(Beirut) – Members of the Saudi-led coalition have sought to avoid international legal liability by refusing to provide information on their role in alleged unlawful airstrikes in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. In 2017, Human Rights Watch wrote to the coalition and its current and former members urging them to release information on their investigations and findings of laws-of-war violations as required by international law. None have replied.
The coalition’s unwillingness to conduct serious investigations into alleged violations of the laws of war was evident in its response to airstrikes on apartment buildings in Sanaa, the capital, on August 25 that killed or wounded more than two dozen civilians.
“No coalition member can claim clean hands in Yemen until all its members explain their role in scores of documented unlawful attacks,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It borders on the absurd for the coalition to claim its own investigations are credible when it refuses to release even basic information like which countries participated in an attack and whether anyone has been held accountable.”
Two family members of victims of the August 25 attack reported that coalition aircraft struck three apartment buildings in Faj Attan, a densely populated neighborhood of the capital, killing at least 16 civilians and wounding 17. After an international outcry, the coalition admitted carrying out the attack, but, as in previous apparently unlawful airstrikes, did not provide details on the coalition members joining the attack or the countries undertaking any investigation.
At about 2 a.m. on August 25, Muhammad Mea’sar, in his thirties, went up to the roof of his home in Sanaa after hearing an airstrike. He said there were four airstrikes, each about two to three minutes apart. The first three hit the Faj Attan mountains on the outskirts of Sanaa, where there are stockpiles of Yemeni army weapons under the control of the opposing Houthi-Saleh forces, who control the area. The coalition has hit the mountains repeatedly during the two-and-a-half-year conflict.
The fourth strike hit the neighborhood below, Mea’sar said: “People live there, people from Sanaa, and a lot of displaced people from different governorates. I saw the smoke coming from the middle of the houses.” Mea’sar later learned that the coalition had hit a three-story building he owned, and two four-story buildings his aunts owned. He said his aunt’s buildings “were gone.” The buildings “became only rubble, dust, and casualties.”
Ali al-Raymi, a 32-year-old Ministry of Oil and Minerals employee, was messaging his younger brother as the August 25 attacks began. Six months earlier, his brother, with his wife and six children, had moved to a cheaper apartment in the neighborhood below the mountains. His brother texted him that the sounds of the first attacks terrified his children.
Ali al-Raymi said that when his brother stopped messaging him: “I took my mom’s phone and started calling my brother. He was not answering. I called him many times, but the phone was ringing and there was no answer… I felt very nervous. I felt something bad may have happened.”
Al-Raymi called a friend in the area and “heard the noise of ambulances and people saying take him out! … Take him out! … Help this one … Help that one.” Al-Raymi immediately walked to the area and “found destruction.” He said the area was so chaotic and the devastation so complete that he could not tell which home was his brother’s. Another brother guided him over the phone to the spot where the house should be. “It was rubble,” al-Raymi said. “I told him not to call our mother.”
The airstrike killed al-Raymi’s brother, his sister-in-law, five of their six children, ages 2 through 10, and his sister-in-law’s brother. Only the family’s 6-year-old daughter survived. Al-Raymi stayed to help with the rescue effort. The rescuers found his brother last, at about 5 p.m., after more than 14 or 15 hours of continuous searching.
Mea’sar compiled for Human Rights Watch a list of the names, ages, genders, and hospitals where people were taken: 16 people were killed in the attack, including 7 children ranging in age from 2 to 13, and 17 wounded, including 8 children. Two of Mea’sar’s cousins, ages 3 and 12, were among those killed.
The coalition said that it carried out the attack, but asserted that the civilian casualties were the result of a technical error and that it had targeted a “legitimate military objective” – a command-and-control center that Houthi-Saleh forces built “with the sole purpose of using the surrounding areas as well as its civilians as shields to protect it.” The coalition spokesperson said it had referred the case to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), the coalition’s investigative mechanism, which has, to date, largely absolved the coalition of wrongdoing. The coalition spokesperson did not provide any details regarding which countries’ forces may have participated in the attack. The International Committee of the Red Cross called the attack “outrageous,” and said there was no apparent military target in the area.
The coalition currently consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan; Qatar withdrew in June. The coalition has conducted thousands of airstrikes in Yemen since March 2015, including scores that appear to violate the laws of war, some of which may be war crimes, yet JIAT and coalition members have provided no or insufficient information about the role that particular countries’ forces are playing in alleged unlawful attacks.
While Saudi Arabia leads the coalition, available information shows that other countries have participated in the military campaign to varying degrees. In March 2015, the Emirati State news agency reported that Saudi Arabia had deployed 100 aircraft to take part in coalition operations, the UAE had deployed 30, Kuwait 15, Bahrain 15, and Qatar 10. Media and policy reports have provided some detail on specific incidents in which coalition members have played a role in the air campaign: In May 2015, a Moroccan F-16 aircraft crashed while on a mission in Yemen. In December 2015, both a Bahraini F-1 jet and a Jordanian pilot flying an F-16 carrying out coalition operations crashed. In 2015, Egypt conducted airstrikes on Yemen’s western coast. In March 2017, after a helicopter attacked a boat carrying Somali migrants and refugees off the coast of Hodeida, killing and wounding dozens, a member of the UAE armed forces said the UAE was operating in the area but denied the UAE carried out the attack.
In July, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen, established by the Security Council, expressed concern that coalition members “seek to hide behind ‘the entity’ of the Coalition to shield themselves from state responsibility for violations committed by their forces. … Attempts to ‘divert’ responsibility in this manner from individual States to the Saudi-Arabia led coalition may contribute to further violations occurring with impunity.” A month later, Foreign Policy reported that US officials had said that instead of looking at the whole coalition as a single entity, the UN should identify the individual countries directly responsible for atrocities in its annual “list of shame” of violations against children. A US official denied the account.
The failure of the coalition or any coalition member to credibly investigate violations by their own forces for more than two years of armed conflict underscores the need for an independent international investigation into alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict, Human Rights Watch said.
“Yemeni civilians who are paying the price of this war deserve far more than blanket denials or generic expressions of sympathy,” Whitson said. “UN member countries should make crystal clear to coalition members that they are failing to meet even basic standards for transparency, and that – as none of the warring parties seem willing to do so – the Human Rights Council will step in and make sure these violations are investigated.”