Thursday, July 28, 2022

Yemen’s Prospects for Unity Are Uncertain after Many Years of War

*Arab Center Washington DC -  In 2018, the United Nations Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen suggested that the Yemeni State had begun to fragment as a result of a conflict that is now in its eighth year. “Yemen, as a State, has all but ceased to exist,” the panel wrote. “Instead of a single State there are warring statelets, and no one side has either the political support or the military strength to reunite the country or to achieve victory on the battlefield.” Over the course of the conflict, a number of statelets did indeed emerge in Yemen. These include the armed Houthi movement’s area of control, which stretches across most of the northern part of the country, and the internationally-recognized Yemeni government’s nominal dominion over the rest. Complicating this picture is the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council’s de facto control over most of southern Yemen, including the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, in Yemen’s Marib Governorate, home to the country’s largest oil fields, the Yemeni government and Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah Party have established a measure of shared control. And in eastern Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate, the country’s largest governorate and producer of more than half of Yemen’s oil output, a combination of local community leaders and the Yemeni government are in charge.

Eight years of conflict have effectively divided Yemen into many parts. And with each new day the Yemeni people lose more and more of the ties that used to unite them. Increased religionism, as well as sectarianism driven largely by Houthi politics, are dividing the nation, as are diverse economic, political, and military factors. But the international community still appears to have little desire to acknowledge Yemen’s growing fragmentation, clinging instead to the increasingly unlikely prospect of reuniting the country into a single state. And with few notable exceptions, the country’s deep and perhaps irremediable divisions continue to be swept under the rug during each one of the international community’s stakeholder meetings and negotiations about the conflict. What has been most tragically ignored is the fact that the political will to stitch the various fragments of Yemen back together still exists on the local level. In April 2022, the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) was established with the explicit goal of doing just that. But it is uncertain whether this initiative will succeed, or whether it is simply too late to remedy the situation. In the end, the country’s various factions may just decide to mark existing divisions with an official split. But whether a permanent fracture is inevitable, or if there is still time to reunite the entirety of Yemen under one flag and government still remains to be seen.

Economic Division

Yemen is riven by economic divisions that are felt by citizens across the country. The decision by former president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to relocate Yemen’s Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden in September 2016 eventually resulted in the existence of two central banks, one under Houthi control in the capital, which is the country’s main commercial and financial center, and one in Aden that is overseen by the Yemeni government, and that is struggling to receive deposits and donations from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other members of the international community. The two banks also implement different sets of monetary policies, which has helped increase the sense that there exist today two distinct Yemeni states.

The splitting of the central bank has produced a domino effect across Yemen’s economic system. Today, the country’s various regions are governed by different customs regulations, revenue authorities, financial intelligence units, and telecommunications authorities, and by distinct laws and policies related to trade, banking, and taxes. For instance, the internationally-recognized Yemeni government has begun printing currency that is not accepted by the Houthis in the north, making travel and exchange between the north and south all the more difficult. This has also caused areas under Houthi control to face a major cash crunch, while the existence of excess currency notes in areas controlled by the Yemeni government has spurred inflation and the rapid depreciation of the rial’s exchange value. As of June 2022, one US dollar was equivalent to roughly 550 rials in Houthi-controlled areas and 1,100 rials in the rest of the country—less than half the value.

This dismal situation has done significant harm to the economies of both northern and southern Yemen, adversely impacting domestic trade and the prices of food, fuel, and other commodities, and also thoroughly undermining any sense of economic unity for the country. Indeed, the World Bank has stated that, “The Yemeni economy has developed more and more into a de facto dual economy.”

Political Division 

There are currently an abundance of distinct governments and authorities in Yemen, the most significant of which are the respective political structures of the Houthis, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), and, of course, the internationally-recognized Yemeni government. These groups have established parallel political systems of power in the country, with the Houthis and the Yemeni government having formed separate executive branches, ministries, parliaments, and state news agencies. Adding to the confusion, even though the international community only officially recognizes the Yemeni government, diplomats and NGOs continue to engage with the Houthi’s executive body, the Supreme Political Council.

These political divisions are the most noticeable signs of the country’s fragmentation, both for Yemenis and for outside observers. For example, the existence of distinct sets of political policies has gravely affected mobility across the country. And the STC has even gone so far as to periodically engage in the deportation of citizens with northern origins from Aden and Socotra island. Meanwhile, the Houthis and the Yemeni government each assume the right to issue visas to visitors, which has led to disruptions for members of the international community working in the country.

On April 7, former President Hadi stepped down, marking not only a new phase in the conflict, but also the implicit end of the government he headed. From his base in Saudi Arabia, Hadi handed power to the newly-established PLC, which is composed of council chair Rashad al-Alimi and seven other members, all of whom possess distinct agendas. The circumstances under which the council was established also remain a constant source of suspicion, with many saying that Saudi Arabia pushed Hadi to resign. The fact that the council most likely was not the outcome of a Yemeni-led decision, and was instead the product of foreign intervention, signals the persistent absence of a genuine vision among the country’s leaders to unite Yemen’s different factions. Nonetheless, the PLC has been internationally recognized.

The role of the council remains undefined, but the body encompasses a wide spectrum of anti-Houthi groups, and could eventually play a role in peace negotiations with the Houthis at a later stage. In addition to al-Alimi, a former minister who was close to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, members of the council include: Tareq Saleh, nephew of former President Saleh and a military commander who controls the majority of Yemen’s western coast; Sultan Ali al-Arada, a ​​prominent politician and governor of the oil-rich Marib Governorate; Abdel-Rahman Abu Zaraa, the salafi military leader of the Giants Brigades, an armed group in the south that is supported and trained by the UAE; Abdullah al-Alimi Bawazeer, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was close to former president Hadi; Othman Hussein Megally, a prominent politician from the Saada Governorate and a close ally of Saudi Arabia; Faraj Salmin al-Bahsani, a military commander and governor of Hadramawt; and Aidarus al-Zubaidi, president of the STC, which is based in Aden.

Yemen’s political divide is further emphasized by the fact that in Aden today there are essentially two main political powers: the STC and the PLC. In April 2020, the STC declared its autonomous administration of the south—an implicit declaration of separation—but after pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it quickly abandoned the position. But given the separationist ambitions it still harbors, it is nearly impossible to imagine the STC being merged into the PLC. What is more likely to happen is that as soon as the STC is given international political support, it will again attempt to break away.

Meanwhile, a little more than 100 days after its formation, the PLC has failed to produce any of the significant changes that are necessary to fix the broken status quo, such as instituting political and economic reforms, finally paying civil servants’ unpaid salaries, and fixing Aden’s chronic electricity shortage. Meanwhile, the Houthis are pushing for the UN Security Council to recognize them as more than a de facto government, but instead as an official government of Yemen, a prospect the international community seems uninterested in considering.

Military Division

The Yemeni government’s army has been in constant disarray since the Houthis, allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, stormed Sanaa in 2014, clashing with armed forces under the control of then President Hadi. The Houthis were able to capture the majority of the Yemeni Army’s missile stockpile, air defense system, and other weapons, thanks in part to Saleh’s assistance. Former President Hadi’s attempts to salvage the remnants of his army in Aden were in vain, due to the UAE’s effort throughout the conflict to create several armed groups in Yemen, which operate outside of the Yemeni government’s control. The UAE has provided these groups with weapons and training, as well as technical, financial, and logistical support. And recruits are often enticed into joining up by the promise of salaries that are often as much as five times those of soldiers in the Yemeni government’s army. However, the purpose behind the UAE’s intervention is unclear, since it has been supporting a mix of both separatist and non-separatist groups.

Some UAE-sponsored armed groups have played a major role in shifting the trajectory of the conflict. For instance, in January 2022 the Giants Brigades stopped Houthi forces from taking over Shabwa Governorate and part of Marib Governorate, with aerial support provided by a Saudi- and UAE-led military coalition. The group is one of the country’s most powerful armed militias, and indeed, one could argue that UAE-backed armed forces are stronger today than the Yemeni government’s military.

The UAE even challenged the Yemeni government for control of Socotra, and in 2018 invaded the island, which it continues to use as a strategic base of operations for its economic and military outreach into mainland Yemen and East Africa. A year earlier, in a heated discussion with then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, then President Hadi accused the UAE of behaving like an occupier in Yemen. Recent reporting also linked the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States in a plan to use the island as an intelligence base and missile defense site for what could possibly become a military alliance in the Middle East.

The fragmentation of the Yemeni Army and a growing number of armed groups that possess diverse allegiances is almost certain to frustrate any effort to return to and rebuild a united Yemen. How realistic, really, is the possibility of integrating numerous armed groups into one security sector after all the blood that has been shed? In seeking an answer to this question, all eyes are on the PLC’s newly-established Joint Military Committee, which has promised to restructure and unify all armed groups and security forces, as well as intelligence units belonging to the “anti-Houthi camp” within the PLC’s Defense Ministry. However, this committee is clearly facing an uphill battle, as are all of the individuals and organizations seeking to bridge the country’s ever-deepening divides.

The Way Forward

Imagining a future in which Yemen is united is impossible without first addressing the roots of the Yemeni State’s disintegration. But regardless, the current situation is so bad that at this point Yemen may be irrevocably divided. Ever since 2014, when the Houthis first captured nearly all of the state’s institutions, the group has been working tirelessly to consolidate its power. The Yemeni government, meanwhile, only exists due to the standing that comes with its having been recognized by the international community. But for citizens across Yemen, that government means next to nothing, since it has failed to meet its responsibilities to the Yemeni people.

Both the Houthis and the Yemeni government aim to rule over an undivided Yemen, despite the fact that both groups have enacted major policies that deeply undermine prospects for unity. Meanwhile, the STC’s main objective has been and continues to be secession. And some experts argue that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are planning to divide up Yemen according to the two countries’ economic and commercial interests. Many are recommending that steps be taken to prevent further divisions in Yemen. However, a far more fruitful avenue at this point would be for parties to the conflict and other relevant stakeholders, including those from the international community, to commit to an honest conversation and to face the reality of a divided Yemen, one whose cleavages have been carved by the country’s many belligerent factions.

*This policy analysis piece was written by Afrah Nasser for the Arab Center, and it was published on AC's website on July 28, click here to view the original version. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Yemen: Latest Round of Saudi-UAE-Led Attacks Targets Civilians

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

The attacks on the UAE on January 17 are the latest indiscriminate Houthi attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Houthi forces have repeatedly launched missiles toward civilian airports in Saudi Arabia in what constitute apparent war crimes. Most recently, on February 10, a Houthi drone attack on Abha International Airport in southern Saudi Arabia injured 12 people. Abha International Airport is a civilian airport 110 kilometers from the Saudi border with Yemen and 15 kilometers west of King Khalid Air Base, one of Saudi Arabia’s largest military airbases. Houthi authorities have indicated on numerous occasions that they consider civilian airports, incorrectly, to be valid targets.

January 17 Coalition Attack on Residential Area in Sanaa

On January 17, the coalition conducted airstrikes on a crowded residential neighborhood in Sanaa. Witnesses said there were two airstrikes at about 9:30 p.m. Satellite imagery confirms that the attack took place between 9:41 a.m. on January 17 and 9:42 a.m. on January 18. A video filmed at night, posted to Telegram by Ansar Allah Media Center on January 18 at 12:48 a.m., shows rescue workers and residents sorting through debris and carrying a body through the site. Another video, also filmed at night, posted to Telegram on January 18 by Al Masirah, Houthi-owned media, also shows human remains being gathered by a Yemen Red Crescent Society rescue worker. The Al Masirah reporter interviews a man at the site who says “two rockets hit the place,” consistent with witness accounts.

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.


In its satellite imagery analysis, Human Rights Watch also identified a military target 15 meters away, the 1st Armored Division base, across the street from the residences that were struck. The base, which has been under Houthi control since 2014, was not struck or damaged.

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

On January 20, at about 10:15 p.m., residents said, a coalition airstrike struck the Public Telecommunications Corporation (PTC) building, controlled by the Houthi authorities, in a densely populated area in Hodeidah city. Mwatana for Human Rights researchers visited the site the morning of January 21 and observed the damage. Human Rights Watch also analyzed satellite imagery, photographs, and videos of the attack’s aftermath.

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.

Photograph posted to Twitter on January 30, 2022, apparently showing part of the aftermath of Saudi and UAE-led coalition airstrike, targeting a telecommunications building in Hodeidah governorate on January 20, and children playing football, along with spectators sitting. The attack killed five civilians, including three children, and injured 20 others, including two children, who had gathered in an open area in front of the complex to play football. Photograph courtesy of Nabil Abdullah, 2022.

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.

View of bulldozers and people inspecting a demolished Houthi-controlled pre-trial detention facility in Saada governorate. On January 21, Saudi and UAE-led coalition airstrikes targeted the facility, killing 66 people and injuring 127. © 2022 Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

January 21 Coalition Attack on Detention Facility in Saada

On January 21, coalition forces conducted airstrikes on a Houthi-controlled pretrial detention center in Saada city in northern Yemen. Witnesses said the airstrikes were at about 2:40 a.m. Satellite imagery confirms that the attack was between 10:11 a.m. January 20 and 10:34 a.m. on January 21.

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.

Satellite imagery recorded on January 28, analyzed by Human Rights Watch showing a Houthi-controlled pre-trial detention facility in Saada governorate. On January 21, Saudi and UAE-led coalition airstrikes targeted the facility. The annotated satellite image shows two destroyed buildings, damage to the yard of the detention center, and two impacted wards, illustrated by stills from videos and a photograph taken at the scene. Satellite imagery: © 2022 Maxar Technologies. Source: Google Earth. Image stills on the left of image: Courtesy of Al Masirah, 2022. Photograph on the right of image: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images, 2022

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.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

US Assistance to Saudi-Led Coalition Risks Complicity in War Crimes

People inspect a damaged building at the site of a Saudi-led airstrike on Sanaa, Yemen.
 © 2022 Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

*The protracted conflict in Yemen has killed almost a quarter of a million people directly or indirectly due to inadequate food, health care, and infrastructure. It has included unlawful attack after unlawful attack, with homes, hospitals, schools, and bridges among the civilian objects that the warring parties have targeted. Fighting has internally displaced more than 4 million people from their homes. Food insecurity is on the rise.

The conflict that began in 2014 between the Houthi armed group and the government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi morphed in 2015 into a conflict between the Houthis and the US-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Today the fighting includes nearly 50 other battlefronts.

The UN Security Council panel of experts has reported for several years that Iran continues to supply the Houthis with weapons. The US has also supported the Saudi and UAE-led coalition politically, particularly by shielding the coalition from criticism and enabling the United Nations Security Council to focus its scrutiny only on the Houthis, as seen in Resolution 2216, drafted by the United Kingdom in 2015.

Since 2015, the United States has supplied Saudi Arabia and the UAE with billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, training and logistical support, including aerial refueling until 2018, as the coalition conducts its aerial bombing campaigns. Human Rights Watch has documented the coalition’s use of US-manufactured weapons in at least 21 apparently unlawful attacks under the laws of war. These attacks include the March 15, 2016, attack on a market in the village of Mastaba in northwestern Yemen, which killed at least 97 civilians, and the attack on October 13, 2016, on a funeral ceremony in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, which killed at least 100 people and wounded more than 500, including children.

Mounting evidence shows that parties to the conflict, the coalition as well as the Houthi armed group, continue to commit serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. On January 21, coalition warplanes struck a detention center in Sa’ada governorate, northern Yemen, resulting in dozens of casualties. According to a local nongovernmental group, Mwatana for Human Rights, some detainees who survived the strikes were then gunned down by Houthi forces on the ground while they tried to flee.

The Houthi armed group also continues to launch indiscriminate attacks into populated areas, including into internally displaced people’s camps in Yemen’s Marib governorate. Despite the ongoing toll on civilians, the US continues to sell weapons and provide training and logistical support to the coalition.

One recent sale approved by the Biden administration happened in December, when Raytheon, a leading US defense company, sold $650 million of air-to-air missiles and associated equipment to Saudi Arabia. In response to a Human Rights Watch 2018 inquiry about the steps Raytheon takes to ensure protection of civilians, Raytheon’s vice president, Timothy F. Schultz, wrote that “Raytheon sales of munitions to Saudi Arabia have been and remain in compliance with US law and do not violate US or international legal requirements applicable to the company.”

Raytheon and other US companies operating in the weapons sector have responsibilities under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to assess the impacts of their operations, sales and services, based on international human rights requirements and the laws of war. While the United States government facilitates the company’s weapons sales, the company says it complies with US law and policies. There are still serious concerns that Raytheon is not meeting its human rights responsibilities as its munitions continue to be used to commit violations of international humanitarian law.

Even though the US government is aware of credible allegations that US-made weapons are being used in violation of international humanitarian law, the US has possibly violated its own obligations by continuing arms sales to the coalition. Government officials could be legally liable for war crimes in Yemen, a consideration raised in a State Department Inspector General report in 2020.

The US condemns likely war crimes committed in other armed conflicts, such as those by Russia in Ukraine, but continues to support the coalition that is committing similar violations in Yemen. Yemeni civilians have also told Human Rights Watch that by supplying weapons used to target them, the US has contributed to antagonism, pain and resentment. Yemenis say that they are well aware that some of the bombs that fall on their homes and heads are made in the US, as weapon remnants found at strike sites by journalists, researchers and others have repeatedly shown.

The US continues to show an inadequate commitment to ensuring accountability for the possible crimes of its allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and for its own role. After seven years of ignoring rights groups’ warnings of potential US complicity in serious crimes in Yemen, Washington needs to reverse course and take concrete steps to end its complicity, including by suspending weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE until they curtail unlawful airstrikes. The US should also pursue credible investigations and prosecutions into previous alleged violations.

*Article was written by Afrah Nasser, and published first on Sana'a Center's website, and later on Human Rights Watch's website

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Yemen Talk with Sen. Chris Murphy

I co-discussed the conflict and the humanitarian situation in Yemen with Sen. Chris Murphy & Oxfam's Scott Paul. You may press play & watch the talk below: 


Yemen War Victims Beyond the Headlines


People inspect a damaged building at the site of a Saudi-led airstrike on Sanaa, Yemen.
© 2022 Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Published on Human Rights Watch's website, February 2: 

While the dramatic escalation of fighting in Yemen since mid-January has renewed international attention, the day-to-day reality beyond the ballistic missiles and airstrikes rarely gets the same attention and scrutiny. Beyond the headlines, civilians in Yemen have been caught between hammer and anvil for years.

Civilians in Yemen are routinely subjected to injustices by all parties to the conflict, not just one side. For instance, while the Saudi and UAE-led coalition is responsible for a naval and air blockade on Yemen, and has a sordid record of unlawful attacks, targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in areas held by the Houthi armed group, Houthi forces have also been committing serious abuses. The Houthis’ record of abuses and war crimes is long and growing, including holding people arbitrarily, forcibly disappearing them, and torture. The group also abuses religious minority groups, wrongfully convicts journalists and threatens to execute them, unlawfully shells internally displaced people, and forcibly displaces civilians. Houthi authorities have spread disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic, subjecting civilians and health workers to risks. And the list goes on.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s role in Yemen goes well beyond just airstrikes. Saudi Arabi’s recent decision to not renew work contracts for Yemeni professions could result in a mass forced return of Yemeni workers, a move that would devastate Yemen’s collapsing economy by cutting off at least two million Yemenis’ remittances sent to their families in Yemen.

Likewise, despite removing its ground forces from southern Yemen in late 2019, the UAE continues to support abusive local forces that have arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and abused dozens of people during security operations, including by transferring weapons to these forces.

The war in Yemen isn’t a football match where one gets to cheer for one side over the other. Behind the headlines about the escalation, there are human victims who have suffered these abuses long enough.

There is no magic bullet for solving Yemen’s problems, but there is no doubt that the path forward should include accountability and redress measures for all abuses, no matter whether they are committed by states, armed groups, or others.