With the recently published “Letter dated 27 January 2020 from the Panel of Experts on Yemen addressed to the President of the Security Council we can finally have a better picture, at least one from less biased eyes, of what has happened in Yemen across 2019.

The “Letter” is published every year in late January by UN appointed experts where they basically make a detailed summary of their investigations in the past year.

Investigations which range from sanctions and embargo violations, weapons smuggling, economical assessments on the warring parties, command structures, attacks, weapons and techniques used to employ and procure them, and possibly more important they report and investigate on IHL violations.

IHL

IHL stands for International Humanitarian Law which ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) briefly describes this way :

International humanitarian law is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. International humanitarian law is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict.

International humanitarian law is part of international law, which is the body of rules governing relations between States. International law is contained in agreements between States – treaties or conventions –, in customary rules, which consist of State practise considered by them as legally binding, and in general principles.

International humanitarian law applies to armed conflicts. It does not regulate whether a State may actually use force; this is governed by an important, but distinct, part of international law set out in the United Nations Charter.

What is International Humanitarian Law?” – ICRC 2004

Laws and principles governing what was deemed “acceptable” in conflicts have practically always been a thing but we begun codifying them with the Geneva Convention of 1864 and since then dozens of additions, treaties and reviews are what shape todays International Humanitarian Law.

IHL violations

Among the many sections the document contains there is one titled “Violations of international humanitarian law associated with air strikes by the Coalition“.

With “Coalition” it is intended a coalition of nations lead by Saudi Arabia who launched a military operation in 2015 to support the pro-Saudi president of Yemen in the local civil war. Original members of this Coalition where nine countries, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain which participated with varying degree of direct military support. Other countries provided more indirect support to military operations such as US and UK. (more on the Coalition here)

The UN Panel of Experts investigated 8 airstrikes by the Coalition happened between December 2018 and December 2019. The airstrikes caused approximately 146 deaths and 133 injuries of which 27 deaths and 33 injuries where children.

As a result of this investigations the Panel of Experts states :

97. In all cases investigated, the information and evidence gathered by the Panel lead to the conclusion that it is likely that the principles of distinction, precaution or proportionality were not respected.” ( page 38 )

  • The principle of distinction or “Distinction law” implies that belligerents must distinguish between civilian and combatants. Once distinguished, civilians are protected by multiple other laws under IHL.
  • The principle of precaution or “rule of precaution” holds that during the conduct of hostilities parties to the conflict must seek to avoid, or minimise, civilian harm.
  • The principle of proportionality serves to limit potential harm to civilians requiring that the least amount of harm is caused to them. When harm to civilians is unavoidable this needs to be proportional to the military advantage.

Knowingly violating or even ignoring such principles constitutes a war crime.

Among the eight reported cases two stand out

“Appendix 1: Case Study airstrikes against trucks in Al Sawadyah, Al Bayda on 16 December 2018 and 4 April 2019

In two separate occasions civilian trucks carrying water where hit by Coalition warplanes. Panel of Experts investigation revealed no nearby buildings nor any form of evidence pointing to combatants (Houthis) or non IHL protected civilians being nearby or onboard the trucks when they where struck. In total six people where killed two of which being children.

Water truck hit on 4 April 2019

The panel of experts concludes that both attacks constitute IHL violations as they did not respect the principle of distinction (targeted civilians) and much less the principle of proportionality.

Given the nature and dynamics of the attacks it also looks like the attacks deliberately hit the water trucks in an area where access to water is limited so to cut supplies to the essential resource and generate both logistical and psychological effects on the population dependant on it.

Appendix 6: Case Study airstrike against Community College compound, Dhamar city district, Dhamar, 31 August 2019

Buildings hit by the Coalition forces

On Saturday 31 August 2019, a compound used as prison by the Houthi forces was hit by several bombs dropped from Coalition planes. The attack caused the death of at least 100 people (most of which detainees) and wounded over 40 other.

While the compound effectively hosted Houthis which would have been legit targets, they appeared to have been there mostly as prison guards of sort.

Col. Turki Al-Maliki, spokesperson for the Coalition, claimed that the site was hosting military equipment and implied that the Coalition did not know that the site was used as prison. He also said that secondary explosions where observed indicating the presence of military equipment, but failed to provide any evidence for it, releasing just one video of one bomb hitting the compound which shows no secondary explosions.

Frame from the video released by the Coalition depicting the strike on one of the buildings of the compound. Video shows no secondary explosions.

Bellingcat has a good article on this event which is even quoted by the UN report, it adds some informations and analysis to those provided by the Panel of Experts

The Panel of Experts concludes that even if weapons where present at the site (not able to verify it) the principles of proportionality and precautions where violated. It also points out how the nature of the site (prison) was in the public domain since long time with the very same Panel of Experts having visited the site in the past and having described the site and his use in its previous annual report.

Other than the 8 airstrikes investigated numerous other IHL violations have been reported by the Panel of Experts as being perpetrated by Coalition members. This include arbitrary arrest and detention, ill-treatment, torture and enforced disappearance and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by the Yemeni government.

Numerous other violations have been attributed to the Belt Forces which aren’t under control of the Yemeni government or Coalition (but altho have strong ties with the United Arab Emirates).

Houthis IHL violations

The Houthis appear in the report with multiple violations of IHL including

  • “Indiscriminate use of explosive ordnance against civilians”, basically the use of unguided ammunitions in civilian areas (2 cases investigates with 3 civilian deaths of which 2 children).
  • Three drone attacks on Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia  which caused 1 civilian death and a total of 57 civilian injuries.
  • 53 cases of detention-related violations of international humanitarian law and human rights norms, including arbitrary arrest and detention, ill-treatment, torture and lack of due legal process. (most of the cases are ongoing since years with most of the illegal detentions tracing back to 2015 and 2016)
  • Use of landmines which resulted in 8 civilian deaths (7 children)
  • Multiple “gender-based violations” where women have been targeted for their activism.
  • In three cases children where used in the armed conflict, in two of those cases the kids where kidnapped.

For all sides involved in the conflict there are more cases than those enumerated in this article, the relevant section of the document is “V” starting at page 38, while a detailed description of each Coalition airstrike investigated can be found in the “Appendix 27” at the end of the document.

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