GENEVA — All parties to the war in Yemen are committing horrific abuses, from arbitrary killings to rape and torture, with an impunity that underscores a collective failure of the international community, a panel of international experts said on Tuesday.
Saudi authorities directing airstrikes in Yemen that have inflicted heavy civilian casualties and deepened the country’s dire humanitarian crisis may bear criminal responsibility for war crimes, the experts said in a report they will present to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva next week.
Houthi authorities, they said, may have also committed war crimes, indiscriminately shelling civilian areas, targeting civilians with snipers, waging siege warfare and recruiting children to fight.
The United States, Britain, France and Iran could be complicit in abuses by providing intelligence and logistics support, and by making arms transfers that were of “questionable legitimacy,” the panel said, and which perpetuated the conflict.
“The international community must stop turning a blind eye to these violations and the intolerable humanitarian situation” in Yemen, Kamel Jendoubi, the panel’s chairman, said in a statement. The statement urged the international community to open an independent investigation to bring those responsible to account.
The panel said it had provided the names of individuals it identified as responsible for international crimes to the United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet. The Human Rights Council, which she leads, will decide whether to pursue further action, including additional investigations.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been fighting in Yemen to oust the Houthis, a Yemeni faction that controls the capital, and to restore the fragile, internationally recognized Yemeni government. The war has killed thousands of civilians, mainly in Saudi-led airstrikes, and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
Saudi Arabia opposed the Human Rights Council’s decision to create the Yemen panel and has refused to cooperate with it. Neither has the United Arab Emirates, which largely withdrew from the war in July, or the Yemeni government. As a result the panel was unable to visit Yemen or Riyadh and based its findings on more than 600 interviews with victims, witnesses and other sources as well as documentary evidence.
The report adds to the pressure Saudi Arabia has faced in the council this year over the killing of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and over the Saudi government’s harsh treatment of rights activists.
Rights groups hope the council will renew and strengthen the experts’ mandate and provide them increased resources to preserve evidence, identify perpetrators and analyze command structures.
“Victims deserve to know that the international community stands with them,” said John Fisher, Geneva director of Human Rights Watch. Perpetrators, he added, “need to receive a strong message that those who commit serious crimes will face justice.”
The Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes on civilian targets in 2018 and 2019 and its failure to address concerns about its target selection “may lead to criminal responsibility for war crimes at all levels of command,” the experts said.
The panel’s findings came two days after coalition aircraft bombed a prison around 60 miles south of the capital, Sana, which the International Red Cross said killed or wounded roughly 170 inmates.
“Responsibility for serious violations caused by the persistent failure to correct errors in the targeting process would rest on the highest levels of command, including civilian officials,” the report said.
The report included a confidential list of war-crimes suspects, but members of the panel declined to give any information about who or how many people are on it.
“There are no clean hands in this conflict,” Charles Garraway, an expert in the law of armed conflict and one of the panel members, told reporters. “Everybody, everybody is responsible.”
The United Nations recorded close to 20,000 civilian casualties in Yemen between March 2015 and June 2019, including more than 7,290 deaths, but the panel emphasized that no one knows the true extent of the casualties and concluded that these numbers were likely a gross underestimate.
Coalition airstrikes destroyed or damaged farmland, water facilities, port infrastructure and medical facilities, deepening what the United Nations has ranked as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Houthi forces planted mines on farmland, used hospitals for military purposes and deliberately targeted civilians with snipers, the report said.
A coalition naval blockade and the closing of Sana airport has drastically limited imports and deliveries of humanitarian aid to the 24 million people who depend on it to survive, including millions teetering on the brink of starvation. Houthi rebels have also obstructed and diverted deliveries of humanitarian aid and applied siege-like tactics around the cities of Taiz and Hajjah.
The panel said that Emirati personnel and Yemeni forces associated with them tortured and raped prisoners and regularly used sexual violence to force confessions, humiliate prisoners or to forcibly recruit them, the panel said. Forces loyal to the Saudi-backed Yemeni government indiscriminately shelled civilian targets and resorted to sexual violence.
Houthi authorities and affiliated popular committees were responsible for disappearances and the report cited the testimony of former detainees saying that their Houthi captors had tortured, raped and inflicted other forms of sexual violence on prisoners. The bodies of prisoners who died in detention bore marks of torture, the experts reported.
Houthi forces also recruited children as young as 12, and deployed children ages 14 to 16 in combat, the panel said. The report said that forces backed by the United Arab Emirates had also recruited children as young as 13 and that several were killed in the coalition offensive to try to capture the port of Hudaydah.
The panel also said that the warring parties had increasingly lashed out at critics, journalists and civil society activists. “Anybody speaking out on behalf of the people is being targeted by all sides of the conflict,” said Melissa Parke, a panel member.
Civilians have been trapped between the Houthis, the Saudis, and other parties for too long, said Radhya Almutawakel, chairwoman of a Yemeni human rights group, in a statement. “If these abuses are ever going to end, violations must be investigated, perpetrators held accountable, and victims given justice and redress.”