Killings Apparently Unlawful, Any Future Peace Talks Should Prioritize Justice
Rescue members remove rubble covering victims of aerial attacks carried out by the Saudi and UAE-led coalition that targeted a detention facility in the Houthi strong-hold Saada governorate, in Yemen, on January 22, 2022. © 2022 Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images
Human Rights Watch: (Sanaa) – The Saudi and UAE-led coalition carried out three attacks in Yemen in late January 2022 in apparent violation of the laws of war that resulted in at least 80 apparently civilian deaths, including three children, and 156 injuries, including two children, Mwatana for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch said today.
Following one of the strikes, where it appears to have used a Raytheon-made laser-guided missile kit on a detention facility in Saada, the Saudi and UAE-led coalition conducted an investigation that stated that the attack was on a military facility. However, Mwatana for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch found no evidence to support that claim. Houthi forces guarding the facility also shot at detainees trying to flee, witnesses said, killing and injuring dozens. The coalition attacks were in apparent retaliation for Houthi attacks on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on January 17.
“After eight years of conflict that has turned life for Yemen’s civilians into a disaster zone, the situation only seems to get worse,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “For UN-backed peace negotiations to be successful, the results need to be durable, which requires placing justice for past atrocities at the core of any peace agreement.”
On April 1, the UN announced that it had brokered an agreement between the Houthi armed group and the Saudi and UAE-led coalition that includes a two-month ceasefire coinciding with the start of Ramadan. On April 7, President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi transferred his presidential authority to a presidential leadership council with Rashad al-Alimi, a Yemeni politician as the president of the council and seven other council members. The two-month ceasefire announcement is leading to momentum for peace talks, with the coalition and the Houthis acknowledging it as a step toward a political agreement to end the conflict.
The recent attacks underscore the urgent need to pursue accountability for human rights violations and war crimes in Yemen through prosecutions, Mwatana for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch said. A new international commission of inquiry is needed to replace the United Nations-mandated investigation shut down in October 2021.
Any upcoming negotiations and agreements should include the creation of a credible international mechanism to ensure accountability for abuses by all parties to the conflict and should avoid endorsing any amnesties for serious international crimes. Under United Nations policies, it cannot endorse peace agreements that promise amnesty for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or gross violations of human rights. Its peace negotiators and field office staff are required not to encourage or condone amnesties that prevent prosecution of those responsible for serious crimes. The mechanism created should provide a path toward prosecuting those responsible for laws-of-war violations and provide appropriate compensation to victims.
On January 17, Houthi forces attacked the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) in the Musaffah area of Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi international airport. Local media reported that the attacks took place at approximately 10 a.m. The attack on the oil company struck three petroleum tankers and killed three people and injured six others. The attack on the airport resulted in a small fire.
The Houthi military spokesperson, Yahya Sare’e, announced the attacks and targets in a televised speech that day, noting that Houthi forces launched five “ballistic and winged missiles” as well as drones targeting “the airports of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the oil refinery in Mussafah in Abu Dhabi, and a number of important and sensitive Emirati sites and facilities.” Attacks targeting civilian objects and indiscriminate attacks that do not distinguish between civilian and military targets are prohibited under the law of armed conflict.
Following those attacks, on January 17, coalition airstrikes destroyed two residential buildings, including the home of Houthi Brigadier General Abdullah al-Junid, director of the College of Aviation and Air Defense in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and damaged four adjacent residential buildings. A survivor and two other witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the airstrikes killed al-Junid and nine other people, including two women, who they said were civilians. The survivor said nine other civilians were also injured, including three women.
In the following days, the coalition launched other airstrikes across north Yemen that did not result in civilian casualties. On January 18, Houthi media reported that airstrikes targeted the Military College and Parliament buildings in Sanaa. On January 19, Houthi media reported that airstrikes targeted Sana’a Airport and its surroundings. On January 20, Houthi media reported that airstrikes targeted the area surrounding Sanaa Airport, a food storage hangar in Al-Tahreer area, and al-Safiah area, damaging homes.
On January 20, at 10:15 p.m., a coalition airstrike hit a telecommunications building in Hodeidah, destroying it, in an apparently disproportionate attack targeting critical infrastructure. Internet monitoring tools reported that from approximately 1 a.m. on January 21 until January 25 there was a near-total internet blackout in Yemen. The attack killed five civilians who were nearby, including three children, and injured 20 others, including two children, according to relatives of victims who spoke with Mwatana for Human Rights.
On January 21, coalition airstrikes targeted a Houthi-controlled detention facility in Saada governorate. A Yemeni journalist who visited the attack site showed Human Rights Watch a photograph of a remnant from one of the munitions used in the attack, which included markings indicating that it was manufactured by the US defense contractor Raytheon.
The Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) established by the coalition to investigate violations said on February 8 that the strike in Saada targeted a “Special Security Camp … which is a legitimate military target” but evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch and Mwatana for Human Rights consistently reflected that the facility targeted was a detention center.
Following the airstrikes on the detention facility, according to witnesses, Houthi forces guarding it shot at detainees trying to flee from the site. Medical workers from the hospitals receiving casualties told Mwatana for Human Rights that they treated 162 injured people and received bodies of another 82 killed people. According to the medical workers, 16 of those killed and 35 of those injured had sustained gunshot wounds. A detainee who survived the attack and assisted in the rescue operation told Mwatana for Human Rights that three children were injured. The detainee stated that the detention facility had a section for child detainees.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, warring parties may target only military objectives. They must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including by providing effective advance warnings of attacks. Deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited. The laws of war also prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which include attacks that do not distinguish between civilians and military targets or do not target a military objective. Attacks in which the expected harm to civilians and civilian property is disproportionate to the anticipated military gain are also prohibited. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly– are responsible for war crimes.
The US, the UK, France, and others should suspend all weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE until they not only curtail their unlawful airstrikes in Yemen but also credibly investigate alleged violations. Warring parties should refrain from using explosive munitions with wide-area effects in populated areas because they cause both immediate and long-term harm to the civilian population. Governments should also support a strong political declaration that addresses the harm that explosive weapons cause to civilians and commits states to avoid using those with wide-area effects in populated areas.
There is no international investigative body currently documenting human rights violations and unlawful attacks by parties to the conflict in Yemen. In October 2021, under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the UN Human Rights Council narrowly voted to end the mandate of the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, shuttering the only international, independent body investigating abuses by all parties to the conflict in Yemen.
Coalition airstrikes increased after that, according to Yemen Data Project, a website publishing statistics on coalition airstrikes, with civilian casualties reaching their highest monthly rate in more than two years. Mwatana for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations, either via the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council, to quickly establish an investigative mechanism to gather evidence of possible war crimes by all sides and prepare cases for future criminal prosecutions.
“Killing and wounding of civilians in such bloody attacks and the targeting the country’s vital infrastructure are a natural consequence of impunity for war crimes in Yemen,” said Radhya Al-Mutawakel, the chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights. “UN member states can promote accountability by establishing a new international accountability investigative mechanism with a mandate to assess potential criminal responsibility.”
Houthi Attacks on the UAE, Saudi Arabia
January 17 Coalition Attack on Residential Area in Sanaa
Human Rights Watch and Mwatana for Human Rights interviewed one person whose home was struck and two neighbors who heard and felt the strikes and were at the attack site the next morning. Mwatana for Human Rights researchers visited the site on January 18 and observed the damage and rescue operations. Human Rights Watch also analyzed satellite imagery, four photographs, and eight videos of the attack’s aftermath.
Two witnesses told Mwatana for Human Rights that the attack involved two strikes two to five minutes apart. The airstrikes hit the home of Brigadier General Abdullah al-Junid, director of the College of Aviation and Air Defense, killing him and nine others, including his wife, his adult son, and two neighbors who had come to the scene to assist survivors of the first strike.
One of al-Junid’s adult daughters, who was in the home during the attack, said that her brother was 25 and had just returned to Yemen from Malaysia, where he was studying International Relations. She said nine other civilians were injured, including three women:
When the first airstrike hit, I bent down to protect my little 2-month-old daughter. That lasted for 10 seconds. Then, when I lifted my head up to see what happened, I saw the ceiling and the wall all destroyed. I waited for anyone to come and help me. Then, two people – later I found out they were our neighbors – wearing lights on their heads appeared coming to help and screaming, asking if there were any survivors. Then the second airstrike hit. I couldn’t know where it hit but the house shook more and another part of the room fell off. I didn’t move when the second airstrike hit. Later, I found out that the two neighbors I saw survived but another two neighbors who came to help got killed by the second airstrike.
The people interviewed said the airstrikes flattened al-Junid’s residence and caused significant damage to five neighboring buildings. None of the witnesses said they had received or heard about any warnings to evacuate before the strikes.
Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite imagery collected before and after the attack. At least two residential multi-story buildings appear to have been destroyed on a satellite image acquired on January 18. At least four additional residential neighboring buildings seem to have been damaged as a result of the attack. Drone footage filmed by Houthi media on January 18 also shows damage to at least six buildings.
On March 14, Human Rights Watch wrote to the coalition seeking information about the attack, any coalition investigation to assess resulting civilian harm, and any steps the coalition has taken to ensure accountability and provide redress. The coalition did not respond and has not otherwise shown that the anticipated military gain from the attacks exceeded the expected harm to civilians and civilian property.
An investigation into the attack should consider whether coalition forces targeted a military objective, and, if there was a legitimate military objective, whether all feasible precautions were taken to minimize civilian harm, and whether the expected military gain outweighed the anticipated loss of civilian life. An attack that was unlawful and was carried out with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – would be a war crime.
January 20 Coalition Attack on Telecommunications Facility in Hodeidah
Satellite imagery recorded on January 23 shows multiple impact sites on the telecommunications compound. The roof and northern facade are clearly damaged, A mosque 10 meters east shows damage to the roof, and a section of the wall located on the right side of the main gate also seems affected. Additional impact sites and debris are also visible in the telecommunications compound.
Following the attack, residents said, they had significant difficulties accessing telecommunications networks. The interruption of mobile networks and internet affected service across almost the entire country for four days, affecting virtually every aspect of life, including emergency rescue operations, money transfers, and humanitarian work.
Human Rights Watch spoke on March 22 with two Yemeni aid workers from different organizations working in Taiz and Marib governorates who said that the mobile and internet interruptions affected their ability to communicate, including with other colleagues and donors. The disruptions delayed projects and disrupted urgent humanitarian activities, exacerbating the humanitarian needs of affected groups, they said. The importance of communications for the health and well-being of the civilian population may have made the attack disproportionate.
Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA), a network traffic measurement tool, reported that between 1 a.m. local time on January 21 and early on January 25 there was an internet blackout in Yemen. The internet monitor group NetBlocks also reported that at around 1 a.m. local time on January 21, internet users lost connectivity and Yemen experienced a “near total internet blackout” for four days. Google Transparency Report, a service that tracks traffic from Google’s products and services, also reported a disruption in traffic at approximately 12:30 a.m. local time on January 21 until approximately 12:30 a.m. on January 25.
Two witnesses who spoke with Mwatana for Human Rights said that the attack killed 5 civilians, including 3 children, and injured 20 civilians, including 2 children, who had gathered in an open area in front of the complex to play football. This open area, approximately 20 meters from the building, is frequently used for football games, some attracting hundreds of spectators. A photograph posted to Twitter on January 30 shows children are again playing football in front of the destroyed building.
Human Rights Watch and Mwatana for Human Rights interviewed four relatives of three children who were killed, and two relatives of two children who were wounded, including two who witnessed the strikes and their aftermath. A man whose 8-year-old son was killed and who was himself injured, said:
That evening, my son asked me to take him to watch the football match happening in the yard next to the telecommunications building, and we went. After the match ended, and we were about to leave, suddenly, as I was speaking with the security guard at the yard’s exit, a massive explosion made me fall down and I couldn’t hear because the explosion was huge.... The whole building fell down on the children and on me and pieces of the building reached the pavement at the other side.
I got up unable to see because of the dust and it was completely dark. Then, I started to look for my son. I found several children injured under the rubble. I rescued them while my right leg was injured and two fingers of my left hand were cut.... After about one hour of searching for my son, I was told that my son was found on the other sidewalk. I ran with my broken right leg to the hospital to check on my son, but he was killed at the same moment of the attack.
Another witness, whose 10-year-old brother was killed in the attack, said:
My brother was playing football when the airstrike hit. I fell down from the huge pressure of the explosion, and I was unable to hear or see due to the intensity of the dust that covered the street. I didn’t know what happened to my brother until my father went to the hospital. My father was told that my brother was transferred to the hospital and passed away due to injuries he suffered on his head and stomach. My mother collapsed when she heard the news.
Human Rights Watch verified nine photographs and five videos posted to Twitter, Facebook, or Telegram between 10:48 p.m. on January 20 and 3:03 a.m. on January 21 that showed the aftermath of the attack and videos filmed from inside a hospital. Two of these videos and two photographs show the body of an adult being pulled from the rubble, eight injured adults including at least two older people, the body of a boy, and five injured boys.
In a photograph posted to Twitter at 10:48 p.m. local time on January 20, a large smoke plume is visible near the PTC building which is consistent with the accounts from witnesses.
These photographs and videos analyzed by Human Rights Watch are consistent with the damage seen by satellite imagery. They show the destroyed three-story PTC building and damage to the roof of the nearby mosque.
Human Rights Watch and Mwatana for Human Rights found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the strikes during their investigation. An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful. The coalition has not provided information that would justify the attack.
On March 11, Human Rights Watch wrote to the coalition seeking information about the attack, any investigation the coalition has undertaken to assess resulting civilian harm, and any steps the coalition has taken to ensure accountability and provide redress. The coalition did not respond and has not issued any statements regarding the attack or shown that the anticipated military gain from the attacks exceeded the expected harm to civilians and civilian property.
The attack is one of several coalition airstrikes against telecommunication facilities across Yemen in January.
PTC, under Houthi control, provides cellular communications, including voice, text, and mobile internet services, to the population in nearly all areas in Yemen. Telecommunications networks used by armed forces and armed groups are military objectives subject to attack.
While dual-use objects such as communications facilities are generally legitimate targets in war, Human Rights Watch and Mwatana for Human Rights found that the attack on the Hodeidah telecommunications building may have been disproportionate – that is, the anticipated civilian harm appears to have been excessive in relation to the expected military advantage.
An investigation of the attack should consider whether all feasible precautions were taken to minimize civilian harm, and whether the expected military gain outweighed the anticipated loss of civilian life and other harm to civilians.
January 21 Coalition Attack on Detention Facility in Saada
Satellite imagery recorded afterward shows at least two distinct destroyed buildings on the eastern side of the detention center. One of the buildings appears to have undergone a “pancake collapse,” in which the floors collapse vertically on top of one another. This is visible in drone footage posted to the Al Masirah Telegram channel on January 21.
On the western side, three additional impacts are visible on satellite image, one of them affecting the roof and the western facade of one of the buildings and an additional one, adjacent to it, damaging the roof and the eastern façade and the courtyard. The imagery suggests that the facility was struck at least five times. Imagery from January 18 reflects previous damage to the facility, from an attack in 2016.
Mwatana for Human Rights researchers visited the site at 10 a.m. on January 21 and observed the damage. Mwatana for Human Rights also went to the site several times in the days following the strike to interview injured people, victims’ family members, and witnesses. A Mwatana for Human Rights researcher took photographs of the destruction and observed rescue operations during which bodies and injured people were taken to local hospitals.
On January 24, Mwatana for Human Rights researchers interviewed a detainee who survived the attack, a nurse working at the emergency department in a hospital located near the attack site, and a former administrative employee at a hospital in Saada. On January 25, researchers interviewed a doctor who treated victims, and a father whose son was a detainee killed in the attack.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed a local journalist and humanitarian workers and analyzed satellite imagery, six photographs, and seven videos of the attack’s aftermath. The journalist provided a photo he took at the strike site of a weapon remnant he said he found there.
Human Rights Watch verified a video posted to the Al Masirah Telegram channel at 10:07 a.m. local time on January 21. The video, filmed at night, shows rescue workers, a crane, and excavating equipment with large spotlights. The video corroborates the witnesses’ statements that the attack took place at night. In the video at least two bodies are seen, and rescue workers dig at least one injured person out of the rubble.
Houthi media posted a video on January 22 to YouTube from the site following the attack, showing the destruction, men searching for dead bodies, men in rescue workers’ uniforms pulling bodies from rubble of the collapsed building, an interview with one of the rescue workers explaining the rescue operation, and a man showing a weapon remnant and identifying it as US-made.
Following the airstrikes, Houthi forces guarding the detention center shot at detainees trying to flee, said a detainee who witnessed the shooting. Medical workers from the hospitals receiving casualties told Mwatana for Human Rights that they treated 162 injured and that another 82 people were killed. They identified 64 of those killed and 143 of those injured by name. According to the medical workers 16 of those killed and 35 of those injured had been shot.
Approximately 50 bodies were laid out and covered in white sheets on a street outside a Saada cemetery three kilometers from the detention facility, as seen in a video posted to Telegram on January 25.
The man who was detained at the center who survived the strikes also told Mwatana for Human Rights that three children were among the injured. The Houthi Ministry of Health reported that 91 detainees were killed and another 236 were injured.
The detainee who survived said:
[After the first strike] the sound of the explosion shook the place, opened the windows, and made the glass fly....We began to run and after two minutes and a half, another airstrike struck, and we all ran to the opposite side ... but I stopped for a bit and went to join the rescue operation – I couldn’t just leave with that scene.
The detainee described hearing detainees screaming after a third strike that brought the ceiling down on top of them: “Around 50 bodies were cut into pieces and scattered around and you could smell bodies’ burned skin.”
He said that the actions of forces on the ground increased the casualties:
The tragedy was that after the third airstrike there was live fire by the prison’s security guards targeting ones who were escaping for nearly two hours.…They were shooting deliberately at them, targeting their heads or legs. More than 50 detainees were targeted, some of them were climbing the wall so [the gunfire] made them fall down and die because the wall is really tall ... many children were injured who were kept in the children’s prison, which held 40 children.
The coalition issued a statement on January 28 claiming that the attacks on the facility were legitimate and noted that the UN and international nongovernmental organizations did not submit the coordinates of the facility to the coalition’s list of sites not to attack. The coalition’s spokesperson, Colonel Turki bin Saleh Al-Malki, said the nearest prison to the strike site was 1.8 kilometers away and that the strikes targeted the “Special Security Camp” in Saada, which he said was a legitimate military target and that it was used by the Houthis to support their military efforts.
Al-Malki also said that the coalition had initiated an investigation and that it would share their findings with the Joint Incident Assessment Team, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. According to media reports from January 28, the Joint Incident Assessment Team concluded that the strike in Saada targeted a “Special Security Camp … which is a legitimate military target.”
Several people Human Rights Watch and Mwatana for Human Rights interviewed disputed the coalition’s claim, asserting that the site was a detention facility. Humanitarian workers said that the detention center was formerly used as a military camp by the Houthi central security forces (Special Security Forces) but had been transformed into a detention center in 2020. The doctor interviewed by Mwatana for Human Rights also said the facility had been converted into a prison a year and a half ago.
The doctor, who has worked in Saada for 13 years, said, “I am shocked that this prison was targeted [given that] it’s well-known to international humanitarian organizations...” He also that the hospital where he works has implemented new security measures fearing that it could be targeted by a coalition airstrike. The ICRC also issued a report on January 21 noting that the facility was a detention center.
On January 28, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that “During our recent visit, we saw no signs indicating that this site, formerly a barracks, continues to have a military function.” Human Rights watch also spoke with a local journalist who investigated the strikes and said that while he was at the strike site on January 22, a child showed him a weapon remnant, which he photographed. He said the child found the remnant near the prison’s bakery. The same munition remnant later appeared in a video posted by Houthi media.
Human Rights Watch identified the remnant as part of a guidance fin of a GBU-12 laser guided 500-pound bomb. The item was factory-marked with a unique numerical manufacturers code identifying it as a Paveway laser guidance kit produced by the US weapons manufacturer Raytheon. Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Raytheon on March 10, seeking information about findings. Raytheon has not responded. Human Rights Watch wrote to the coalition on March 11 seeking information about the attack and whether it is assessing the resulting civilian harm, and asking about any steps the coalition has taken to ensure accountability and provide redress. The coalition has not responded.
The Joint Incident Assessment Team, established by the coalition in 2016, has fallen short of international standards regarding transparency, impartiality, and independence, underscoring the need for an international investigative body to document human rights violations and unlawful attacks by parties to the conflict in Yemen.
Human Rights Watch and Mwatana for Human Rights found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the strikes. An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful. The coalition has not provided information that would justify the attack.