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Yemen war: UN investigation mission is only hope to address 'horrific crimes'

If further investigations into the abuses ascertain that war crimes were committed, responsibility will be pinned on the chains of command of the Arab coalition forces

GENEVA, Switzerland - The UN Human Rights Council's decision last week to renew an investigation into possible war crimes committed by parties involved in the Yemen conflict brought a faint glimmer of hope to a bloody war that the international community seems to have long forgotten.

It is difficult, however, to say whether the extension of the mandate of the UN experts who are looking into human rights violations will force the warring factions to sit at the negotiating table. Given the disastrous situation in Yemen, this seems the only hope the country can cling to right now.

A turn for the worse

After UN-sponsored talks between the warring parties failed to take place in early September, fears mounted that the conflict might irremediably take a turn for the worse, as if the cholera outbreak and the famine threatening some 22 million people weren’t bad enough.

The continuation of the investigative mission led by UN experts, despite accusations of bias and lack of independence by the Saudis and the Emiratis, is perhaps the only tool left to wake up the world to the tragedy of Yemen and keep the consciences of the parties in check.

The UN investigation led by Kamel Jendoubi has brought to surface horrific crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government forces on one side and the Iran-backed Houthi forces on the other

The UN investigation led by the Tunisian Kamel Jendoubi has brought to surface horrific crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government forces on one side and the Houthi rebel forces on the other.

But the council’s renewal of Jendoubi's mandate succeeded by a razor-thin three votes, with a majority of Arab and African countries voting against it or abstaining. A no vote would have meant giving regional players and their proxies a free hand to butcher countless Yemenis virtually undisturbed.

The vote showed how divisive the decision was and how the war on Yemen remains a controversial terrain where geopolitical interests of the three key players, Saudi Arabia and the US on one side and Iran on the other, will continue to clash in Yemen as well as in other conflicts of the Middle East.

Some Western countries, in particular the US, UK, France and Spain, have come under increasing criticism for their arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with Amnesty International saying they should also be held accountable for war crimes in Yemen. Two of them, the UK and Spain, sitting on the council, voted in favour of the mandate. 

Horrific crimes 

The work which Jendoubi and his colleagues hope to continue has so far investigated violations committed between September 2014 and June 2018.

The UN experts produced a report, titled Situation of human rights in Yemen, including violations and abuses since September 2014, that tells of Islamic State group-like practices performed by Saudi and Emirati defence forces and their proxies, from the recruitment of child soldiers to the creation of torture prisons, to the random kidnappings of women and children who are sexually abused and sold. 

The report unequivocally blames both the Arab coalition and the Yemeni government as well as the Houthis of committing horrific crimes in Yemen, suggesting they may constitute war crimes under international law.

The coalition, according to the report, is using systematic torture and rape against prisoners and civilians, recruiting child soldiers and using blockades of food and fuel as collective punishments that have brought the country’s population on the brink of famine.

The UN experts produced a report that tells of Islamic State group-like practices performed by Saudi and Emirati defence forces and their proxies

The Houthis, who are a minority Shia group allegedly backed by Iran, are indiscriminately using weapons with wide-area effects in a situation of urban warfare, in particular in the besieged area of Taiz. They also stand accused of practicing torture of prisoners, persecuting minorities and recruiting child soldiers as young as eight.

"The findings are unequivocal: individuals in the government of Yemen, from among coalitions members including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and from the de facto authorities [the Houthis], have committed acts that, subject to determination by a competent court, may amount to international crimes," said Kate Gilmore, deputy high commissioner for human rights.

The military campaign

Since 2015 Saudi Arabia has been leading a military campaign in Yemen with the logistical support of the UK and the US, aimed at reinstating the legitimate government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, after the Houthis took control of the north of the country and the capital Sanaa.

A Yemeni child touches a work of art at an exhibition against war by Yemeni painters at the People's Development Foundation in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on 1 October, 2018 (AFP)
In retaliation for the Houthis' launch of ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, the coalition has tightened a blockade, originating from 2015, of Yemeni sea and land ports, thus disrupting the distribution of food, fuel and medicines amongst other essential goods. Prior to the conflict, Yemen imported nearly 90 per cent of its food, medical supplies and fuel.

As a result, about 22 million out of a population of 29.3 million are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, including 11.3 million in acute need. Some 2.9 million children and women are acutely malnourished, and less than 50 per cent of health facilities are functioning in the country, with 18 districts with no doctors. Clean water is less accessible, and Yemen is suffering from the largest outbreak of cholera in recent history.

According to UN figures, from March 2015 to June 2018, there were at least 16,706 civilian casualties, with 6,475 killed and 10,231 injured in the conflict. However, the real figure is likely to be significantly higher

Coalition air strikes have caused most of the documented civilian casualties, so far. In the past three years, such air strikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities, the UN experts said.

According to UN figures, from March 2015 to June 2018 there were at least 16,706 civilian casualties, with 6,475 killed and 10,231 injured in the conflict. However, the real figure is likely to be significantly higher.

UAE abuses 

Saudi and Emirati officials have strongly rejected the UN document, saying it is biased in favour of the Yemeni rebel forces. "Regrettably the report is based on guess work and conjectures and a limited number of violations," said Saudi UN Ambassador Abdul Aziz al-Wasel. 

The Emirati ambassador, Obaid al-Zaabi. also reacted with indignation. "We reject the report, the analysis is narrowminded ... It doesn't take into consideration important geopolitical aspects." 

The UAE has established control across southern Yemen, both by its direct action and through its proxy forces, namely the Security Belt Forces, the Hadrami Elite Forces and the Shabwani Elite Forces.

On Tuesday Yemen’s southern separatist movement called for an uprising in the restive port city of Aden and the southern provinces against the country’s internationally recognised government.

Emirati soldiers stand guard as Yemenis disembark from a flight at Aden airport in 2015 (AFP)
By early 2017, consistent reports began to surface of torture and sexual abuses of detainees or other cruel treatment committed in detention facilities or undeclared centres under UAE or Yemeni control, including the Al Rayyan and Bureiqa facilities, the 7 October facility in Abyan, Lahej Central Prison and Al Mansoura Prison controlled by Security Belt Forces, and Ma'rib Political Security.

''As most of these violations appear to be conflict related, they may amount to the following war crimes: rape, degrading and cruel treatment, torture and outrages upon personal dignity,'' says the report.

The Houthis have also reportedly committed similar atrocities. The rebels have been attacking indiscriminately civilian areas and turned schools, hospitals and mosques into military facilities. The Houthis have also been persecuting minority groups such as the Bahais.

Houthis and coalition forces have also recruited child soldiers as young as eight, says the UN. Houthis are reportedly using children in combat, at checkpoints and to plant explosive devices. Meanwhile, pro-government forces have recruited particularly vulnerable children in the internally displaced camps in Ma’rib or have offered significant payments for child recruits, say the UN experts.

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Asked by Middle East Eye to comment on the use of child soldiers, both Saudi and Emirati ambassadors denied the allegations. "We would never use children as soldiers in any war anywhere," Ambassador Al-Zaabi said in an earlier press conference on 29 June.

Yemen's minister for human rights admitted to Middle East Eye at that same event that the Yemeni government had difficulty in preventing the use of child soldiers. "Because of the collapse of the institutions in Yemen, we have seen some using child soldiers ... there is extreme poverty and schools are not functioning, so children are more exposed to this phenomenon," said minister Mohammed Askar. 

The list

A list with the names of individuals responsible for human rights violations is with the High Commissioner, said the UN's Kate Gilmore. If further investigations into the abuses ascertain that war crimes were committed, responsibilities will be pinned onto the whole chains of command of the Arab coalition forces as well the Houthis and Yemeni governments. 

In the meantime, UN diplomacy struggles to even lay down the groundwork for tentative negotiations. In his last press conference after peace talks failed to take place in Geneva, Special Envoy Martin Griffiths admitted that negotiations were at a very preliminary stage, with the UN still encouraging the two sides to agree on a set of confidence-building measures. Griffiths said he was ready to take the talks wherever necessary.

For the time being he is in the Emirates to convince Yemen’s southern separatists leader, Aidaroos al-Zubaidi, and his Emirati sponsors not to open another area of confrontation in an already intricate conflict. The separatists want to revive the former South Yemen republic, which united with the north in 1990.

- Barbara Bibbo is an Italian journalist living between Doha and Geneva. She has worked at Al Jazeera English for eight years, doing extensive research on international issues and world-leading figures for the Talk to Al Jazeera show. She started her career in print, as a correspondent for Il Messaggero Veneto, the Gulf News and Italian News Agency ANSA from the Gulf region. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Yemeni child suffering from malnutrition is carried by a member of hospital staff at a hospital in the district of Aslam in the northwestern Hajjah province on 28 September 2018 (AFP)

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