(Beirut) – An airstrike by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that destroyed a humanitarian aid warehouse in northern Yemen on April 18, 2015, was an apparent violation of the laws of war. The attack in Saada killed at least one unidentified man outside the facility of the international aid organization Oxfam.
The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen is made worse by attacks on relief supplies, Human Rights Watch said. The governments that participated in the attack should impartially investigate the airstrike, which struck civilian goods and a structure that do not appear to have been used for military purposes. The coalition has yet to comment on the attack.
“Destroying an aid group warehouse harms many civilians not even near the strike zone and threatens aid delivery everywhere in Yemen,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Saudi statements that aerial attacks are over don’t end obligations to investigate alleged laws-of-war violations.”
The Saudi-led coalition, which includes Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates, has since March 26 conducted numerous airstrikes throughout Yemen against Houthi forces, also known as Ansar Allah, who effectively ousted the government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi in January. At a news conference in Riyadh on April 21, Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri announced that the coalition would end its aerial bombardment campaign and that the intervention would focus on reaching a political solution.
Two local residents told Human Rights Watch that although Saada is the Houthis’ traditional stronghold and there are many troops in the town, they were unaware of any mobile or static military targets near the storage facility. Fawaz Muhammad Saleh, 26, a civil servant who lives about 70 meters from the warehouse, described the area as a residential and commercial neighborhood. He told Human Rights Watch that at about 1:45 p.m. on April 18, while he was home eating lunch with his family, they heard a loud explosion. He ran outside and took photos of the site.
“When I got outside, I saw a man lying on the ground across the street from the facility,” he said. “He had been hit by shrapnel and I saw that his body was severed in half at his belly.” He said that many of the windows in the neighborhood were blown out, including at another storage facility in the area. Another local resident said that this was just one of a number of airstrikes that have hit storage facilities in the area.
On April 19, Oxfam issued a statement that “vehemently condemned” the bombing of its facility.
“It is very concerning that humanitarian facilities have come under attack,” an Oxfam spokesperson told Human Rights Watch on April 22. “The content of the warehouse had no military value. It only contained humanitarian supplies associated with facilitating access to clean water for thousands of households in Saada.”
Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Yemen, civilians and civilian objects may never be deliberate targets of attack. The laws of war also prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which include attacks not directed at a specific military objective.
Parties to a conflict must also allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid to the population in need and ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel. Humanitarian relief is protected from confiscation or attack unless it can be demonstrated that it is being used for military purposes.
Coalition airstrikes have struck targets in densely populated areas in the capital, Sanaa, and other cities, including Saada, Hodaida, Taiz, Ibb, Lahj, al-Dale`a, Shabwa, Marib, and Aden. Airstrikes on March 30 hit a displaced persons’ camp in northern Yemen, killing at least 29 civilians. Airstrikes on March 31 struck a dairy factory in the port city of Hodaida and killed at least 31 civilians.
Houthi ground forces and opposition militias have engaged in military operations around Aden, Taiz, and other areas that have put civilians and civilian objects, including hospitals, at unnecessary risk. Security concerns and travel difficulties have prevented Human Rights Watch from investigating many of the attacks. As of April 20, the fighting had killed at least 436 civilians, including at least 86 children, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The United States is not a member of the coalition but it has announced that it is providing logistics and intelligence support. Providing direct support to military operations would make the US a party to the armed conflict, and bound to apply the laws of war. On April 12, the Wall Street Journal reported that unnamed US officials said that the US was providing Saudi Arabia with direct targeting support for airstrikes.
“The US should disclose whether it was involved in the Oxfam warehouse strike and, if so, participate in a proper investigation,” Stork said. “If the coalition air campaign ends, the US will still have an interest in seeing that alleged unlawful attacks are investigated and victims are compensated.”
Correction: This news release has been revised to correct an erroneous statement that Oxfam had provided the GPS coordinates of its warehouse to the Saudi-led coalition. This was based on a statement issued by Oxfam on April 19, 2015. Oxfam has since said it did not provide the warehouse’s coordinates prior to the strike. While the strike against the warehouse remains an apparently unlawful attack on a civilian object, Human Rights Watch no longer asserts that: “The fact that the Oxfam warehouse should have been known to the coalition forces raises concerns that the attack was deliberate.”