecutions”.

Such a commission should “ensure accountability for abuses by all parties to the conflict and should avoid endorsing any amnesties for serious international crimes”, the report says, pointing out that UN policies prohibit amnesties.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Mr Hadi to resign. The crown prince is seen as eager to exit the war, from which the United Arab Emirates withdrew ground forces in 2019. Prince Mohammed seeks to rehabilitate his image, which has been tarnished by the war, his dire domestic human rights record and the 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times