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Yemen: three years of UK arms to Saudi coalition has contributed to 'enormous harm' to civilians

A body being recovered from under the rubble of a house destroyed by a Saudi coalition airstrike in Sanaa last year © Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

Amnesty has documented 36 coalition airstrikes that appear to have violated international humanitarian law

Nearly 6,000 civilians killed, almost 10,000 wounded, while more than 20 million in need of humanitarian aid

‘There is extensive evidence that irresponsible arms flows to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition have resulted in enormous harm to Yemeni civilians’ - Lynn Maalouf

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition attack with a US-manufactured bomb - which turned a civilian home into rubble and killed or injured six members of the same family - is the latest in a long string of potential war crimes Amnesty International has documented over the past three years of Yemen’s devastating conflict, the organisation said today. 

On 27 January, between 6-8am, a coalition airstrike hit a civilian home in al Rakab, in southern Yemen’s Ta’iz governorate. All six members of the Naji family suffered casualties - the mother, Roweyda, and two sons, aged ten and six, were killed. The father, Riyad, and his three-year-old son sustained shrapnel injuries in the stomach, while his one-year-old daughter suffered minor injuries. 

Amin Mohamad Naji, a relative, arrived at the scene within ten minutes. He told Amnesty:

“I helped rescue the injured and [dead] from under the rubble. When I got there, I saw the house destroyed … [two of] the children were under the rubble, they had died, my brother’s wife too was killed. My brother Riyad and two of his children were severely injured.”

According to witnesses, the site was nearly two miles from military objects and no fighters were present. Amnesty analysed a video from aftermath and confirmed the munition used was a GBU-12 laser-guided 500-pound bomb made by the US company Lockheed Martin. In a similar incident in August, an overnight attack by the Saudi coalition on a residential area in southern Sana’a killed 16 civilians and injured 17 others. The majority of the dead and injured were children. In that incident, too, Amnesty concluded that a US bomb - manufactured by Raytheon - had been used against a civilian home.

These are far from isolated occurrences. Since the start of the conflict, Amnesty has documented 36 coalition airstrikes that appear to have violated international humanitarian law, many of which may amount to war crimes. These have resulted in 513 civilian deaths (including at least 157 children) and 379 civilian injuries.

For the past three years, Amnesty has repeatedly called on countries supplying weapons to the Saudi-led coalition - notably the US and the UK - to halt exports if there was a risk that arms exports could lead to further violations of international humanitarian law. Instead, despite some countries halting arms sales, the UK and the USA have continued to send weapons, and both countries recently agreed new weapons deals. 

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said:

“There is extensive evidence that irresponsible arms flows to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition have resulted in enormous harm to Yemeni civilians. 

“But this has not deterred the USA, the UK and other states, including France, Spain and Italy, from continuing transfers of billions of dollars’ worth of such arms. 

“As well as devastating civilian lives, this makes a mockery of the global Arms Trade Treaty.

“Three years on, Yemen’s conflict shows no real signs of abating, and all sides continue to inflict horrific suffering on the civilian population. Schools and hospitals lie in ruins, thousands have lost their lives and millions are displaced and in dire need of humanitarian aid.”

Violations by Huthis and other ground forces

Meanwhile, the Huthi armed group and anti-Huthi forces have killed or injured civilians, notably by indiscriminately firing explosive munitions with wide-area effects into residential areas. The city of Ta’iz in particular experienced intensive attacks with mortars and artillery shells as recently as January and February.

In Sana’a and other areas they control, the Huthis and their allies have also continued a wave of arbitrary arrests and detentions of their perceived opponents. Scores of men and women have been subjected to enforced disappearances, with some receiving harsh sentences after grossly unfair trials.

Since the start of 2018, Amnesty has documented two cases in which a total of four people were sentenced to death by the Huthi-controlled Specialised Criminal Court in Sana’a. These include Hamid Haydara, who belongs to Yemen’s Bahá'í community, as well as Asmaa al-Omeissy, Saeed al-Ruwaished, and Ahmed Bawazeer, who were accused of aiding an enemy state. The defendants faced grossly unfair trials, were subjected to enforced disappearance, lengthy pre-trial detention, torture and other ill-treatment, and had no access to lawyers. Given that the Huthis carried out these violations in connection with the armed conflict, they may amount to war crimes. 

Humanitarian crisis

Yemen is now enduring one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with at least 22.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and more than one million suspected cases of cholera. This crisis is man-made, with the war deepening and exacerbating the humanitarian situation, and all sides impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid.

After Huthi forces launched a missile unlawfully targeting civilian areas in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh in late November, the Saudi coalition unlawfully tightened its sea and air blockade on Yemen.  Despite the blockade being loosened since then, the coalition continues to impose restrictions on aid and commercial imports of essential goods, including food, medicine and fuel. The coalition claims the restrictions enforce a UN arms embargo on the Huthis, but they are deepening the humanitarian crisis and contributing to violations of the right to health and to an adequate standard of living. Medical workers have told Amnesty how the lack of basic supplies or the danger posed by nearby fighting has forced many medical facilities to close or suspend operations. 

Thousands killed, millions in desperate need

As of February, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that more than 5,974 civilians had been killed and more than 9,493 civilians wounded in Yemen since March 2015.  According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 20 million people - or 80% of the population - are in need of humanitarian aid. In a report published earlier this year, the UN Refugee Agency said there are more than two million internally-displaced people in Yemen. 

UN moves

In a positive development last September, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution mandating a group of experts to investigate abuses and violations by all parties in Yemen and - where possible - identify those responsible for these. Earlier this month (15 March), the UN Security Council adopted a “presidential statement” on Yemen’s humanitarian situation. The statement represents a step forward in holding all parties to the conflict accountable for their abuses. It calls, among other things, for full humanitarian and commercial access, as well as for all parties to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. However, no reporting mechanism on the implementation of the statement has been established. 

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