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Yemen war: Victims urge ICC to investigate ‘war crimes’ of Saudi-led coalition

Hundreds of Yemenis call on International Criminal Court to look into civilian deaths and torture
A Yemeni man stands next to bloodstains at the scene of a bomb attack at a university campus in the capital Sanaa, on 24 May 2016 (AFP).

Hundreds of survivors of the war in Yemen have called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the Saudi-led coalition for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the six-year conflict.

Using the court’s jurisdiction over Jordan, Senegal, the Maldives, and Sudan, all members of the coalition, London-based international justice chambers Guernica 37 on Monday submitted evidence to the ICC about multiple incidents on behalf of survivors, relatives, and families of people killed.

The group is also urging the ICC to investigate citizens of Colombia, Panama, El Salvador, and Chile hired as mercenaries by a US-based private military contractor on behalf of the UAE.

“As the court of last resort, victims and families have no choice but to call on the International Criminal Court to ensure justice is done,” Almudena Bernabeu, co-founder of Guernica 37, said.

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Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, including the United Arab Emirates, entered the Yemeni government's war against the Houthi rebels in 2015 and began a wide-ranging aerial bombing campaign, as well as an air and sea blockade of the country.

The Saudi-led coalition has promised its own enquiries into incidents where civilians have been killed or maimed.

"I imagine those investigations will be about as effective as the trial for the perpetrators of the Jamal Khashoggi killing," said Toby Cadman, co-founder of Guernica 37 and lead counsel to the applicants, speaking to Middle East Eye.

"The Saudis do not have a particularly good record in properly investigating these acts."

The coalition has conducted at least 22,766 air raids in Yemen - including up to 65,982 individual air strikes - since it began its bombardment, according to data published in March, with roughly a third hitting non-military sites, including schools, residential areas, and hospitals.

The UN calls the situation in Yemen the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The war has killed more than 230,000 people, caused outbreaks of disease, and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

Last week, the UN's outgoing special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, told the UN Security Council that roughly two-thirds of the country's population, about 20 million people, rely on humanitarian aid for their daily needs.

Jurisdiction

Neither Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE are signatories to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, so they cannot be investigated by The Hague.

But Jordan, Senegal, The Maldives, Sudan, Colombia, and the other countries cited in Guernica 37’s submission have signed up to the treaty, meaning they do fall under ICC jurisdiction.

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"The Saudis and Emiratis would not have been able to wage the war... without the support of those states," Cadman told MEE.

"Look at probably the two worst conflicts in our lifetime, Syria and Yemen. We struggle to get the international judicial community to recognise how important it is to deal with them, so you have to find ways in which to stretch the notion of jurisdiction - and that's what we're doing."

Three incidents make up the bulk of the evidence submitted to the court on Monday: an air raid in October 2016 that killed more than 140 people gathered for a funeral, the torture and killing of civilians in southern Yemen by Latin American mercenaries contracted to the UAE by a US company and a strike on a school bus that killed and maimed dozens of children.

“At the time of the [school bus] attack the coalition claimed they would investigate and hold the perpetrators to account,” said Bernabeu of Guernica 37.

“Of course, they did no such thing.”

'Every legal avenue'

In 2017, the ICC tried to investigate crimes allegedly committed by British soldiers in Afghanistan. This "set a precedent that it is possible to investigate and hold accountable citizens of countries that are members of the ICC for crimes committed in countries that are not," according to Guernica 37.

“The ICC can and must use its clear jurisdiction to investigate these undeniable and evidenced crimes,” said Cadman.

The group is also weighing up other legal action regarding the Yemen war, including arrest warrants under universal jurisdiction and class action suits in the US, the UK - where they are looking into the actions of senior defence officials - and elsewhere.

"It's not just the selling of arms," Cadman told MEE. "It's the provision of arms in the full knowledge that war crimes are being committed."

“While our campaign begins at the International Criminal Court, we intend to fight our case using all and every legal avenue available,” he said. “Those who perpetrate the worst crimes can and will be held accountable”.