(New York) - Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Huthi rebel forces involved in the armed conflict in northern Yemen should take all necessary measures to spare civilians from the fighting and ensure that they receive humanitarian assistance, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since early November 2009, Saudi warplanes have bombed Yemeni villages in areas controlled by Huthi rebels. Yemeni armed forces and Huthi rebels have been involved in renewed fighting since August, which has resulted in civilian casualties and displaced thousands of people.
"The escalating conflict in northern Yemen risks escalating civilian casualties," said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. "All sides must avoid harming civilians and ensure that aid reaches them quickly."
On November 3, a cross-border raid by Huthi rebels, who have been fighting the Yemeni government intermittently since 2004, set off Saudi aerial bombing raids on November 5 that continue to the present. The Saudi deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, said on November 10 that Saudi forces were seeking to establish a 10-kilometer corridor inside Yemeni territory free of Huthi rebel positions.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the parties to the conflict take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population from attack as is required by the laws of war. A recently displaced person told London's Guardian newspaper that Saudi loudspeakers warned residents to evacuate their homes but may have conducted attacks without regard to whether civilians remained in the village.
"We heard the sounds of planes and heavy shelling," the person was quoted as saying. "The Saudis were bombarding the Huthi positions and our village was hit."
On November 16, Huthi rebels posted videos on the internet showing the bodies of children who they said died in a Saudi bombing raid on a Yemeni village. This information could not be independently confirmed.
The laws of war require the parties to a conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to "take all feasible precautions" to minimize the loss of civilian life and damage to civilian property. These precautions include doing everything feasible to verify that the objects of attack are military objectives, and giving "effective advance warning" of attacks when circumstances permit. Forces must avoid locating military objectives near densely populated areas and endeavor to remove civilians from the vicinity of military objectives.
In late October, Human Rights Watch visited Mazraq refugee camp and the town of Haradh, in northwestern Yemen. Fighting since August in the mountainous Malahizh and Razih districts on the Saudi-Yemeni border had already caused over 20,000 persons to flee to safer coastal areas. Thousands more had arrived in Mazraq camp within five days after Saudi Arabia entered the war on November 5, according to United Nations humanitarian agencies.
On November 14, the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, reported that 600 children were being treated for acute malnutrition in Mazraq camp. The camp cannot accommodate new arrivals and has "exceeded its capacity," the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on November 14. UNICEF also reported that 240 Saudi villages had been evacuated when fighting between Huthi rebels and Saudi forces spilled over the border from Yemen.
Aid agencies have called on all parties to the conflict to allow them access to all civilians in need of assistance, but security problems and restrictive Yemeni government policies have prevented the aid groups from reaching the vast majority of displaced persons who have taken refuge with host families in other towns and villages rather than in camps.
Despite ongoing fighting and the desperate humanitarian situation in Yemen, Saudi Arabia continues to forcibly return (refouler) Yemenis who had fled to Saudi Arabia, in violation of its obligations under international law. On November 19, UN agencies reported that Saudi Arabia had deported more than a thousand Yemenis. The World Food Program reports that 15,000 Yemeni civilians are "trapped near the border" with Saudi Arabia.
"Saudi Arabia should not be forcibly returning Yemenis to a war zone," Ross said. "Saudi Arabia and Yemen need to be working more closely with aid agencies to assist civilians at risk on both sides of the border."