Yemen: Embargo arms to Saudi Arabia
March 22, Sanaa: The United States, United Kingdom, France, and others should suspend all weapon sales to Saudi Arabia until it not only curtails its unlawful airstrikes in Yemen but also credibly investigates alleged violations.
Since March 26, 2015, a coalition of nine Arab countries has conducted military operations against the Houthi armed group and carried out numerous indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes. The airstrikes have continued despite a March 20 announcement of a new ceasefire. The coalition has consistently failed to investigate alleged unlawful attacks as the laws of war require. Saudi Arabia has been the leader of the coalition, with targeting decisions made in the Saudi Defense Ministry in Riyadh.
Nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations have investigated and reported on numerous unlawful coalition airstrikes. HRW, Amnesty International, and other international and Yemeni groups have issued a joint statement calling for the cessation of sales and transfers of all weapons and military-related equipment to parties to the conflict in Yemen where “there is a substantial risk of these arms being used… to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law.”
HRW has documented 36 unlawful airstrikes – some of which may amount to war crimes – that have killed at least 550 civilians, as well as 15 attacks involving internationally banned cluster munitions. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, established under UN Security Council Resolution 2140 (2013), in a report made public on January 26, 2016, “documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations” of the laws of war.
Saudi Arabia has not responded to HRW letters detailing apparent violations by the coalition and seeking clarification on the intended target of attack. Saudi Arabia has successfully lobbied the UN Human Rights Council to prevent it from creating an independent, international investigative mechanism.
In September 2014, the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia group from northern Yemen also known as Ansar Allah, took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. In January 2015, they effectively ousted President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his cabinet. The Houthis, along with forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, then swept south, threatening to take the port city of Aden. On March 26, the Saudi-led coalition, consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan, began an aerial bombing campaign against Houthi and allied forces.
At least 3,200 civilians have been killed and 5,700 wounded since coalition military operations began, 60 percent of them in coalition airstrikes, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The naval blockade the coalition imposed on Yemen has contributed to an immense humanitarian crisis that has left 80 percent of the population of the impoverished country in need of humanitarian protection and assistance.
The UN Panel of Experts found that, “the coalition’s targeting of civilians through air strikes, either by bombing residential neighborhoods or by treating the entire cities of Sa‘dah and Maran in northern Yemen as military targets, is a grave violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. In certain cases, the Panel found such violations to have been conducted in a widespread and systematic manner.” Deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks against civilians are serious violations of the laws of war, to which all warring parties are bound.
The UN panel said that the attacks it documented included attacks on “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.”
The 36 unlawful airstrikes HRW documented include attacks on schools, hospitals, and homes, with no evidence they were being used for military purposes. Human Rights Watch has collected the names of over 550 civilians killed in these 36 attacks. Amnesty International has documented an additional 26 strikes that appear to have violated the laws of war. Mwatana, one of Yemen’s leading human rights organizations, issued a report in December that documented an additional 29 unlawful airstrikes across Yemen, from March to October 2015.
In addition, HRW and Amnesty International have documented civilian casualties from internationally banned cluster munitions used in or near cities and villages. Cluster munitions have been used in multiple locations in at least five of Yemen’s 21 governorates: Amran, Hajja, Hodaida, Saada, and Sanaa. The coalition has used at least six types of cluster munitions, three delivered by air-dropped bombs and three by ground-launched rockets. HRW has said there should be an immediate halt to all use of cluster munitions and that coalition members should join the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Despite the numerous credible reports of serious laws-of-war violations, the Saudi-led coalition has taken no evident actions either to minimize harm to civilians in its air operations or to investigate past incidents and hold those responsible to account. So long as no such steps are taken, governments should not supply weapons to the leading coalition member.
The UK foreign affairs minister, Phillip Hammond, and other senior UK officials have repeatedly said that coalition forces have not committed any violations of the laws of war. On February 2, 2016, an important cross-party committee of UK members of parliament sent a letter to the international development secretary, Justine Greening, calling for immediate suspension of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and an international independent inquiry into the coalition’s military campaign in Yemen.
On February 25, the European parliament passed a resolution calling on the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini “to launch an initiative aimed at imposing an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia.” On February 17, the Dutch parliament voted to impose the embargo and ban all arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
On January 31, the coalition announced the creation of a committee to promote the coalition’s compliance with the laws of war. However, the military spokesman for the coalition specified that the objective of the committee was not to carry out investigations into alleged violations.
HRW has also documented serious laws of war violations by Houthi and allied forces, including indiscriminate shelling of cities, enforced disappearances, and the use of internationally banned antipersonnel landmines. HRW supports a ban on the sale or provision of weapons to the Houthis that are likely to be used unlawfully, notably unguided “Grad-type” rockets and anti-personnel landmines.
The Oslo Times