Violence between Houthi rebels, members of the General People's Congress (GPC) 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. The ongoing conflict has also resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe in which at least 8.4 million people are at risk of famine.
Yemen is now the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 2 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 2017, over 1.1 million cases have been reported and at least 2,300 people have died.
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 and the GPC, party took control of the governorates of Sa'ada, Hodeida, Dhamar, Amran and Sana'a. On 26 March 2015 Saudi Arabia, the UAE and a coalition of eight other countries responded to a government request for regional military intervention.
After a breakdown of the alliance between troops loyal to former President Saleh and Houthi forces, on 2 December 2017 Saleh announced his willingness to cooperate with the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. Following intense fighting in Sana'a, Saleh was killed on 4 December. On 28 January fighting erupted in Aden between the Yemeni government's Southern Transitional Council and separatists aligned with the UAE, demonstrating the fracturing amongst all parties to the conflict.
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 two years.
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. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in March food imports were still only 57 percent of the monthly national requirement.
Throughout the conflict Houthi and government-allied forces have targeted civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, as well as humanitarian workers. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that respect for the distinction between civilian and military targets has been "woefully inadequate" by all sides. On 11 May the High Commissioner said April was the deadliest month since the war began, with 236 civilians killed.
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 Saudi/UAE-led coalition was also responsible for attacks on 28 schools and 10 hospitals during 2016. On 27 March the UN Children's Fund reported that at least 2,419 child soldiers have been recruited in Yemen since March 2015.
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, and 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. 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 has failed to adequately respond to the conflict in Yemen. A substantive UNSC resolution has not been passed since April 2015.
While Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain the main forces behind the regional military coalition, Iran has provided some military assistance to the Houthis. Civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes by the international 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, as well as political disputes amongst pro-government forces, threatens to further fracture Yemeni society. Terrorist groups, such as AQAP and ISIL, are also trying to exploit the conflict 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 26 February 2018 the UNSC renewed sanctions for an additional year.
On 29 September 2017 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.
On 14 February the UNSC approved Martin Griffiths as the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen. On 15 March the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement calling for unhindered humanitarian and commercial access, and calling upon all parties to uphold their obligations under International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
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 UNSC should demand all parties cease attacks against civilians and ensure accountability for all atrocities committed during the conflict.
The distinction between military and civilian targets is central to IHL and must be adhered to at all times. All UN member states should immediately halt the sale of weapons to parties to the conflict who routinely violate IHL, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
All parties to the conflict must also ensure full and effective humanitarian access. The Saudi/UAE-led coalition must reopen all sea and air ports for crucial humanitarian and commercial supplies.
Last Updated: 15 May 2018
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Yemen has been featured in the R2P Monitor since the May 2015 issue.