Violence between Houthi rebels and various pro-government forces, as well as Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, have killed more than 10,000 people, including over 5,100 civilians, since March 2015. On 16 August a draft report by the UN Secretary-General on children and armed conflict documented the deaths of 502 children in Yemen during 2016, noting that the Saudi-led international coalition was responsible for killing or wounding at least 683 children, while the Houthis were responsible for 414 casualties.
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, on 19 November 2016, collapsed within 48 hours and political negotiations have been suspended for over a year. During recent months, fighting has escalated across Taizz governorate and around Sana'a. Indiscriminate shelling continues and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 70 percent of the wounded in Taizz city are women and children.
Yemen is now the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 2.9 million Yemenis have been forcibly displaced while an estimated 18.8 million people - over two thirds of the population - require humanitarian assistance. Since a cholera outbreak began in May, over 658,000 cases have been reported and approximately 2,050 people have died.
During 2014, amidst a UN-facilitated political transition process, the Houthis, an armed Shia movement from 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 and a coalition of nine other countries responded to a government request for regional military intervention. 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. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) the conflict has also increased religious persecution of the country's Bahá'í population.
OHCHR has reported that both sides have committed violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and violations and abuses of international human rights law (IHRL). On 19 December 2016 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. UNICEF has also reported that over 1,500 child soldiers were recruited during 2016, noting the actual number is likely much higher. The use of child soldiers is a war crime.
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 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.
Various parties to the conflict have perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and targeted civilian infrastructure, amounting to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ongoing conflict has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe in which at least seven million people are at risk of famine.
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 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 also 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.
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 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 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 (UNVIM). The statement also called for a durable cessation of hostilities.
On 5 September OHCHR released a report on Yemen and called for the establishment of an international, independent body to investigate violations of IHL and violations and abuses of IHRL in Yemen.
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 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. UN member states should also immediately halt the sale of weapons to parties to the conflict who have been implicated in violations of international law.
All parties to the conflict must also 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 UN Human Rights Council should establish an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate potential mass atrocities committed in Yemen since March 2015.
Last Updated: 15 September 2017