Up to 13 civilians a day are being killed in Yemen, according to a recent report from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The report documents allegations of abuses and violations of international humanitarian law against Yemen’s civilians in that country’s civil conflict; deplores the use of cluster bombs, banned since 2008; and highlights attacks on hospitals, schools, and places of worship—places protected under the law of armed conflict for their role as potential shelters for civilians.
The report was released on Aug. 25, and details the impact of the fighting between Shiite Houthi rebels and the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, which is aided by a Saudi-led coalition.
“OHCHR has documented substantial allegations concerning possible violations of international humanitarian law,” the report states. “In several of the documented attacks, OHCHR was unable to identify the presence of possible military objectives.”
One of the core principles under international humanitarian law is the distinction between military and civilians which prohibits parties to a conflict from deliberately targeting civilians. Such violations include attacks in residential areas, markets, and celebrations including weddings, which resulted in vast civilian harm.
The report is published amidst growing criticism of the conflict and of the motives of actors in the field, including the coalition. Observers and NGOs have repeatedly accused the parties of carrying out deliberate attacks on civilians and protected facilities; under these circumstances, Médecins Sans Frontières decided to evacuate six of the 11 hospitals it was operating in Northern Yemen on Aug. 19.
At least 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the conflict started in 2015, according to the UN, a major increase from the report’s figures, and more than 3.15 million people have been displaced. The single largest cause of casualties according to the OHCHR has been coalition airstrikes, but landmines used by Houthi rebels and their allies have also killed civilians and hindered the return of displaced persons. There have also been reports that Houthis are recruiting children and women to fight.
UN observers are concerned that such brutality will increase sectarian divides, allowing a stronger presence of armed groups including al Qaeda and the Islamic State within the country and exacerbating tensions. In turn, this would complicate the peace process significantly and risk further destabilizing the region.
In light of such abuses, governments and parties to the conflict, whether directly or indirectly involved, must remember their responsibilities to adhere to international humanitarian law, and work to deescalate the violence. Moreover, coalition allies such as the US can ensure that its support to the coalition is conditional upon steps taken by the coalition to minimize civilian harm. (Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are trying to prevent a $1 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia from going through).
The consequences of the conflict have been dramatic, particularly on children and women, and without limits on the support provided and a change in the way the warring parties are fighting, the alternative may well be a lost generation.