A United Nations panel of experts is calling on the UN Security Council to establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate reports of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all warring parties in Yemen, including the Western-backed Saudi-led coalition.
In its final report to the UN Security Council obtained by Radio Canada International, a UN panel investigating the implementation of Security Council resolutions related to the conflict in Yemen says it has found “widespread and systematic” violations of international humanitarian law committed both by the Saudi-led coalition and their Iranian-backed opponents on the ground.
“The panel has observed that not a single humanitarian pause to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people has been fully observed by any Yemeni party or by the coalition,” says the report.
The Saudis and their allies – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the Sudan – launched a military intervention in Yemen in March of 2015 in support of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi who was ousted by Shia Houthi rebels aligned with Iran in 2014.
The ensuing fighting has destroyed large parts of Yemen, displacing more than two million people from their homes. Twenty-two million people, about 80 percent of the country’s population, are facing severe food shortages, according to UN estimates.
‘Violations of international humanitarian law’
More than 5,800 people have been killed so far in the conflict.
The 51-page report, which has not been officially released yet, says 60 per cent of civilian deaths (2,682) and injuries were caused by air-launched explosive weapons, 23 per cent (1,037) of civilian casualties were caused by ground-launched explosive weapons, and 17 per cent (774) of civilian deaths and injuries were caused by improvised explosive devices.
“The panel documented that the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes,” says report, which recommends establishing an international commission of inquiry to investigate these violations of international humanitarian law.
“The panel documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law.”
The panel also accuses the Houthi rebel forces of committing a “systematic pattern of attacks resulting in violations of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, including carrying out targeted shelling and indiscriminately aimed rocket attacks, destroying homes, damaging hospitals and killing and injuring many civilians.”
The panel report also accuses the Houthi rebels of having used African migrants and refugees as human shields, and systematically denying civilians access to basic necessities of life by blocking access to food, water and medical supplies in the besieged city of Taiz.
“The panel has noted that civilians are disproportionately affected by the conduct of hostilities owing to the widespread and systematic use of tactics that practically, and in certain cases directly, constitute the prohibited use of starvation as a method of warfare,” the report says.
An air and naval blockade has been imposed by the coalition to prevent supplies from reaching the areas of Yemen controlled by Houthis.
The United Nations agency for children says, on average, eight children are killed or maimed every day in Yemen as a direct result of the hostilities.
“Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of child deaths and injuries during the second quarter of 2015 were attributed to air strikes by the coalition and in 18 per cent of child deaths and 17 per cent of child injuries were attributed to the Houthi-Saleh forces,” says the report. “All parties to the conflict have violated the rights of the child and committed grave violations against children during armed conflict.”
Payam Akhavan, professor of international law at McGill University and a former UN prosecutor at The Hague, said the report points to evidence of attacks against civilian populations that could potentially constitute war crimes.
“To the extent that these attacks are widespread or systematic, they could also constitute crimes against humanity,” said Akhavan after reading a copy of the report obtained by RCI. “There is clearly cause for serious concern and a need for a proper investigation, as recommended by the UN Panel.”
‘Playing with matches’
The conflict in Yemen, like in Syria, is in substantial part a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, each exploiting the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide to further its influence in the region, said Akhavan.
“It is a dangerous game that has cost thousands of civilian lives,” Akhavan said. “Both countries have Sunni and Shia minorities respectively. They are playing with matches in other countries, but could end up burning their own home as well.”
Canada should use what diplomatic influence it has to confront militarization of the region and the spread of extremist ideologies, he said.
“Given the obvious global dimensions of terrorism, it would be foolish for us to imagine that if we ignore such currents of hatred and violence, they will not come back to haunt us.”