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UN details possible war crimes in Yemen

Wesley Dockery
August 28, 2018

A report by the United Nations says that the Saudi-led forces in Yemen, as well as the Houthi rebels they are fighting, may have committed war crimes. Saudi officials claim the organization is biased against them.

Saudi Arabian airstrike in Yemen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Y. Arhab

"[We have] reasonable grounds to believe that the governments of Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are responsible for human rights violations," UN experts said Tuesday in their first report on possible war crimes in the conflict for the Human Rights Council.

Saudi Arabia, in a military coalition with the UAE, has been engaged in a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels since 2015. The conflict has resulted in the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The Human Rights Council asserts that airstrikes by the coalition on civilian infrastructure such as marketplaces and fishing boats raise "serious concerns about the targeting process applied by the coalition."

Read more: Saudi-led coalition's probes 'not credible' says HRW

Other human rights violations by the coalition include arbitrary detention, rape, torture and the "deprivation of the right to life," according to the UN. Last year, the Associated Press reported that the UAE manages a secret network of detention centers in Yemen, where detainees face sexual abuse and torture. 

The report also accused Houthi rebels of human rights violations, saying that its leaders, who control the western and northern areas of the country, have tortured members of the civilian population and recruited children for their militias. The Houthis were accused by the UN of blocking aid and humanitarian supplies to the city of Taiz in 2015, as well as shelling the city.

Many of the crimes highlighted in the report may amount to "war crimes," the UN said.

"There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties," said Kamel Jendoubi, a Tunisian human rights expert who helped compose the report.

The UN estimates that that roughly 6,660 civilians have been killed and 10,563 more injured in the conflict between March 2015 and August 2018.

Modernization, without criticism

Western support fuels conflict

"Unfortunately I don't think that the report will have any consequences on how the war is conducted on the part of the Saudi-led coalition," Jens Heibach, a research fellow and analyst at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, told DW. "The current diplomatic row with Canada exemplifies the way Riyadh is dealing with external criticism as well as the extent to which Riyadh is willing to respond to it."    

The UN called for the international community to "refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict." Currently the United States, France and the United Kingdom provide weapons and logistical support to Saudi forces and their allies. Earlier this month, the Saudi-led coalition bombed a school bus in Yemen, killing 40 children. The bomb itself was part of a 2015 weapons shipment from the US to Saudi Arabia under the Obama administration. 

Read more: In Yemen, 'nearly all children' at risk from war

Heibach believes the UN report could put pressure on some Western government to stop selling weapons to the Saudis, but he is not optimistic. "The constant and grave breaches of international human law in Yemen have been reported on for years. States like Sweden, Norway or Germany have responded to this by halting their arms supplies to Saudi Arabia," he said.  "Yet Riyadh's main Western suppliers such as the United Kingdom, France and the United States have continued to sell arms to the kingdom, often with dubious justifications, and will probably continue to do so."

So far, Saudi state media has said the coalition's legal team will review the report before they "take the appropriate position." Heibach predicted the Saudi media will offer an interpretation of the UN's findings that "the regime can easily live with." He also said that Saudi-influenced public relations firms in Washington will attempt to persuade US politicians that the Western-backed coalition is working to try and reduce civilian casualties in their fight against the Houthis, who Riyadh contends are a proxy of the Iranian government.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Tuesday that the Pentagon is "constantly reviewing" the amount of support it gives the Saudi-led coalition, but did not suggest his government would limit that assistance. He added that Washington aims to keep "the human cost" of civilian deaths "to the absolute minimum."

A group of Houthi rebels gather, chanting slogans against the Yemeni government
The Saudis claim their war against the Iranian-aligned Houthis is aimed at curbing Tehran's influence in the regionImage: picture-alliance/H.Mohammed

On Twitter, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said of the report that his government "must review it, answer the merits and review what it says about he horrors of the Houthis."

"The coalition is fulfilling its role in reclaiming the Yemeni state and securing the future of the region from Iranian interference," he added.

Saudis claim 'false allegations'

Saudi Arabia recently claimed that Houthis were putting "pressures" on the UN to avoid reporting on human rights violations the rebels commit. "We call on UN organizations in Yemen to be neutral and not tolerate violations," Saudi government spokesman Colonel Turki al-Maliki said Monday. He went on to claim that UN officials often make "false allegations" towards the Saudi-led coalition, while ignoring accusations by his government that the Houthis have taken over warehouses in Yemen used by international aid organizations.   

On September 6, the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition are expected to hold talks in Geneva. "Despite the gravity of the situation, we still note a total disdain for the suffering of the Yemeni people," the UN's Jendoubi told reporters in a briefing Tuesday. "This crisis has reached its peak with no apparent sight of light at the end of the tunnel."