Human Rights Watch has accused the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen of using cluster bombs in its airstrikes. The weapons are banned by most countries, as HRW's Yemen researcher Belkis Wille explains.
A BLU-108 canister with four submunitions still attached found in the al-Amar area in northern Yemen on April 17, 2015
Deutsche Welle: Human Rights Watch alleges the Saudi-led coalition has used US-supplied cluster bombs in its attacks on Yemen's Shiite rebels, although Saudi Arabia has denied using these weapons. Can you tell us what evidence HRW has gathered?
Belkis Wille: A few weeks ago, footage was posted online by a predominantly Houthi outlet that showed parachutes landing from an airstrike, and the parachutes were delivering mechanisms for a weapon. We saw the footage and were immediately concerned because the types of parachutes and the way they were landing looked very much like a type of cluster munitions that we know the Saudis purchased from an American company in 2013. A few days later we received photographs showing the actual remnants of the munitions on the ground. This was able to help us further identify what we had seen in the footage. We used satellite imagery to verify that the footage was indeed taken in Yemen from the area where it was said to be taken.
The reason this was so important is because under customary international law, you cannot use cluster munitions in an area inhabited by civilians. We were able to identify from satellite imagery that there are in fact four to six villages in the vicinity of where the film was shot.
How significant is it that these cluster munitions were supplied by the US?
First and foremost, it is a violation of US government policy, which says they cannot sell cluster munitions to countries that will use those munitions in civilian populated areas. However, the purchasing of these weapons happened well before the current conflict that we have today, and as we understand it, the Saudi-led coalition is the one to have used these cluster munitions. The US is a supporter of the coalition, but not a direct member, so it's unclear to what extent the US actually had a role in this specific strike.
Why is the use of this particular type of weapon so concerning?
Cluster munitions are by nature inherently indiscriminate. Discriminating between combatants and civilians is one of the key tenants of the laws of war. A bomb that has a single explosive that hits a military target is of course very specific and limited in what it destroys. But cluster munitions are delivery systems that let out separate bomblets that can go in every direction and cannot by their nature discriminate between civilian targets and military targets.
In addition, you often see with cluster munitions, that some of the bomblets do not explode. They land on the ground, and essentially become de facto landmines that can explode and maim or kill individuals - whether military of civilian - that are in the area.
Is there anything the international community could do to prevent the use of cluster bombs in Yemen?
A total of 116 countries have signed treaties banning these cluster munitions, however Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States have not signed up to these conventions. What we would like to see now, is that those countries that are within the coalition, and countries friendly to the coalition, start to exert more pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop them from using these weapons again.
Saudi Arabia also used cluster munitions in 2009 in the war between the Yemeni government and the Houthis. Is it any surprise they may be being used again now?
After the first night of airstrikes during this war in Yemen, we issued a press release highlighting our serious concerns that since Saudi Arabia had used cluster munitions in Yemen before, it may do so again. This actually prompted Saudi Arabia to state in a press conference the next day that: "We are not using cluster munitions." We thought this was a positive sign. But the new evidence is extremely concerning. We don't understand what the military advantage is - the reality is that this weapon is simply indiscriminate and can seriously affect civilians.
The UN says more than 1,200 people have been killed and 300,000 have fled their homes in the past six weeks. What can you tell us more generally about the impact of the fighting and Saudi-led bombing on the civilian population?
We've been able to identify several specific airstrikes that we think fall in violation of international humanitarian law, specifically because they were indiscriminate attacks on civilians or civilian infrastructure leading to a large number of deaths. This includes an airstrike on a camp for internally displaced people in northern Yemen. In addition, of course there's the fighting on the ground.
And in addition to all of this you've got a naval and aerial blockade that's been in force by Saudi Arabia and the rest of the coalition. This blockade has led to a serious lack of necessary medical aid, food, water and fuel. Yemen is a country that obtains 90 percent of food from external imports - water and fuel as well. What I hear from locals on the ground is that cities are so called ghost cities: There's not a single car on the road because there's no more fuel for cars. Generators have all run out of fuel, so people are getting what little electricity is being provided by the state, which is sometimes one hour a day, sometimes none for a period of six days straight. And individuals who have to go to the hospital for basic procedures that have nothing to do with the fighting may perish simply because they either can't reach the hospital because of the lack of fuel and vehicles, or the hospitals aren't able to take on their cases because of the severe lack of medical aid.
Belkis Wille is the Yemen researcher with Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division. She is responsible for researching abuses and conducting local and international advocacy on human rights issues in Yemen and Kuwait.