(São Paulo) – The Saudi Arabia-led coalition fired Brazilian-made rockets containing banned cluster munitions that struck near two schools in the northern Yemeni city of Saada on December 6, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. The attack on al-Dhubat neighborhood in Saada’s Old City at about 8 p.m. killed two civilians and wounded at least six, including a child.
The attack came a day after Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and the United States abstained from a vote in the United Nations General Assembly that overwhelmingly endorsed an already widely accepted international ban on cluster munition use. Brazil should join the Convention on Cluster Munitions and cease the production and transfer of cluster munitions, while Saudi Arabia and other coalition members should cease all use of cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch said.
“Brazil should be on notice that its rockets are being used in unlawful attacks in the Yemeni war,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition, the international coalition of groups working to eradicate cluster munitions. “Cluster munitions are prohibited weapons that should never be used under any circumstances due to the harm inflicted on civilians. Brazil should make an immediate commitment to ending production and export of cluster munitions.”
Since March 26, 2015, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of nine Arab states has conducted military operations in Yemen against the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented the use of seven types of air-delivered and ground-launched cluster munitions made in the US, the United Kingdom, and Brazil. The coalition has admitted using UK and US-made cluster munitions in attacks in Yemen.
On December 19, the Saudi-led coalition announced it would stop using a UK-made cluster munition, the BL-755, but left open the possibility it would continue using other types of cluster munitions in Yemen.
Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone four witnesses to the attack and several other local sources. One witness visited the attack site shortly afterward and photographed the damage, while another photographed an unexploded submunition lying where it had landed.
Witnesses described hearing a loud explosion followed by several smaller explosions, which is consistent with a cluster munition attack. Ayman Lutf, a 20-year-old university student, told Human Rights Watch that five submunitions landed on his street, damaging a parked car and a water tank.
Bassam Ali, a 20-year-old neighborhood resident, said, “We thought it’s like the regular missiles that always hit Saada... Which only create single explosions. This one was different, a series of explosions together... All of the bombs landed over our neighborhood, over houses, and on the streets.”
Khaled Rashed, a 38-year-old member of the local council, said, “We heard... two sounds of explosions... One louder than the other, and… after that we heard more explosions, smaller, and falling from the sky like embers... It landed everywhere, water tanks over houses, one... exploded and destroyed a taxi.”
Rashed said that the rocket strike occurred near a girls’ school and a boys’ school, both between the old city and al-Dhubat neighborhood. People wounded in the attack were taken to a nearby hospital. Students were told not to return to school the next day as the schools had to be checked for any explosive remnants, including unexploded submunitions, an administrator at the boys’ school said.
Dr. Mohammed Hajjar, general director of the largest hospital in Saada, said that the hospital treated seven people for wounds, of whom one later died, and that another had died before arriving. Fathy Al-Batl, a local activist, said that those wounded included a teacher, a 20-year-old student, and a 14-year-old boy.
Human Rights Watch identified the remnants of ASTROS II surface-to-surface rockets, each containing up to 65 submunitions, delivered by a truck-mounted multi-barrel rocket launcher. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have purchased ASTROS cluster munition rockets from Brazil, where they are manufactured by Avibrás Indústria Aeroespacial SA. Previously, Amnesty International researchers found remnants of ASTROS cluster munition rockets remaining after an attack on Ahma in Saada on October 27, 2015, that wounded at least four people.
Saudi Arabia’s use of ASTROS cluster munition rockets in Khafji, Saudi Arabia in 1991, during the First Gulf War, was previously documented by Human Rights Watch. These munitions left behind “significant numbers of unexploded submunitions.”
The use of cluster munitions in Houthi-controlled territory that has been attacked by Saudi-led coalition aircraft and by rockets launched from Saudi Arabia on previous occasions suggests that Saudi forces fired the cluster munitions used on December 6, 2016. However, further investigation is required to conclusively determine responsibility, Human Rights Watch said.
The coalition has attacked the Houthi-stronghold of Saada City frequently since the start of the war. A Houthi-Saleh military camp is located less than 50 meters from al-Dhubat neighborhood. Human Rights Watch has documented the coalition’s use of cluster munitions in 17 unlawful attacks in Yemen that killed at least 21 civilians, wounded 72 more, and in some cases struck civilian areas.
The use of cluster munitions in Yemen since April 2015 has received worldwide media coverage, provoked a public outcry, and been condemned by dozens of countries as well as by a European Parliament resolution. In September 2015, more than 60 nations at the First Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions expressed deep concern at the use of cluster munitions in Yemen and issued a declaration condemning “any use of cluster munitions by any actor.”
The coalition has acknowledged using US and UK-made cluster munitions in Yemen, but claims to have done so in compliance with the laws of war. In a January 11, 2016 interview with CNN, the coalition military spokesman said the coalition used CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons in Hajjah in April 2015 “against a concentration of a camp in this area, but not indiscriminately.” He said that the US-made CBU-105 has been used “against vehicles.”
In May, the US suspended transfers of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. President Barack Obama should halt all arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and make the cluster munition ban permanent and extend it to all other countries before he leaves office, Human Rights Watch said.
Cluster munitions are delivered from the ground by artillery and rockets, or dropped from aircraft and contain multiple smaller explosive submunitions that spread out over a wide area. Many fail to detonate and leave unexploded submunitions that become de facto landmines that continue to pose a threat long after a conflict ends.
Cluster munitions are prohibited by a 2008 treaty signed by 119 countries, though not by Brazil, the US, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia, and its coalition partners Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries should promptly join the Convention on Cluster Munitions and abide by its provisions, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the international Cluster Munition Coalition. Germany’s Ambassador Michael Biontino will preside over the next annual meeting of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Geneva on September 4-6, 2017.
The December 6, 2016 cluster munition attack on Saada took place the day after the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on cluster munitions. A total of 141 states voted in favor of the non-binding resolution on the convention while Russia and Zimbabwe voted against it, and 39 states abstained. Those abstaining included Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the US, and Brazil.
On December 19, the Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Arabia’s state-run news agency, reported that the government of Saudi Arabia had “decided to cease usage of the UK-manufactured BL-755 cluster munitions” and had informed the UK of its decision. The statement acknowledged the Convention on Cluster Munitions, argued that, “international law does not ban the use of cluster munitions,” and claimed that Saudi Arabia used UK-made cluster munitions in Yemen “against legitimate military targets to defend Saudi towns and villages against continuous attacks by Houthi militia, which resulted in Saudi civilian casualties. In deploying these munitions [sic], the Coalition fully observed the international humanitarian law principles of distinction and proportionality. Furthermore, the munitions were [sic] not deployed in civilian population centers.”
The same day, the UK government admitted it had evidence indicating the coalition had used UK-made cluster munitions in attacks in Yemen.
“At last Saudi Arabia is beginning to feel global pressure for its continued use of cluster munitions,” Goose said. “Both Saudi Arabia and Brazil should join the international ban on these weapons without delay.”