April 7, 2010


On February 12, 2010, Yemen’s government and rebel Huthi forces agreed on a truce that ended the sixth round of fighting in a five-year-long war that has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in northern Yemen.

The elements of this shaky truce—the sixth in almost as many years—do not include investigations into alleged violations of the laws of war, including indiscriminate attacks, summary executions, and use of child soldiers. The continuing failure of both the Yemeni government and the Huthi rebels to investigate alleged violations by their forces prevents perpetrators from being held to account, denies compensation to victims of abuses, and complicates efforts to reach a long-term political settlement.

Since mid-August 2009— the beginning of the war’s “sixth round”—artillery shelling by both sides and government aerial bombardments have killed hundreds of civilians, injured untold more, and destroyed entire villages. In early November 2009 Saudi Arabia entered the war, sending fighter planes into Yemeni airspace to bomb rebel positions. By mid-February 2010, international aid agencies were struggling to regularly assist a small fraction of the 265,000 people, mostly women and children, displaced from their homes in this and earlier rounds of fighting.  

Although the most recent fighting has attracted greater international attention—including the United Nations’ first-ever joint aid appeal to assist civilians displaced by the war—the international community has largely remained on the sidelines. There has been no perceptible effort within the UN or other intergovernmental bodies to monitor and press for the parties’ adherence to international humanitarian law (the laws of war) and to urge more effective protection of the civilian population.

This report is based on interviews conducted in Yemen in late October 2009 with civilians affected by the conflict and humanitarian aid workers. It documents incidents of possible violations of the laws of war by both sides. Because of lack of access to the conflict area, further investigations are needed to obtain a clearer picture of alleged abuses.

The five-year-old conflict has gone through six main rounds of fighting, with low-intensity conflict filling the gaps. The fifth round ended in July 2008. Increasingly frequent clashes began again in March 2009 and the sixth and latest round erupted on August 12, 2009. A ceasefire ending the sixth round was declared on February 11, 2010.

The political aims of the Huthi rebels are not clear. The group originated as a religious movement—the “Believing Youth” (al-shabbab al-mu’min)—in the mid-1990s, mainly to promote religious education in Sa’da governorate. Yemenis in Sa’da overwhelmingly follow the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, and Zaidis had ruled large parts of Yemen for a thousand years under a religiously legitimized imamate until 1962, when a military-led coup eventually ushered in republican rule. The current Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a Zaidi, but the Huthis object to what they say is the government’s failure to end Saudi-inspired Sunni Islamic missionary activities in Sa’da, which they say clash with traditional Zaidi doctrine.

Government forces included regular military units as well as tribal militias who fight alongside government troops or on their own in defense of their villages. Government forces have maintained a significant military advantage over the Huthis primarily through airpower; otherwise both sides have relied on small arms and artillery.

In 2008 the conflict spread beyond Sa’da governorate into ‘Amran, Hajja, and Jawf governorates, and in June 2008 briefly reached Bani Hushaish, on the outskirts of Yemen’s capital, San’a. In November 2009, following what it said was a cross-border raid on its territory, Saudi Arabia engaged the Huthis in sustained hostilities, including airstrikes, and established a “buffer zone” inside Yemen along the Saudi border.

By mid-February 2010, international aid agencies struggled to assist just over 45,000 displaced civilians (17 percent of the total number of those displaced) seeking refuge in seven camps and nine informal settlements. Due to a combination of insecurity inside the conflict area and governmental obstruction of aid activity outside formally approved camps, agencies faced even greater obstacles in trying to assist a further 218,000 displaced persons living with host families or in public buildings and open spaces. The plight of the displaced has been exacerbated by Saudi Arabia’s preventing Yemenis from seeking refuge across the border in Saudi Arabia and their forcing of refugees back across the border into Yemen, in violation of international law.

In September 2009, for the first time since the war began, international agencies, including the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and international non-governmental humanitarian organizations, all regularly issued media statements to highlight the plight of displaced civilians, and launched the first-ever joint aid appeal—for US $23.75 million—to address their needs. In December 2009, the UN issued its first Comprehensive Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen for $177 million in 2010—tens of millions of which were to help civilians affected by the war. However, by early February, the UN reported that governments had donated only $767,000 (0.4 percent of the appeal), threatening an aid crisis.

On February 11, after weeks of disagreements between the parties over its terms, President Saleh announced a unilateral ceasefire—to which the Huthis agreed.

Despite the international humanitarian community’s increased involvement, by the end of 2009 the response of the United Nations and key states to the conflict could best be characterized as apathetic. The UN failed to follow up its call for a government investigation into airstrikes that on September 16 reportedly killed over 80 civilians, mostly women and children. A government-commissioned local inquiry shed little light on the incident.

Donor governments and the United Nations have failed to push for independent international mechanisms to monitor parties’ conduct of the war and to insist on accountability for serious violations of the laws of war. At a high-level meeting on Yemen in London in January 2010, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, “committ[ed] to non-interference in Yemen’s internal affairs.” Prior to the meeting, Yemen’s diplomats had been lobbying against any “internationalization” of what they regarded as Yemen’s internal issues, including the armed conflict with the Huthi rebels and the southern secessionist movement. However, given the inability of independent media to access the war zone to cut through government and rebel propaganda, and the government’s continued blocking of mobile telephone access in the conflict areas, independent monitoring mechanisms are all the more urgent.

Human Rights Watch spoke with internally displaced persons (IDPs) who witnessed fighting in seven districts of Sa’da and ‘Amran governorates: Malahit, Dhahir, Haidan, Saqain, Majz, Sa’da, and Harf Sufyan. Incidents described raised possible laws of war violations by both sides that require further investigation.

Government forces carried out airstrikes on Huthi forces in or near populated villages in which insufficient precautions may have been taken to minimize civilian casualties and loss of property. In some instances, these attacks may have been indiscriminate or disproportionate, which are serious violations of the laws of war.

Gathering information on alleged Huthi laws-of-war violations was hindered by lack of access to the conflict area. Huthi forces may have at times placed civilians at unnecessary risk by deploying within densely populated villages. Displaced persons reported two cases of possible summary killings by Huthi forces. On several occasions the Huthis allegedly prevented injured civilians from leaving their village to obtain necessary medical care in larger towns. There were also eyewitness accounts of rebels pillaging private property.

Human Rights Watch spoke to three youths who described fighting for government or Huthi forces as child soldiers, in violation of international law.

Human Rights Watch urges both government forces and Huthi rebels to promptly investigate reports of abuses by their own forces and punish as appropriate those responsible. The recruitment and use of child soldiers should be ended immediately. The organization urged that both parties permit and facilitate access by humanitarian organizations to persons in need. In any intermittent or future hostilities, both parties should abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law. In particular, they should take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to the civilian population.

Concerned governments should press the Yemeni government to allow UN agencies and independent monitors access to the conflict zone and should place meaningful pressure on both sides to respect the laws of war.