Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the topic of war crimes is once again being debated in mainstream media. Putin’s army is committing atrocious acts such as the killing of innocent civilians, targeting non-military institutions, and mistreatment of prisoners of war. These crimes are broadcast globally and rightfully condemned. Already, we have seen a war crime trial with the defendant receiving a life sentence. However, there is one place where horrible war crimes have been committed and the perpetrators are still facing no consequences: Yemen. Yemen’s civil war stretches into its eighth year, and while there is a ceasefire at this current time, the war has destroyed the country and caused the Yemeni people massive suffering. Since Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led GCC coalition has committed atrocious acts that could constitute war crimes. These egregious abuses have resulted in Yemen being named the worst humanitarian crisis ever. Often called The Forgotten War, it has been left behind by the global community and its people have paid the price.
Background of War
The beginning of the war has roots in the infamous Arab Spring as people took to the streets to end President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. Protesters were killed by the military and the country was unstable. An internationally brokered deal led to Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi taking power. The Houthi rebels in the North, displeased with this outcome, reacted by forcibly capturing the capital and forcing Hadi to flee to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. It was in March 2015 when tensions escalated massively. Saudi Arabia led a Gulf Cooperation Council coalition intervention into the conflict in a military operation named Decisive Storm which entailed mass airstrikes on Yemen. This coalition enjoyed logistical support from the United States. Intense fighting has continued ever since, despite UN efforts to broker peace.
In July 2016, the Houthi government allied with former President Saleh to form a political council to rule their seized area of Yemen. However, in December 2017, Saleh broke away from the Houthis, demanding his followers attack them. He was killed just two days later.
The Houthis have received logistical support from Iran, particularly as it pertains to the provision of arms. This serves to further complicate the conflict, as the Houthis are Shia – like Iran – fighting against the majority Sunni Saudi Arabia, marking a strong Sunni-Shia divide. The conflict has caused the worst humanitarian crisis the world has ever seen. Global Conflict Tracker estimates there have been 233,000 deaths, many of them as a result of food insecurity and a lack of access to medical care. There are over 25 million people negatively affected by this war, many at risk of famine. In what was a promising move, President Joe Biden announced the end of US support for Saudi Arabia in February 2021. However, this end has not quite materialized, as the US is still selling billions of dollars of arms to Saudi Arabia. Although there has been a ceasefire since 1 April 2022, the negotiations which have followed have yet to produce any worthwhile outcomes.
What are war crimes?
Before discussing the war crimes in Yemen, it is important to know exactly what they are in international law. War crimes were made illegal under the Geneva Conventions, which consist of four treaties and three additional protocols that outline the international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war. The 1949 Geneva Conventions, which negotiated the state of human rights law after World War II, have been ratified by all member states of the United Nations (UN).
A war crime is an act committed during an armed conflict that violates those humanitarian laws which were designed to keep civilians safe. The establishment that can hold individuals accountable for war crimes is the International Criminal Court (ICC), which evolved from the Rome Statute that lists certain actions as war crimes. These result in special tribunals from the UN. War crimes are investigated through interviewing witnesses, reviewing photos, and collecting forensic evidence. Admittedly, there are several apparent limitations to the effectiveness of the ICC: it has been increasingly difficult to prove the involvement of the head of state in a war crime committed by an army member, and the ICC remains reliant on the willingness of states to subject their citizens to jurisdiction of the court. However, there are no statutes of limitations for war crimes, and anyone could be prosecuted in the light of new damning evidence or reinvestigation.
According to the Rome Statute, war crimes are considered as:
- Wilful killing
- Torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments,
- Wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health,
- Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity,
- Compelling a prisoner of war or other protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile power,
- Wilfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the right of a fair trial,
- Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement,
- Taking of hostages.
This is only a general list, however, as there are additional international law standards which may be applicable in international armed conflict. It should be noted, though, that what constitutes a war crime may differ depending on whether the armed conflict is international or non-international. War crimes can be divided into war crimes against persons requiring certain protection; war crimes against those providing humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping operations; war crimes against property and other rights; prohibited methods of warfare; and prohibited means of warfare. War crimes can be committed against both combatants and civilians. Medical and humanitarian personnel are also protected under international law.
Crimes of the GCC Coalition
It is important to note that all sides in the conflict in Yemen are guilty of human rights violations, but the focus will remain on the crimes committed by the Saudi-led GCC coalition. The Group of Independent Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen was set up in 2017 in order to monitor and report on the human rights situation. In 2018, they released an extensive report on the violations committed by all parties. It was found that there had been 16,706 direct civilian casualties, with coalition airstrikes being identified as the cause of most of these. These airstrikes hit residential areas, funerals, weddings, and even medical facilities. Médecins sans Frontières stated that they had shared the location of these bombed facilities with Saudi Arabia 12 times and ambulances were clearly marked. It was reported that the coalition failed to consult its no-strike list of more than 30,000 sites, resulting in thousands of unnecessary civilian casualties. These targets remained unchanged even after the coalition learned of the civilian suffering, and Saudi authorities have consistently refused to make their targeting process transparent. One of the most famous cases occurred in 2018, when a coalition airstrike struck a school bus, killing forty children. Human Rights Watch reported that this act would constitute a war crime.
Another unlawful act committed by the Saudi-led coalition is the deliberate obstruction of access to humanitarian relief. International law states that warring parties must allow safe and rapid passage for humanitarian aid to reach civilians in need. There have been numerous reports detailing how the coalition systematically denies boat passage containing food and medicine for arbitrary reasons, leaving civilians at risk of famine. It was also reported the coalition was guilty of arbitrary detention. People imprisoned were not informed of the charge, denied access to lawyers, and sometimes forcibly disappeared for months. While detained, prisoners were subjected to beatings, electrocution, drownings, and solitary confinement. The United Arab Emirates was found to be culpable for multiple violations in their detention centres. Prisoners reported UAE security personnel sexually abused and assaulted them repeatedly. The Security Belt Forces were found guilty of widespread sexual assault, limited not only to detainees but also including refugee women and children as well.
There were also reports of violation of the right to freedom of expression, as many who insulted the coalition ended up in prison. The UN report states that “As most of these violations appear to be conflict-related, they may amount to the following war crimes: rape, degrading and cruel treatment, torture, and outrages upon personal dignity”. The report further asserted that the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, the group set up by the GCC coalition to investigate claims of abuse by the military, was a front to prevent an independent inquiry of the situation on the ground. They claim its results are altered by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to suit its narrative. This report blatantly shows the Saudi-led coalition has committed what constitutes mass war crimes, resulting in devastating consequences for the people of Yemen.
Unfortunately, the Group of Independent Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen has ceased to exist anymore due to members of the UN Human Rights Council voting against the decision to extend its mandate for two more years in October 2021. Among those countries who voted against the extension were Bahrain, Russia, and China. This decision devastated the West and human rights groups, as there is now a severe lack of accountability mechanisms in Yemen. Reuters reported that two months after the decision sixty human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, released a joint statement urging the UN to set up a new investigation team to continue monitoring. They also called for the need for accountability for ongoing violations. Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty, said “For too long, parties to the conflict in Yemen, including Saudi Arabia and Houthi forces, have committed atrocities with impunity”. She went on to accuse Saudi Arabia and the UAE of bullying and bribery as it concerns the decision to dissolve the investigative group.
Future for Yemen
Currently, the war in Yemen is experiencing a welcome ceasefire. The UN-brokered ceasefire began on the holy month of Ramadan in 2022 and will last two months, with the hopes that a peaceful political process can begin to take place. The conditions of the ceasefire include allowing 18 fuel ships access to Yemen and two commercial flights a week. Efforts have also been made to open roads and ensure the safe passage of civilians, offering a much-needed reprieve from the chaotic violence that had previously characterized the country. While there is hope for an end to this war for the first time in seven years, we cannot forget the damage already inflicted. Thousands of innocent civilians have lost their lives and millions more have been displaced, left homeless and starving by this war. As mentioned, there is no statute of limitations on prosecuting war crimes, and it is often the case that prosecution begins after the war. It is imperative that Saudi Arabia and the UAE be held for the atrocities they committed. It is clear from the report from the Group of Independent Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have killed innocent civilians, targeted non-military infrastructure including medical facilities, blocked humanitarian relief, and grossly mistreated detainees. It is clearer still, that in using its allies to stop this group from independently monitoring human rights abuses in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have no plans of facing consequences for their actions. According to the Rome Statute, these acts are war crimes. According to the Rome Statute, the perpetrators of these acts can and should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. The international community owes the people of Yemen that much. Yemen has long been The Forgotten War, but these crimes cannot be forgiven nor forgotten.
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