(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s warnings to aid organizations to leave possible battle areas in Yemen are not sufficient. The warnings don’t absolve the Saudi-led coalition from the legal obligation to protect humanitarian personnel and facilities from attack.

A Medecins Sans Frontieres health facility in Haydan, Yemen, after it was hit by airstrikes on the night of October 26, 2015.

Courtesy of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The Saudi embassy in London, in a February 5, 2016 letter, advised United Nations and other aid organizations to move their offices and staff away from “regions where the Houthi militias and their supporters are active and in areas where there are military operations” to “protect the international organizations and their employees.” Since the coalition began military operations against Ansar Allah, known as the Houthis, on March 26, 2015, coalition airstrikes have unlawfully struck hospitals and other facilities run by aid organizations.

“A warning is no justification for an unlawful airstrike,” said James Ross, legal and policy director. “They can’t shift the blame for shirking their responsibility onto aid agencies that are struggling to address a deepening crisis.”

A warning is no justification for an unlawful airstrike. They can’t shift the blame for shirking their responsibility onto aid agencies that are struggling to address a deepening crisis.

James Ross

Legal and Policy Director

The UN and most independent aid organizations in Yemen have field operations in areas controlled by Houthi rebels and their allies, including the capital, Sanaa. During 10 months of armed conflict, they have been providing life-saving aid for millions of civilians. Close to 21.2 million people in Yemen – out of a population of 26 million – now require some form of aid to meet their basic needs, according to the UN.

On February 7, the UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien wrote to Saudi Arabia’s UN Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi, reminding him of Saudi obligations under international humanitarian law to facilitate humanitarian access and the “duty of care obligations under the conduct of military operations for all civilians, including humanitarian workers.”

Since March 2015, the conflict in Yemen has claimed 2,795 civilian lives, most caused by coalition airstrikes. Human Rights Watch documented 36 airstrikes between March 2015 and January 2016, that appear to have been unlawfully indiscriminate or disproportionate, resulting in the deaths of more than 500 civilians. These include six airstrikes on October 26, on a Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres, MSF) hospital in the northern town of Haydan, wounding two patients. Brig. Gen. Ahmad al-Assiri, the coalition’s military spokesman, said on January 31, 2016, that the strike had been the result of “human error,” but did not outline any steps taken to hold the responsible military personnel to account, or to compensate those wounded in the strike.

Since then, coalition airstrikes have hit MSF facilities twice. An airstrike hit a mobile clinic on December 2, 2015, in Taizz, wounding eight people, including two staff members, and killing one other civilian nearby. On January 21, 2016, an airstrike on the northern town of Saada hit an MSF ambulance, killing its driver and six other people, and wounding dozens. On January 10, a projectile hit an MSF-supported hospital in Saada, killing six people and wounding at least seven, most of them medical staff and patients. MSF said it could not confirm the origin of the attack, but its staff had seen planes overhead at the time of the attack. MSF said on January 25 that it had not received any official explanation for any of these incidents.

The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, established under UN Security Council resolution 2140 (2013), in its report made public on January 26, “documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations” of the laws of war. Among them were five on storage facilities for food aid and 22 that hit hospitals.

Issuing warnings to a civilian population of impending attacks is in line with the obligation under the laws of war to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm, and in particular to provide “effective advance warning” of attacks that may affect the civilian population so long as circumstances permit. However, broad warnings unrelated to any imminent attack cannot be considered “effective,” and may instead improperly instill fear in the affected population.

Civilians who do not evacuate after a warning remain fully protected from attack by the laws of war. Warring parties cannot use warnings for forced displacement, threatening civilians with deliberate harm if they do not leave an area. Some civilians are unable to heed a warning to evacuate for reasons of health, fear, or lack of anyplace else to go. Even after giving warnings, attacking forces must still take all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian life and property. This includes canceling an attack when it becomes apparent that the target is civilian or that the civilian loss would be disproportionate to the expected military gain.

Aid personnel and humanitarian objects such as hospitals, clinics, and ambulances are specifically protected against attack under the laws of war, unless they are being used for military purposes. In addition, parties to a conflict have an obligation to facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid for civilians in need. Only in cases of imperative military necessity may assistance be temporarily restricted.

In September 2015, the Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi established a national commission to investigate violations of human rights and the laws of war. Human Rights Watch understands that so far the commission has taken no tangible steps to conduct investigations, nor has it revealed any working methods or plans.

Five days after the release of UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen, on January 31, 2016, the coalition announced a new committee to assess the coalition’s rules of engagement in the war and produce recommendations for the coalition to better respect the laws of war. “The goal of the committee is not to investigate allegations,” Al-Assiri said. “Its primary goal is to confirm the precision of the procedures followed on the level of the coalition command.” As such, this proposed body does not meet the requirements for an impartial investigative mechanism that can address accountability for unlawful attacks or compensate victims of coalition violations, Human Rights Watch said.

The Saudi government should publicly retract the February 5 Saudi embassy letter and state that in accordance with its humanitarian law obligations, the coalition will take all feasible steps to minimize civilian harm and facilitate access to humanitarian assistance. The UN Human Rights Council should create an independent, international inquiry into alleged violations of the laws of war by all sides to the conflict in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.

“Should the ground war heat up in Yemen, adhering to the laws of war will become even more complicated and necessary,” Ross said. “The Saudis need to be crystal clear that they are doing far more to meet their legal obligations or civilians will continue to suffer unnecessarily.”