(Beirut) – The Saudi-led coalition’s investigations into alleged war crimes in Yemen have lacked credibility and failed to provide redress to civilian victims, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 90-page report, “Hiding Behind the Coalition: Failure to Credibly Investigate and Provide Redress for Unlawful Attacks in Yemen,” analyzes the work of the coalition’s investigative body, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), over the past two years. Human Rights Watch found that JIAT’s work has fallen far short of international standards regarding transparency, impartiality, and independence. Established in 2016 after evidence mounted of coalition violations of the laws of war, JIAT has failed even in its limited mandate to assess “claims and accidents” during coalition military operations. It has provided deeply flawed laws-of-war analyses and reached dubious conclusions.
“For more than two years, the coalition has claimed that JIAT was credibly investigating allegedly unlawful airstrikes, but the investigators were doing little more than covering up war crimes,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments selling arms to Saudi Arabia should recognize that the coalition’s sham investigations do not protect them from being complicit in serious violations in Yemen.”
JIAT’s public conclusions raise serious questions regarding its investigations and application of the laws of war. The vast majority found the coalition acted lawfully, did not carry out the reported attack, or made an “unintentional” mistake. As of July 31, 2018, JIAT recommended the coalition undertake further investigations or disciplinary action in only two of about 75 public reports.
The investigators found a September 2016 coalition attack on a water well that killed and wounded dozens of civilians to be an “unintended mistake,” yet Human Rights Watch found at least 11 bomb craters on a visit to the site.
JIAT also often appeared to find that an airstrike was lawful solely because the coalition had identified a legitimate military target – but did not appear to consider whether the attack was lawfully proportionate or if precautions taken were adequate. It downplayed damage to civilian structures, contradicting physical evidence. In 2015, the coalition repeatedly bombed a residential complex in Mokha, killing at least 65 people and wounded dozens more, yet JIAT concluded the complex was “partly affected by unintentional bombing.”
Despite the coalition’s promises, there is no clear way for civilian victims or relatives to obtain redress from coalition forces. Human Rights Watch followed up with victims of six of the dozen attacks for which JIAT had recommended assistance by July 31 – none had received any.
“I sold everything to care for the wounded from my family,” one man said. “We did not get anything – no trial of the culprits or compensation. We didn’t even get a bag of flour.”
Coalition member countries should meet their international legal obligations to investigate alleged violations and appropriately prosecute people responsible for war crimes, Human Rights Watch said. They should compensate victims of unlawful attacks and support a unified, comprehensive system for providing ex gratia (“condolence”) payments to civilians who suffer any losses from military operations.
The coalition’s continuing unlawful airstrikes and failure to adequately investigate alleged violations puts weapons’ suppliers to the coalition – including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France – at risk of complicity in future unlawful attacks. They should immediately suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In September 2018, United Nations member countries should support renewing and strengthening the mandate of the Human Rights Council’s Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen. Yemen should urgently join the International Criminal Court.
The US became a party to the Yemen conflict soon after fighting began in March 2015, by providing direct operational support to coalition air operations. In seven attacks JIAT investigated, Human Rights Watch identified US-produced weapons at the site. None of these coalition investigations were credible. US operational support for coalition airstrikes could make the US complicit in laws-of-war violations, while continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia could also expose US officials to criminal liability.
While many of the coalition’s apparent laws-of-war violations show evidence of war crimes, the investigations do not suggest any effort to investigate personal criminal responsibility for unlawful airstrikes. This apparent attempt to shield parties to the conflict and individual military personnel from criminal liability itself violates the laws of war. Moreover, there is no evidence that JIAT investigated alleged abuses by coalition forces beyond unlawful airstrikes, such as mistreatment of detainees by Emirati and Emirati-backed forces.
Saudi and Emirati commanders, whose countries play key roles in coalition military operations, face possible criminal liability as a matter of command responsibility. The UN Security Council should consider imposing targeted sanctions on senior coalition commanders who share the greatest responsibility for serious repeated violations, Human Rights Watch said.
Houthi forces opposed to the coalition have also carried out frequent violations of the laws of war, including likely war crimes. Human Rights Watch has not identified concrete measures the Houthis have taken to investigate their alleged abuses or held anyone to account.
“The failure of the coalition’s investigative body to carry out credible inquiries and take appropriate action reinforces the urgency for UN Human Rights Council members to renew and strengthen the UN inquiry into violations by all parties in Yemen,” Whitson said.