Yemen’s War Is a Tragedy. Is It Also a Crime?
Looming famine. Rampant disease. Deadly airstrikes.
This is the daily reality for the residents of Yemen suffering a staggering humanitarian crisis driven by a fierce civil war.
United Nations experts have warned that some of the actions carried out by the warring parties — the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels — could amount to crimes against humanitybecause of their systematic and widespread execution.
The calls for accountability have been heightened since a Saudi-led coalition tightened a blockade of sea, air and land ports earlier this month after a missile fired by Houthi rebels was intercepted near the Saudi capital. The blockade has since been loosened, but it is still cutting civilians off from desperately needed humanitarian aid and food.
Which aspects of the war could amount to crimes against humanity? And what, if anything, can be done to hold the perpetrators accountable?
When food is a weapon
Many Yemenis are starving as a direct result of the war, which has inflated food prices, leaving most unable to afford the supplies.
Since Saudi Arabia joined an offensive against the Houthi rebels in 2015, an estimated 17 million people in Yemen have been classified by the United Nations as “food insecure.” Put simply, that means they do not have reliable access to food and are at risk of hunger.
Even before the latest blockade, Yemen was on the brink of famine.
All ports under Houthi control are still blockaded, and the majority of food that enters the country comes through these ports.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a monitoring group founded by the United States Agency for International Development, warned Tuesday that in three to four months, much of Yemen will be suffering from famine. And the Houthis, too, have been accused of blocking food supplies in the past, though on a smaller scale.
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia, under intense pressure, announced plans to reopen the port of Al Hudaydah, a major lifeline for residents of Houthi-controlled areas and to reopen the airport in Sana, the capital, to United Nations aid planes.
Famine can amount to a crime against humanity if food restrictions are used as a weapon of war, according to United Nations officials.
“It is an international crime to intentionally block access to food, food aid, and to destroy production of food,” the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, told journalists in October, speaking generally on the topic. “Such acts are crimes against humanity, or war crimes.”
When disease is no accident
The war has also decimated the health care sector. Destroyed infrastructure has left many without clean drinking water and set off a cholera epidemic. It was the largest single-year outbreak of the disease ever recorded.
Dozens of hospitals were intentionally targeted, according to a report from Save the Children, by Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition.
The cholera outbreak has disproportionately affected areas controlled by the Houthis, in part because more public water systems, hospitals and residential areas have been destroyed there, forcing people into crowded and unsanitary conditions.
And yet with health care more important than ever, dozens of hospitals have been intentionally targeted by both Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition, according to a report from Save the Children.
The spread of cholera had been waning, but the World Health Organization warned that if the current coalition blockade was not lifted, it would flare up again. Much-needed chlorine tablets that sanitize water have been blocked from delivery to the country, as have hundreds of tons of other medical supplies.
And several cities have been cut off from supplies of fuel for pumping in fresh water and for processing sewage. The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday that the new blockade put 2.5 million people at risk of a renewed cholera outbreak and other waterborne diseases.
The International Criminal Court considers “inhumane acts” that are “intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health” to be crimes against humanity.
When civilians are targeted
A panel of United Nations sanctions monitors in 2016 warned that Saudi-led coalition airstrikes were targeting civilians in a “widespread and systemic manner.”
A United Nations Human Rights Council report from September detailed more than 5,000 civilian casualties from March 2015 to August 2017. Children accounted for more than 1,000 of the victims. Not all of them were killed by airstrikes, and some died at the hands of Houthi rebels, but the report made clear that the vast majority of civilian casualties were from coalition strikes.
Some 3,233 of the civilians killed were reported to have been killed by coalition forces, and in some cases were directly targeted.
“In many cases,” the report says, “information obtained … suggested that civilians may have been directly targeted, or that operations were conducted heedless of their impact on civilians without regard to the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack.”
Houthi rebels and their allies have also reportedly indiscriminately shelled residential areas in the city of Taiz and have fired artillery indiscriminately across the border into Saudi Arabia, killing and wounding civilians.
The International Criminal Court lists several acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack” as amounting to crimes against humanity.
Will anyone be held accountable?
Even if the violence playing out in Yemen and the humanitarian disaster it has set off are determined to amount to crimes against humanity for any of the parties involved, the process of holding anyone accountable could be a long and winding one.
In September, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva appointed a group of experts to examine rights abuses and potential crimes by all parties to the conflict in Yemen. The experts will report to the Human Rights Council next year.
But that move fell short of a formal International Commission of Inquiry, which would have the power to refer a case to the International Criminal Court. Saudi Arabia and its allies blocked more severe measures.
So justice may be far down the road.
In the short term, humanitarian organizations warn of a far more urgent need: freeing up the flow of food, medicine and other supplies.
On Wednesday, the International Rescue Committee issued a statement saying that just two weeks of the blockade had had a “direct and dire impact” in a country already in crisis.
“We are far beyond the need to raise an alarm — what is happening now is a complete disgrace,” Paolo Cernuschi, Yemen country director at the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement. “The responsibility of failing to act to prevent collective punishment is on us all.”