(Beirut) – The Saudi Arabia-led coalition carrying out attacks against the Houthis in Yemen has failed to investigate its apparently unlawful airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today. The United States is also obligated to investigate attacks in which it played a role that allegedly violated the laws of war.
The 73-page report, “‘What Military Target Was in My Brother’s House?’: Unlawful Coalition Airstrikes in Yemen,” examines in detail 10 apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes that killed at least 309 civilians and wounded more than 414 between April and August 2015. According to the United Nations, most of the 2,600 civilian deaths since the coalition began its military campaign against the Houthis in late March have been from coalition airstrikes. Human Rights Watch is unaware of any investigations by Saudi Arabia, other coalition members, or the US into these or other allegedly unlawful strikes, or of any compensation for victims or their families.
Human Rights Watch conducted field research in the governorates of Ibb, Amran, Hajja, Hodaida, Taizz, and the capital, Sanaa, and spoke to victims, witnesses, and medical staff. Airstrikes hit homes, markets, a factory, and a civilian prison, though in all of these cases, Human Rights Watch either found no evident military target or found that the attack failed to distinguish civilians from military objectives. Human Rights Watch compiled the names of 309 people – 199 men, 43 women, and 67 children – killed in the attacks, all believed to be civilians. Saudi officials have not responded to repeated Human Right Watch requests for information about the 10 airstrikes.
“When I got to the house, there was still dust in the air, and everything was covered in a layer of black ash,” said Muhammad Saleh al-Qihwi, whose house was destroyed in an April 2015 airstrike on the town of Amran. “Asma’s head was open, and her leg was bleeding. Her 2-year-old daughter, Hyam, was lying on her shoulder, her head was smashed open. Her other daughter, Hasna, who’s 7, was shouting ‘Baba’ [father]. Her hair and skin were covered in ash, and she was burned badly. Her father, my brother Muhammad, had been asleep when the strike happened, and the roof landed on top of him. When I dug him out, there was a thin trickle of blood dripping from his ear. He was already dead.”
In September 2014, Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia group from northern Yemen, took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. In January 2015, they effectively ousted President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his cabinet members, who subsequently relocated to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, along with elements of the armed forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, then swept south, threatening to take the port city of Aden.
On March 26, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition – consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan – with US participation, began an aerial campaign against Houthi and allied forces. The US is a party to the conflict, playing a direct role in coordinating military operations, Human Rights Watch said. Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, commander of the US Air Force Central Command, said that the US military has deployed dedicated personnel to the Saudi Arabian center planning airstrikes to help coordinate activities, the Wall Street Journal reported. US participation in specific military operations, such as aerial refueling during bombing raids, may make US forces jointly responsible for laws-of-war violations by coalition forces. As a party to the conflict, the US is obligated to investigate allegedly unlawful attacks in which it took part.
The United Kingdom and France have supported the coalition by selling arms to Saudi Arabia and other coalition members. The US recently announced the sale of aerial bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Under the laws of war, a party to the conflict may only attack military objectives. In carrying out attacks, warring parties are required to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects. The weapons used and the manner in which the attack is carried out must be able to distinguish between the military objective and civilians. Attacks in which there is no evident military target, that are indiscriminate, or that cause civilian harm disproportionate to the anticipated military gain, are unlawful.
Parties must also avoid deploying in densely populated areas and remove, to the extent feasible, civilians in the vicinity of their military forces. In several instances it is not clear if the Houthis or allied forces had taken significant measures to move civilians away from places where they stored ammunition or deployed their forces.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s use of explosive weapons with wide-area effect in populated areas. A weapon that affects an area in a radius of dozens or hundreds of meters of its impact will almost certainly kill or wound civilians if used in populated areas.
The UN Security Council should remind all parties to the conflict in Yemen that violators of human rights law and the laws of war may be subject to travel bans and asset freezes, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Human Rights Council should create an independent, international investigative mechanism to investigate alleged violations of the laws of war by all parties to the conflict.
“The UN Security Council and Human Rights Council have sat idly by while coalition bombs are killing civilians,” Stork said. “They need to mandate the investigations that the parties responsible for these apparently unlawful attacks have been unwilling to undertake.”