Yemen: Renewed calls for accountability on all sides for civilian deaths

Mourners pray over the body of 10-year-old Youssef al-Salmi, who was killed when a bomb exploded while he was playing with it near his family's house, in Hasn Faj Attan village, on the mountainous outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Two new reports on the civil war in Yemen paint a picture of a fight where all sides are ignoring international laws – putting civilians already caught in the middle in greater danger.

Save the Children and the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict join others campaigning to hold all groups involved in the war accountable. Pointing to at least 160 recorded attacks by the Saudi-led coalition, the two groups argue that the United Nations should list the coalition among those who violate child rights in its upcoming report on children and armed conflict.

“For two years bombs have been landing on hospitals, homes, and schools,” Grant Pritchard, interim country director for Save the Children in Yemen, said in a statement. “On the ground our teams are helping children who have been physically and mentally scarred, and are supporting hospitals that are now forced to hold damaged incubators together with sticking tape. All parties have been responsible for the unnecessary deaths of children in Yemen, and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition is among them. Those responsible must be held to account.”

The U.N. briefly included the Saudi-led coalition in last year’s report but later removed it under pressure from Saudi Arabia. The report said that the coalition was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths, a claim the Saudi ambassador to the U.N. called “wildly exaggerated.” The coalition airstrikes in support of the embattled Yemeni government have come under criticism since they began two years ago.

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Aid groups and politicians also criticize the United States, United Kingdom and other governments that back the Saudis. The U.S. provides intelligence assistance, plane refueling and arms to the Saudi army. Activists argue that the U.S. is culpable for coalition actions in Yemen.

But they point out that rebel forces also violate human rights. The Houthi rebels use land mines in their fight, according to Human Rights Watch, a violation of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty – ratified by Yemen in 1998.

Mines killed or wounded 998 people in 2015, according to the Landmine Monitor initiative. Human Rights Watch officials said they were unable to estimate the number of casualties today, but say its on-the-ground investigations reveal that land mines are still used and are harming civilians.

“Houthi-Saleh forces have been flouting the landmine ban at the expense of Yemeni civilians,” Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Yemen prohibited antipersonnel mines nearly two decades ago and no authorities should tolerate their use.”

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By applying international pressure, there is hope that countries that have some involvement in the fight can help establish accountability.

But it will take international bodies, like the United Nations, to stand up to the pressure from countries attempting to evade responsibility for their acts.

“The U.N. secretary-general cannot bow to pressure from Saudi Arabia, but must hold the Saudi Arabia-led coalition responsible for repeated attacks on medical facilities and staff,” Christine Monaghan, research officer at Watchlist, said in a statement. “They are leading to the closure of hospitals, compromising children’s access to treatment, and increasing rates of injury and disease.”

More than 4,600 civilians were killed and more than 8,000 injured between March 2015 and February 2017, according to the United Nations. Yemen is facing a hunger crisis. Some 17 million people are in need of food assistance – 6.8 million are in the “emergency phase” placing them on the brink of hunger.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.