The numerous parties to the war in Yemen, which began in 2015, have perpetrated and continue to commit violations of international law by indiscriminately murdering civilians, blocking humanitarian-aid deliveries, arbitrarily detaining people and possibly torturing those imprisoned, recruiting child soldiers and raping women and men, according to a new report by a United Nations panel of experts.
The findings by the experts are damning for everyone fighting in the conflict inside the poorest, weakest country in the Middle East: the Yemeni government, which is exiled in Saudi Arabia; the Saudis and United Arab Emirates, which lead the coalition bombing parts of the country; and the Houthi rebels, which the United States and Israel claim are aided and abetted by Iran.
The only clear winners appear to be the major defense industries in Britain, the US, France and elsewhere, including American companies like Raytheon and General Dynamics, by selling a range of lucrative weapons to the Saudi coalition. The coalition has also dropped cluster munitions, possibly originating from Brazil, despite an international ban against using the bombs. The Houthis have used antipersonnel landmines, which are banned globally, too.
The clear losers in the war are Yemeni children, many of them murdered disproportionately by Saudi-led airstrikes.
The UN report, commissioned by the Human Rights Council, suggests that all combatants in Yemen — which pits the Houthis against the government and its Saudi Arabian-United Arab Emirates partners — have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, subject to prosecution by international or regional tribunals or other judicial bodies. Yemen is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, nor are many of the other countries involved in the Yemen disaster.
Released Aug. 28 in Geneva by the UN, the study follows by less than a week a report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that the Saudi coalition bombed Ad Durayhimi, a district south of the port of Hudeidah, on Aug. 23 on the west coast of Yemen. The first attack on the site that day hit a house, killing four children, according to Unicef, relying on partners on the ground for information. The remaining families fled the house in cars, which were hit while driving 400 meters from their home, leaving 22 more children, four mothers and a driver dead, with no survivors.
Neither the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, nor the UN Security Council has acknowledged the Aug. 23 attack — a silence that may be a strategy to ensure that invitations sent by the UN envoy for Yemen to warring factions to meet on Sept. 6 in Geneva will be accepted. The UN welcomed a $930 million gift from the Saudis earlier this year, to be used by the UN’s humanitarian-aid office to alleviate the “suffering” of the Yemeni people, an act that may influence the nature of the UN’s reaction to bombings in Yemen. Or as one former UN envoy put it, “taming” the UN.
The UN’s office on children and armed conflict also softened its stance on Saudi Arabia when it placed the country on a new annex in its annual report, listing it among “parties that have put in place measures during the reporting period aimed at improving the protection of children.”
Moreover, a UN panel of experts on Yemen for the Security Council submitted a midterm report to the body recently, but the report was not made public.
Another attack this month on Yemeni children, claimed by the Saudi coalition, which is enabled by the US through direct logistical assistance, was recorded on Aug. 9. The bombs hit a school bus, murdering at least 43 people, including 29 children, in northern Yemen, which the Houthis control. Scores were wounded. After the assault, Guterres called for an independent investigation into the crime, though nothing appears to have resulted from the request.
The Security Council, urged by some of its elected members, like the Netherlands and Sweden, called for a “credible” investigation by the Saudis. They said the attack was justified because it was “a legitimate military operation” and accused the Houthis of using children as human shields. The Saudis have provided no evidence for this claim.
Karen Pierce, the ambassador for Britain at the UN, said on Aug. 28, after the UN human-rights report on Yemen came out, that it was “still studying it very carefully but I would like to repeat the calls of the Security Council for all parties to the conflict to uphold International Humanitarian Law and to act at all times on the principles of distinction and proportionality.”
“No place is safe for children in Yemen,” said Juliette Touma, the regional chief communications officer for Unicef, in a telephone call from her base in Amman, Jordan. “Violence is impacting every child in Yemen, even going to school is dangerous.”
And so the war in Yemen goes on, as the US and Britain are unable or unwilling to exert substantial influence on stopping the coalition from disproportionately murdering innocent Yemenis. The US sent a three-star general after the Aug. 9 attack to Saudi Arabia, but information on what resulted has not been provided, although the Pentagon is demanding that the Saudi spell out what happened. Democratic lawmakers in the US Congress warned this week that they will try to block munition sales to allies in the Gulf region in response to civilian casualties in the Saudi role in Yemen, even as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended US military support to the coalition.
The UN panel that wrote the human-rights report was led by Kamel Jendoubi of Tunisia, with Charles Garraway of Britain and Melissa Parke of Australia. The experts visited Aden, Sana, Sada and Hudeidah in Yemen and other countries in the region.
The report documents crimes from September 2014 to June 2018. Coalition airstrikes have “hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.” The UN experts said they had “reasonable grounds to believe that individuals in the Government of Yemen and the coalition may have conducted attacks in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution that may amount to war crimes.”
“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties. I call on them to prioritise human dignity in this forgotten conflict,” said Jendoubi, chairman of the panel.
Despite a litany of requests over the years by the UN and even the US to lift blockades, the Saudi coalition has disrupted naval and air deliveries to Yemen, in varying degrees, since March 2015, even as starvation levels have increased enough to threaten the risk of famine and as cholera has raged in sections of the country.
In June 2018, the coalition and its affiliated forces launched an offensive on the key city of Hudeidah. After a few weeks, it subsided, possibly to allow for mediation work by the UN’s newest envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, a former British diplomat.
The panel also found that many parties fighting in Taiz, another battleground but too dangerous for the experts to visit, have been responsible for civilian casualties. The alleged use by the Houthis of weapons “with wide area effect in a situation of urban warfare, is particularly concerning,” the panel wrote.
Investigations by the panel confirm widespread arbitrary jailing throughout Yemen, including torture in some facilities.
In addition, victims and witnesses described to the panel “persistent and pervasive aggressive behavior, including sexual violence perpetrated by the Security Belt Forces [a paramilitary force] and United Arab Emirates personnel. Examples include rape of men and women and sexual violence against displaced persons, migrants and other vulnerable groups.”
One common practice involved security forces abducting and raping women in Yemen or threatening to do so to extort money from their families and communities. Security forces reportedly entered homes at night and took women to rape. The authorities did not conduct investigations or make arrests related to the crimes. Violations continued as of May 2018.
The Yemen government, the coalition and the Houthis have all conscripted or enlisted children into armed forces or groups and used them in war activities, the report said. In most cases, the children were 11 to 17 years old, but there have been consistent reports of the recruitment or use of children as young as 8 years old.
The panel has urged the Human Rights Council — which the US dropped from as a member in June 2018 — to renew its mandate to help ensure that the catastrophes occurring in Yemen stay on the Council’s radar.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian problems in Yemen intensify: more than two million people are internally displaced; and the country actually hosts 270,000 refugees and nearly 10,000 asylum seekers, many of them escaping the Horn of Africa.
As the war endures, Touma of Unicef said, it is a “reminder that the war on children continues” as well.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.