Violence between Houthi rebels and various pro-government forces, as well as airstrikes by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led international coalition, have killed more than 10,000 people since March 2015. Although the UN estimates that 5,000 civilians have been killed, the actual death toll is likely to be considerably higher. The ongoing conflict has also resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe in which at least 8.4 million people are at risk of famine.
During 2014, amidst a UN-facilitated political transition process, the Houthis, an armed movement originating amongst the Shia population in northeast Yemen, and military units loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the governorates of Sa'ada, Hodeida, Dhamar, Amran and Sana'a. On 26 March 2015 Saudi Arabia, UAE and a coalition of eight other countries responded to a government request for regional military intervention.
Despite several temporary ceasefire agreements during 2015 and 2016 and intermittent UN-brokered peace talks, the conflict in Yemen continues to leave civilians facing mass atrocity crimes. The last attempted ceasefire, on 19 November 2016, collapsed within 48 hours and political negotiations have been suspended for over a year. Indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes continue, and in December fighting escalated across the northwest of the country.
Following a breakdown of the military alliance between troops loyal to former President Saleh and Houthi forces, on 2 December Saleh announced his willingness to cooperate with the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. Following intense fighting in Sana'a, Saleh was killed on 4 December. Ongoing Saudi/UAE-led coalition airstrikes across the country resulted in the death of at least 109 civilians between 16-26 December alone.
On 4 November Houthi forces fired a ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia that was shot down outside Riyadh. In retaliation Saudi Arabia closed all sea and air ports in Yemen, intensifying its blockade of the country. Yemen imports 90 percent of its staple food supplies. On 23 November the coalition lifted the blockade for humanitarian aid, and on 20 December it announced that it would re-open the port of Hodeidah for commercial fuel imports for 30 days.
Yemen is now the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 3 million Yemenis have been forcibly displaced while an estimated 22.2 million people – over three quarters of the population – require humanitarian assistance. Since a cholera outbreak began in May, over 1 million cases have been reported and at least 2,237 people have died.
Throughout the conflict Houthi and government-allied forces have targeted civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, as well as international humanitarian workers. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has said that respect for the distinction between civilian and military targets has been "woefully inadequate" by all sides.
The UN Secretary-General's annual report on children and armed conflict documented the deaths of 502 children in Yemen during 2016, noting that the Saudi/UAE-led coalition was responsible for killing or wounding at least 683 children, while the Houthis were responsible for 414 casualties. The report also verified 517 cases of the recruitment and use of child soldiers. The Saudi/UAE-led coalition was also responsible for attacks on 28 schools and 10 hospitals during 2016.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reported that both sides have committed violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and violations and abuses of International Human Rights Law. Saudi Arabia has confirmed that it has used illegal cluster munitions in Yemen, while Houthi-Saleh forces have reportedly used banned anti-personnel mines.
Other armed groups continue to take advantage of the conflict to perpetrate violence against civilians. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has gained influence, although it has retreated from several cities it temporarily controlled in during 2015. Since March 2015 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has also claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on Shia mosques and car bombings in Sana'a and Aden. According to OHCHR the conflict has also resulted in increased religious persecution of the country's Bahá'í population.
All parties to the conflict have perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and targeted civilian infrastructure, amounting to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Despite the magnitude of the crisis, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has failed to adequately respond to the conflict in Yemen. A substantive UNSC resolution has not been passed since April 2015, and the Council has done little to facilitate the resumption of peace talks.
While Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain the main forces sustaining the regional military coalition, Iran has provided some military assistance to the Houthis. Civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition have resulted in public pressure for the United States and United Kingdom to cease selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The dissolution of the alliance between Houthi and pro-Saleh forces threatens to further fracture Yemeni society along tribal lines. Terrorist groups, such as AQAP and ISIL, are also trying to exploit tensions between Shia and Sunni populations to increase their influence.
All sides of the conflict appear manifestly unwilling or unable to uphold their Responsibility to Protect.
During 2011 the UNSC adopted Resolution 2014, which condemned human rights violations by the government of former President Saleh and affirmed Yemen's primary responsibility to protect its population.
The UNSC imposed sanctions on former President Saleh and Houthi leaders in November 2014. On 14 April 2015 the UNSC passed Resolution 2216, establishing an arms embargo against Houthi leaders and some supporters of former President Saleh, and demanding the Houthis withdraw from all areas they had militarily seized. On 23 February 2017 the UNSC renewed sanctions for an additional year and extended the mandate of the Panel of Experts on Yemen.
On 13 December 2016 the United States announced that because of concerns regarding Yemen, it would halt some arms sales to Saudi Arabia. However, during President Donald Trump's May 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia, the United States announced a potential arms deal worth almost $110 billion, including ending the moratorium on selling precision-guided munitions.
On 15 June the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement calling for greater facilitation of humanitarian access and deployment of additional monitors for the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen.
On 29 September the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing a Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Yemen. Members of Group were appointed by High Commissioner Zeid on 4 December and will submit a report to the High Commissioner by September 2018.
The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen is a direct result of the ongoing armed conflict and requires a political solution. The UNSC and regional powers need to facilitate a sustained ceasefire and ensure that parties to the conflict return to substantive peace negotiations.
The distinction between military and civilian targets is central to IHL and must be adhered to at all times. Parties to the conflict must halt the use of illegal and indiscriminate weapons, including cluster munitions and landmines. All UN member states should immediately halt the sale of weapons to parties to the conflict who routinely violate IHL.
All parties to the conflict must also ensure full and effective humanitarian access. The Saudi/UAE-led coalition must immediately reopen all sea and air ports, especially in Hodeidah and Sana'a, for crucial humanitarian relief supplies.
Last Updated: 15 January 2018