Women and children are pictured at a camp for people recently displaced by fighting in Yemen's northern province of al-Jawf between government forces and Houthis, in Marib, Yemen March 8, 2020. © 2020 Reuters/Ali Owidha

(Beirut) – The parties to Yemen’s armed conflict continued to violate the laws of war over the past year, including with new apparent war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. In 2020, the United Nations Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen called for the creation of an international accountability mechanism and for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court.

The dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which has been exacerbated by more than five years of war, became increasingly deadly with increasing obstruction of aid, collapse of the country's economy, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The full extent of the spread of Covid-19 in Yemen remains unknown due to the damaged health facilities, limited testing capacity, and the fear of social stigma preventing people from seeking medical help. Several countries cut or ended humanitarian assistance to Houthi-controlled areas, ostensibly because of interference from Houthi authorities.

“Years of violations have shown that parties to Yemen’s conflict have little incentive to halt their abuses without the real possibility of accountability,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Concerned governments should publicly endorse calls for international accountability measures.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 

The Yemen Data Project estimated that at least 18,400 civilians have been killed or injured since the beginning of the war, and over 20 million people – nearly two-thirds of the population – require food assistance. The UN Group of Eminent Experts reported in September that Yemen was suffering from an “acute accountability gap,” citing violations committed with impunity by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Houthi armed group, the Yemeni government, and the Southern Transitional Council in Aden.

The coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Houthi forces, launched mortars, rockets, and missiles into heavily populated areas including Marib, Taizz, and Hodeidah. The coalition also carried out more airstrikes that violated the laws of war, attacking civilians and civilian structures, and using munitions purchased from the United States, France, Canada, and other countries. Despite the withdrawal of its troops from Aden in late 2019, the UAE continued its air operations in Yemen and support for abusive local Yemeni forces.

The Trump administration in November notified the US Congress of an arms sale to the UAE totaling billions of dollars in F-35 aircraft and armed drones despite the UAE’s record of repeatedly violating international law in Yemen.

“The incoming Biden administration has the opportunity to make a positive impact in Yemen by halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, at least until they halt unlawful attacks and credibly investigate past violations,” Nasser said.