Despite several temporary ceasefire agreements and intermittent UN-brokered peace talks between the government and Houthi rebels, the conflict in Yemen continues to leave civilians facing mass atrocity crimes. The last attempted ceasefire, which started on 19 November 2016, collapsed within 48 hours.
During recent months, fighting has escalated in the besieged city of Taizz. As government forces advance into the city, indiscriminate shelling continues. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has reported that approximately 70 percent of the wounded in Taizz are women and children.
Violence between Houthi rebels and various pro-government forces, as well as Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, has resulted in more than 10,000 people being killed, including over 4,700 civilians, since March 2015. More than 3.1 million Yemenis have been forcibly displaced while an estimated 18.8 million people - over 75 percent of the population - require humanitarian assistance. Since a cholera outbreak began in May, over 300,000 cases have been reported and over 1,700 people have died. At least 8 million people currently lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation.
According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the conflict's death toll includes at least 1,300 children. During March UNICEF warned that as many as 462,000 children in Yemen are at risk of death due to severe acute malnutrition, and on 13 June reported that almost half of those affected by cholera are children. Additionally, on 27 March UNICEF reported that over 1,500 child soldiers were recruited during 2016 and called for their immediate release. The actual number of child soldiers is likely to be much higher, as most families do not report their recruitment for fear of reprisals. The use of children in armed conflict is a war crime.
During 2014, amidst a UN-facilitated political transition process, the Houthis, an armed Shia movement from northeast Yemen, and military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the governorates of Sa'ada, Hodeida, Dhamar, Amran and Sana'a. On 26 March 2015 Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine other countries responded to a government request for regional military intervention. Growing violence forced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to seek temporary refuge in Riyadh. Despite military setbacks, Houthis and pro-Saleh forces still control much of western Yemen.
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 both sides. Additionally, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) the conflict has increased religious persecution of the country's Bahá'í population. A sharp increase in arbitrary arrests of Bahá'ís has led many families to flee their homes in Houthi-controlled Sana'a.
OHCHR has reported that both sides have committed violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and violations and abuses of international human rights law. On 19 December Saudi Arabia confirmed that it had used illegal cluster munitions in Yemen. On 20 April Human Rights Watch reported that Houthi-Saleh forces have used banned anti-personnel mines, hindering the return of displaced civilians.
The UN and Gulf Cooperation Council have made numerous attempts to broker peace between parties to the conflict, but talks have been suspended since 6 August 2016. During May the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Yemen. During his visit to Yemen his convoy was attacked while traveling to the UN compound in Sana'a. On 5 June Houthi leaders announced their rejection of the Special Envoy as a peace negotiator and Houthi officials have refused to meet with him.
Other armed groups have taken advantage of the conflict to perpetrate violence against civilians. Since March 2015 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on Shia mosques and has detonated car bombs in Sana'a and Aden. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also gained influence during 2015, but has since retreated from several cities it temporarily controlled.
Various parties to the conflict have perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and targeted civilian infrastructure, amounting to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. Failure to abide by temporary ceasefires and attempts by the Houthis to subvert the political transition are in violation of various UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. The ongoing conflict has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe, now the largest in the world, in which at least seven million people are at risk of famine.
Despite the magnitude of the crisis, the 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 remains the main force backing the regional military coalition, Iran has allegedly provided military assistance to the Houthis. Former Yemeni President Saleh has publicly called for direct attacks on Saudi Arabia. Civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have resulted in public pressure for the United States and United Kingdom to cease selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
Fighting between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces also threatens to further fracture Yemeni society along tribal and sectarian lines. Terrorist groups, such as AQAP and ISIL, are trying to exploit tensions between Shia and Sunni populations to increase their influence.
The Yemeni government is unable to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and requires ongoing international support to negotiate an end to the conflict.
In 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 seized during the conflict. On 23 February 2017 the UNSC renewed sanctions for an additional year and extended the mandate of the Panel of Experts on Yemen.
On 30 September 2016 the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling upon all parties to respect their obligations under international law, but failed to get the support necessary to approve an independent international commission of inquiry.
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 visit to Saudi Arabia during May, the United States announced a potential arms deal worth almost $110 billion, including ending the moratorium on selling precision-guided munitions.
On 25 April the UN, Sweden and Switzerland hosted a high-level pledging conference for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Donors pledged US$1.1 billion of the $2.1 billion requested by OCHA.
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 (UNVIM). The statement also called for a durable cessation of hostilities.
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 land mines. UN member states should also immediately halt the sale of weapons to parties to the conflict who have been implicated in atrocities. All parties must uphold their responsibility to protect vulnerable populations regardless of their tribal, religious or political affiliations.
All parties to the conflict must ensure the full and effective functioning of the humanitarian lifeline of Hodeidah Port, based on the recommendations of the UNSC Panel of Experts. The four cranes available to facilitate the delivery and processing of imports at Hodeidah should be installed immediately and UNVIM should be strengthened. Parties to the conflict should also facilitate the re-opening of Sana'a airport.
The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen is a direct result of the 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 UN Human Rights Council should establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate potential mass atrocities committed in Yemen since March 2015.
Last Updated: 17 July 2017