(Dubai) - The Yemeni government and Huthi rebels should investigate alleged violations of the laws of war during the recent conflict and hold all those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. On February 11, 2010, both sides agreed to a truce - the sixth since the war began in 2004, but the agreement contains no accountability provisions.
The 54-page report, "All Quiet on the Northern Front?: Uninvestigated Laws of War Violations in Yemen's War with Huthi Rebels," documents how government forces may have indiscriminately bombed and shelled civilian areas, causing civilian casualties, and how Huthi forces may have committed summary executions and unlawfully deployed in populated areas. Huthi forces also allegedly carried out pillage and looting, used "human shields," and prevented civilians from fleeing war zones, even to seek medical treatment. Both sides used children in combat, in violation of international law.
"It is time to end the impunity surrounding the cycle of civilian suffering in northern Yemen," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The recent truce is an opportunity to strengthen protection for civilians by investigating alleged war crimes and making sure the victims receive justice."
The report is based on Human Rights Watch interviews in Yemen in October 2009 with civilians who witnessed fighting in seven districts of the northern Sa'da and ‘Amran governorates and with humanitarian aid workers. Because the government has restricted access to the conflict area, making it impossible for Human Rights Watch to assess damage at the sites of incidents described by witnesses, further investigations are needed to obtain a clearer picture of alleged abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
Since the beginning of the sixth round of fighting in mid-August 2009, artillery shelling by both sides and government aerial bombardments have killed hundreds of civilians, injured many more, and in some cases the fighting destroyed entire villages.
In early November, Saudi Arabia entered the war, sending fighter planes into Yemeni airspace to bomb rebel positions. By mid-February, international aid agencies were struggling to assist even a small fraction of the roughly 265,000 people - most of them women and children - displaced from their homes in this and earlier rounds of fighting.
Before the February 11 truce, the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union called for an end to the fighting, but urged an investigation only into one government airstrike that reportedly killed more than 80 civilians in September 2009. The government said within days that it had begun an inquiry into this incident, but it has not announced the outcome. Huthi rebels are not known to have conducted any investigations into allegations of war crimes.
Human Rights Watch called on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a human rights monitoring and reporting mission in Yemen. It urged Yemen's donors and allies to support such a mission, in addition to a human rights advisory position currently under discussion.
Government airstrikes on Huthi forces that did not discriminate between combatants and civilians or caused disproportionate loss of civilian life and property would constitute violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.
Huthi forces also may have at times placed civilians at unnecessary risk by deploying within densely populated villages. Displaced people reported two cases of possible summary killings by Huthi forces. In one case involving possible human shielding, available evidence suggests that Huthi forces unlawfully used captured Yemeni military officers to deter an attack. On several occasions, the Huthis allegedly prevented injured civilians from leaving their villages to obtain necessary medical care in larger towns. There were also accounts by witnesses 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.
By mid-February 2010, international aid agencies struggled to assist just over 45,000 displaced persons in seven camps and nine informal settlements. But this was only about 17 percent of the total number of people displaced by the conflict.
Aid agencies faced even greater obstacles trying to assist another 218,000 displaced people who have taken shelter with host families or in public buildings, or are living in open spaces, because of danger in the conflict zone and government obstruction of aid activity outside formally approved camps.
Saudi Arabia has exacerbated the plight of the displaced by preventing Yemenis from seeking refuge across the border in Saudi Arabia and by forcing refugees back across the border into Yemen, in violation of international law.
"Very few of those displaced by this tragic conflict are getting desperately needed assistance," Stork said. "Concerned governments should press Yemen to make sure that aid agencies can reach people displaced throughout rural areas."