The U.N. Decides to Step Up in Yemen

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It has only been eighteen months since the escalation of the conflict in Yemen; an escalation that caused the country to quickly unravel into civil war.[1] This unraveling has led to turmoil and humanitarian damage that will likely be felt for years to come. Throughout this, the U.N. has largely elected to sit on the sidelines, choosing to play the role of a mediator, helping to broker peaceful negotiations between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels.[2] These efforts, however, have mostly been fruitless.[3] After deferring a humanitarian investigation to the Yemeni government just one year ago,[4] the U.N. finally decided that it cannot sit by without accountability for the pain and suffering of millions of Yemeni civilians. [5]

Since the beginning of the conflict, an estimated 3,799 civilians have been killed and 7,711 have been injured.[6] Additionally, 7.6 million people, including roughly three million women and children, are malnourished.[7] These numbers, along with suspect military practices and a lack of care for civilian life and well-being, led the U.N. to a tipping point this past August.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for an international, independent body to carry out a comprehensive investigation in Yemen:

Yemen Airstrikes
Rubble from airstrikes against a town in Yemen.
Photovia Wikimedia Commons.

Civilians in Yemen have suffered unbearably over the years from the effects of a number of simultaneous and overlapping armed conflicts, [a]nd they continue to suffer, absent any form of accountability and justice, while those responsible for the violations and abuses against them enjoy impunity. Such a manifestly, protractedly unjust situation must no longer be tolerated by the international community.[8]

It is clear that the U.N. intends to take investigative action to hold whoever is responsible for the humanitarian atrocities in Yemen accountable.[9] What is unclear, however, is what exactly the U.N. expects to find and, upon finding human rights violations, what legal actions the U.N. can take to sanction those responsible.

The accusations of humanitarian violations are severe and far-reaching. The U.N. believes that both the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels have violated international humanitarian laws and have largely acted with a complete disregard for civilian life and well-being.[10] The U.N. also believes that air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition have resulted in up to 60% of all civilian casualties in Yemen since last March.[11] While this coalition and the Yemeni government have shared their own findings from internal investigations, Mohammad Ali Alnsour, chief of the Middle East and North Africa section of the U.N. human rights office, has suggested that more transparency is needed.[12]

In addition to the air attacks, Houthi rebels have carried out mortar attacks and have used landmines on residential areas.[13] The U.N. believes that all parties have carried out attacks on civilian objects like markets, hospitals, and other facilities protected by international humanitarian law.[14] The U.N. also alleges “attacks against civilians; deprivation of liberty; targeted killings; the recruitment and use of children in hostilities; and forced evictions and displacement.”[15] In many of these situations the U.N. and other agencies have struggled to identify any military targets at all.[16] The U.N. has fallen just short of pronouncing the suspected violations as war crimes,[17] which are deliberate or reckless attacks on civilians.[18]

The U.N. strongly believes that these violations have been committed. Indeed, it appears that they have been tacitly aware of such violations for some time now and have just recently reached their boiling point.[19] One problem in enforcing anything is that any state that is a party of the Rome Statute is subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).[20] However, since neither Yemen nor Saudi Arabia are parties to the Rome Statute,[21] they would each either have to ratify the Rome Statute or accept the ICC’s jurisdiction through declaration.[22] Because of this, the most likely way that those who are identified in the U.N.’s investigation will be tried by the ICC is through a referral by the U.N. Security Council.[23] The U.N. Security Council has the power to refer situations to the ICC prosecutor at which point the ICC could obtain jurisdiction in Yemen.[24] Of course, before any of this can happen an independent investigation must take place.[25] Since the U.N. only announced its intention to investigate Yemen on August 25, 2016, it appears that for now the more than 13 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian support will have to continue to rely on the efforts of international humanitarian assistance.[26]

[1]Yemen Crisis Overview, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2016), [] [hereinafter OCHA Crisis Overview].

[2]UN humanitarian official “deeply disturbed” by unrelenting attacks on civilians in Yemen, UN News Centre (Sept. 13, 2016), [].

[3]See id. (citing continued violence and failed negotiations in Yemen).

[4] Press Release, Office of the High Commissioner, Zeid urges accountability for violations in Yemen (Aug. 25, 2016), [] [hereinafter Zeid Press Release].


[6] Zeid Press Release, supra note 4.




[10]Id. (enumerating alleged humanitarian violations in Yemen).

[11] Stephanie Nebehay, Transparency, accountability, needed on Saudi air strikes in Yemen: U.N., Reuters (Aug. 25, 2016, 11:40 AM EDT), [].



[14] Zeid Press Release, supra note 4.



[17] Nebehay, supra note 12.

[18] International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Customary International Humanitarian Law, 2005, Volume I: Rules, R. 156.

[19]See OCHA Crisis Report, supra note 1 (detailing humanitarian issues in Yemen since March, 2015).

[20] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 2187 United Nations Treaty Series No. 38544 [hereinafter Rome Statute].

[21]The State Parties to the Rome Statute, International Criminal Court, [] (last visited Sept. 15, 2016).

[22] Rome Statute, supra note 21, art. 12.

[23]Q & A on The Conflict in Yemen and International Law, Human Rights Watch (Apr. 6, 2015, 10 PM EDT), [].


[25] Zeid Press Release, supra note 4.

[26] OCHA Crisis Overview, supra note 1.

Posted by Christopher P. Callahan on Mon. October 17, 2016 8:00 AM
Categories: United Nations, Yemen

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