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UN experts signal possible war crimes in Yemen

“No possible military advantage could justify such sustained and extreme suffering of millions of people”

Yeyha Arhab/ICRC
A child stands in the middle of destroyed buildings in his neighbourhood in Sana'a.

A UN group of experts on Yemen has found that individuals from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the government of Yemen, and Houthi rebels and their allies have all committed violations of international law that may amount to war crimes in the country’s three and a half year war.

In a report released Tuesday, the Group of Independent Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen catalogues a litany of abuses during the conflict, which began in March 2015 and has pitted Houthi rebels and their allies against a Saudi Arabian-led coalition backing the internationally recognised (but deposed) government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The UN human rights office counts 6,475 civilian deaths and 10,231 between March 2015 and this June, but believes the real figure to be significantly higher.

The report said coalition airstrikes have caused most of the documented civilian casualties, with residential areas, marketplaces, funerals, weddings, and medical facilities hit.

“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimise civilian casualties, said Kamel Jendoubi, the group’s chair, in a statement. “I call on them to prioritise human dignity in this forgotten conflict.”

Last week an airstrike killed 22 children and four women who had reportedly been fleeing violence in Hodeidah province, and the week before a strike on a bus in the northern Saada province killed more than 40 children. Both have been blamed on the Saudi-led coalition, and the UN’s humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock condemned the attacks and called for an impartial investigation. The Saudi-led coalition insists it does not target civilians and investigates when it makes mistakes.

The 41-page report devotes significant space to the restrictions the coalition has imposed on shipping into Yemen, as well as the closure of Sana’a airport to commercial traffic (including most medical evacuations).

Yemen traditionally imports 90 percent of its food, as well as most food and medical supplies, and the UN says 22 million people, some two thirds of the country’s population, need some form of humanitarian assistance.

The report says that given the severe humanitarian impact naval and air limitations have had on the civilian population, “such acts, together with the requisite intent, may amount to international crimes.”

“As these restrictions are planned and implemented as the result of State policies, individual criminal responsibility would lie at all responsible levels, including the highest levels, of government of the member states of the coalition and Yemen.”

The Houthi rebels and their allies loyal to former and now deceased president Ali Abdullah Saleh are also accused of impeding the delivery of aid and other important goods, particularly in the city of Taiz. While investigators were unable to visit Taiz, which has seen some of the worst fighting and a series of sieges in the war, the report says that based on the information it has, restrictions imposed by Houthi-Saleh forces between July 2015 and January 2016 appear to have violated international law. It added that shelling by the Houthi-Saleh forces had likely caused the majority of civilian casualties in Taiz.

The report confirms “widespread arbitrary detention throughout the country, and ill-treatment and torture in some facilities.”

The group of experts report came out of a compromise resolution in the UN Human Rights Council last September – several European states and Canada had been pushing for a formal commission of inquiry into the war in Yemen, while Saudi Arabia and several other Arab states proposed sending international experts to work with an inquiry led by Hadi’s government.

The experts said they had sent a confidential list of individuals who may be responsible for international crimes to the UN high commissioner for human rights.

(TOP PHOTO: A child stands in the middle of destroyed buildings in his Sana'a neighbourhood. CREDIT: Yeyha Arhab/ICRC)


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