Yemen – Security Situation and Human Rights Practices – January, 2018

According the Human Rights Watch world report 2018 the Saudi Arabia-led coalition continued its aerial and ground campaign in Yemen with little let-up. In September 2014, Houthi forces and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and much of the country. In March 2015, the coalition, with military assistance from the United States, attacked Houthi-Saleh forces in support of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

After clashes broke out between the former allies in Sanaa, Houthi forces killed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 4 as he tried to leave the city.

The armed conflict has taken a terrible toll on the civilian population. The coalition has conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes hitting civilian objects that have killed thousands of civilians in violation of the laws of war, with munitions that the US, United Kingdom, and others still supply. Houthi-Saleh forces have fired artillery indiscriminately into cities such as Taizz and Aden, killing civilians, and launched rockets into southern Saudi Arabia.

As of November, at least 5,295 civilians had been killed and 8,873 wounded, according to the UN human rights office, although the actual civilian casualty count is likely much higher.

The war is also exacerbating the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. Both sides are unlawfully impeding the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

The coalition has used cluster munitions, while Houthi-Saleh forces have used antipersonnel landmines—both weapons are banned by international treaties.

Both sides have harassed, threatened, and attacked Yemeni activists and journalists. Houthi-Saleh forces, government-affiliated forces, and the United Arab Emirates and UAE-backed Yemeni forces have arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared scores.

None of the states party to the conflict carried out meaningful investigations into their forces’ alleged violations.

Unlawful Airstrikes

Human Rights Watch has documented 85 apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes, which have killed nearly 1,000 civilians and hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes. In March, a helicopter attacked a boat carrying Somali migrants and refugees off Yemen’s coast, killing and wounding dozens.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia pledged to reduce civilian harm in coalition attacks. Since then, Human Rights Watch documented six coalition attacks that killed 55 civilians, including 33 children; one killed 14 members of the same family. The UN Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) office reported in September that coalition airstrikes remain “the leading cause of civilian casualties.”

Indiscriminate Artillery Attacks

Houthi-Saleh forces have repeatedly fired artillery indiscriminately into Yemeni cities and into southern Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch documented attacks by both Houthi-Saleh and government-aligned forces inside Yemen that have struck populated neighborhoods, killing and wounding civilians. Over three days in May, artillery attacks in Taizz, most of them carried out by Houthi-Saleh forces, killed at least 12 civilians, including four children, and wounded 29, including 10 children. The OHCHR called the shelling of Taizz “unrelenting.”

Arbitrary Detentions, Torture, and Enforced Disappearances

Houthi-Saleh forces, the Yemeni government, and the UAE and UAE-backed Yemeni forces arbitrarily detained people, including children, abused detainees and held them in poor conditions, and forcibly disappeared people perceived to be political opponents or security threats. The number of the “disappeared” is growing.

Houthi-Saleh forces have cracked down on dissent, closing several dozen NGOs, carrying out enforced disappearances, torturing detainees, and arbitrarily detaining numerous activists, journalists, tribal leaders, political opponents, and members of the Baha’i community. Since August 2014, Human Rights Watch has documented the Sanaa-based authorities’ arbitrary or abusive detention of dozens of people, including two deaths in custody and 11 cases of alleged torture or other ill-treatment.

In areas of southern Yemen nominally under government control, Human Rights Watch has documented more than 50 people, including four children, arbitrarily detained or disappeared. UAE-backed security forces abusively detained or disappeared most of these individuals. The UAE runs at least two informal detention facilities, where they have continued to detain people despite release orders and reportedly moved high-profile detainees outside the country.

The committee set up by the Hadi government to investigate arbitrary detention has not made any results public. The UAE has denied any role in detainee abuse. Houthi-Saleh forces do not appear to have conducted investigations into detainee abuse.

Yemeni human rights groups and lawyers have documented hundreds more cases of arbitrary detentions and forcible disappearances in northern and southern Yemen.

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Both Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Yemen (IS-Y) claimed responsibility for numerous suicide and other bombings.

After President Donald Trump took office, the number of US drone attacks in Yemen increased significantly. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the US carried out 37 drone attacks in Yemen in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, but by October, the US had carried out 105 drone attacks in 2017. The US said it targeted AQAP in the majority of attacks but announced in late 2017 it carried out attacks on IS-Y that killed “dozens.”

The US has conducted at least two ground raids in Yemen since January, reportedly alongside the UAE, one of which killed at least 14 civilians, including nine children. The US may be complicit in detainee abuse by UAE forces. According to the Associated Press, the US has sent interrogators to Yemen and sent questions to and seen transcripts from UAE interrogations. The US has not made public any investigations conducted into its raids in Yemen or participation in UAE or Yemeni abuse of detainees.

In 2017, the US transferred four Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia, news agencies reported.

Blocking and Impeding Humanitarian Access

Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with at least 8 million people on the brink of famine and nearly 1 million suspected to be infected with cholera. This crisis is linked directly to the ongoing armed conflict.

The Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions on imports have worsened the dire humanitarian situation. The coalition has delayed and diverted fuel tankers, closed critical ports and stopped goods from entering seaports controlled by the Houthis. Fuel needed to power generators to hospitals and pump water to civilian residences has also been blocked.

In November, the coalition temporarily blocked all entry points to Yemen in response to a Houthi-Saleh missile attack on Riyadh, gravely worsening the humanitarian situation. Key restrictions remain. In August 2016, the coalition suspended all commercial flights to Sanaa, “having serious implications for patients seeking urgent medical treatment abroad,” according to the UN. Since May, the coalition has blocked international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, from traveling to areas of Yemen under Houthi control.

Houthi-Saleh forces have blocked and confiscated food and medical supplies and denied access to populations in need. They have imposed onerous restrictions on aid workers and interfered with aid delivery. Aid groups have ceased working in some areas due to these restrictions. The cumulative impact of Houthi-Saleh obstruction and interference with humanitarian assistance has significantly harmed the civilian population.

Aid workers have been kidnapped, arbitrarily detained, and killed while engaged in humanitarian operations in Yemen.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

Violence against women has increased 63 percent since the conflict escalated, according to UNFPA. Forced marriage rates, including child marriage, have increased. Yemen has no minimum age of marriage. Women in Yemen face severe discrimination in law and practice. They cannot marry without the permission of their male guardian and do not have equal rights to divorce, inheritance or child custody. Lack of legal protection leaves them exposed to domestic and sexual violence.

Key International Actors

Members of the coalition have sought to avoid international legal liability by refusing to provide information on their role in unlawful attacks. The Saudi-led coalition consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan; Qatar withdrew in June.

The US is a party to the conflict and risks being complicit in unlawful coalition attacks in which it takes part. The US continues to provide in-air refueling and other support to the coalition, but has not provided detailed information on the extent and scope of its engagement.

The UK has provided diplomatic support, training, and weaponry to members of the coalition. UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are the subject of ongoing litigation in the UK.

The US, UK, and France continued to provide arms to Saudi Arabia and other coalition states, despite the coalition’s use of US and UK-supplied weapons in apparently unlawful attacks. US and UK lawmakers have repeatedly challenged the continuation of these sales.

The Netherlands, joined by Canada, Belgium, Ireland, and Luxembourg, successfully led efforts at the UNHRC to create an international investigation. [1]

What’s been the impact on civilians?

By 29 October 2017, at least 5,159 civilians – more than 20% of them children – had been killed and 8,761 others injured, according to the UN. Saudi-led coalition air strikes were the leading cause of child casualties as well as overall civilian casualties.

The destruction of civilian infrastructure and restrictions on food, medicine and fuel imports have also caused what the UN has “catastrophic” humanitarian situation.

More than 20 million people, including 11 million children, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Some 17 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from and 7 million are totally dependent on food assistance. Severe acute malnutrition is threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children.

At least 14.8 million are without basic healthcare. Only 45% of the 3,500 health facilities are fully functioning. They have struggled to cope with the world’s largest cholera outbreak, which has resulted in more than 913,000 suspected cases and 2,196 deaths since April 2017.

Two million Yemenis are currently internally displaced due to the conflict and 188,000 others have fled to neighboring countries.[2]



[1] Human Rights Watch world report 2018: Yemen/Events of 2017 [accessed on 24, January 2018]

[2] BBC News: Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom? Updated – 2 December 2017 [accessed 30, January 2018]