(Beirut) – Negotiations for a new truce in Yemen by Saudi and Houthi authorities present an opportunity to incorporate accountability and monitoring mechanisms that are essential for protecting Yemenis’ fundamental rights, Human Rights watch said today. Based on news reports, negotiations are apparently making progress.
To effectively address Yeminis’ human rights, any new truce would require provisions for the genuine participation of Yemeni civil society in discussions on issues affecting their rights, the release of everyone arbitrarily detained, a plan to survey and clear all landmines and explosive remnants of war, and a commitment to accountability and redress for wartime abuses. The parties to the conflict, as well as the UN and powerful states, have comprehensively failed to hold rights violators accountable since the conflict began in 2014. Their continued abuses have reinforced the need for an independent, international, investigative mechanism to end impunity.
“The real beneficiaries of this truce should be Yemeni civilians, rather than leaders of the parties to the conflict, who have no interest in being held accountable for their grave violations of international law” said Niku Jafarnia, Yemen and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Yemeni civil society and activists have been effectively frozen out of negotiations, leaving people in Yemen with no one to represent their interests.”
Warring parties agreed to a two-month UN-brokered truce in 2022, which included an agreement to cease all offensive military operations, as well to allow fuel ships to enter Hudaydah ports and to restart commercial flights from Sana’a airport. The parties renewed the truce twice, ending on October 2. However, violations continued, and key provisions to protect civilians were not included.
Throughout the conflict, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have documented widespread violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. The Saudi- and UAE-led coalition, intervening on behalf of the government, destroyed and damaged civilian infrastructure, including homes, medical facilities, schools, markets, and water and food sources and infrastructure through its air campaign, some of which may amount to war crimes. The Houthis, who control the capital and much of the rest of the country, have fired mortars, rockets, and missiles into densely populated areas both in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia, constituting other possible war crimes, and have laid landmines in civilian areas across the country.
Despite a decrease in civilian casualties and the re-opening of Sana’a airport for commercial flights, civilian harm continued during the truce. Based on data from the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, there were about 938 civilian casualties in the six months of the truce. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project’s Yemen Truce Monitor recorded 2,208 incidents of shelling, artillery, and missile attacks – an eightfold increase from the six months prior to the truce, as well as 374 air/drone strikes and 369 armed clashes.
Save the Children found that parties to the conflict killed or injured 38 children in the last week of July – the highest number recorded since early 2020.
Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni civil society organization, recorded at least 14 indiscriminate ground attacks throughout the truce. In one attack, on July 23, 2022, the Houthis shelled a residential neighborhood in Taizz, killing one child and wounding 11 other.
Since the disbanding of the UN Human Rights Council-mandated monitoring body, the Group of Eminent Experts, in 2021, there has been no international monitoring of rights violations in Yemen. While nongovernmental groups and other UN bodies have partly bridged that gap, their work has not replaced an adequately resourced UN-endorsed independent investigative body. It is difficult to assess whether the harm to civilians during the truce constituted violations of international law. However, the significant number of civilian casualties may demonstrate that warring parties were not taking adequate precautionary measures, when they should not have been fighting at all.
Further, the Houthis rejected the UN Special Envoy’s plans for a provision in the truce to reopen roads in Taiz and other places. The main roads in and out of Taiz have been blocked by the Houthis since 2015, severely restricting the freedom of movement of civilians and critical humanitarian aid.
Parties to the conflict, and the Houthis in particular, continued to restrict humanitarian access. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recorded about 1205 incidents of blocking or interfering with humanitarian access during the truce, including violence against aid workers. In the three months after the start of the truce, violence against aid workers and facilities increased by 40 percent from the previous three months.
For a new truce to uphold the rights of people in Yemen, it is critical to meaningfully include Yemeni civil society actors on key issues, including the rights of women and minority groups. Parties to the conflict should also release everyone arbitrarily detained and reveal what happened to others who had been disappeared, who include human rights activists and journalists.
Parties to the conflict have damaged or destroyed Yemen’s critical infrastructure, severely impairing Yemenis’ rights, such to health, water, sanitation, and education. To recover from the conflict, the parties to the conflict should commit to surveying and clearing the large quantities of landmines and other explosive remnants of war scattered across the country and provide aid to rebuild damaged or destroyed infrastructure. Finally, parties should be held accountable for their serious violations over the course of the conflict, including ending impunity for those who carried out or oversaw likely war crimes.
Civil society has not been formally included in the truce discussions or meaningfully included in broader negotiations led by the UN special envoy.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented torture, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention by coalition forces, particularly by Saudi Arabia and UAE forces, and as well as Yemeni forces backed by the UAE. While the recent exchange of nearly 900 detainees was a significant move by both sides, many more people remain arbitrarily detained and disappeared by all warring parties. A truce should ensure their release.
Landmines – including internationally-banned anti-personnel landmines – and explosive remnants of war remain scattered across the country. During the truce, explosive remnants were the leading cause of civilian casualties, causing around 300 casualties over the course of 6 months. Children and women are particularly vulnerable, and landmines’ widespread use has led to displacement and the loss of livelihoods. Current clearance efforts are limited and under-resourced, leaving hundreds of thousands more landmines to be cleared.
Finally, warring parties have not been held accountable for their actions throughout the conflict – including for violating the truce. Parties to the conflict have caused at least 20,000 civilian casualties, and over 21 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian aid. Over 4.5 million people have been displaced, and the conflict has left critical infrastructure – including medical facilities and water and food infrastructure – across the country damaged or destroyed.
Under international law, warring parties are obligated to provide reparations for violating the law. But according to Mwatana for Human Rights and Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, the warring parties have failed to effectively provide reparations. Human Rights Watch research has demonstrated that fair trials, as well as reparations, reconstruction, and other forms of development are needed to move “society forward in a sustainable way.”
“Disbanding the Group of Eminent Experts has left an incredible gap in the ability of Yemeni civilians to achieve accountability and redress,” Jafarnia said. “A new truce should address this gap by including the establishment of an international investigative mechanism, which is the first step toward achieving accountability.”