Parties fighting a brutal civil war in Yemen have conducted attacks that were “disproportionate” and could be considered war crimes, a United Nations panel of experts announced Tuesday.
Their report, which comes after multiple recent civilian deaths, points to thousands of civilian casualties caused by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, widespread arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence and the conscription of children as young as 8 into Yemen’s armed forces, all of which are crimes under international law.
All sides are “responsible for a violation of human rights” and crimes “continue to be perpetrated,” the report says.
“The violations we have documented were horrendous,” said Kamel Jendoubi, chairperson of the Group of International and Regional Eminent Experts on Yemen, the report’s authors, at a press conference Tuesday morning.
The Yemen war began in early 2015 when Houthi rebels – a minority Shia group from the north of the country – drove out the US-backed government and took over the capital, Sanaa.
The crisis quickly escalated into a multi-sided war, with neighboring Saudi Arabia leading a coalition of Gulf states against the Houthi rebels. The coalition is advised and supported by the US and the UK, among other nations.
Earlier this month, CNN established that a bomb that hit a school bus and killed dozens of children was US-made and had been sold to Saudi Arabia as part of a State Department-sanctioned arms deal.
On Monday, CNN learned that the Pentagon warned Saudi Arabia that it is prepared to reduce military and intelligence support if the Saudis do not demonstrate efforts to limit civilian deaths in airstrikes.
Responding to the UN’s findings Tuesday, Saudi-led coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki told CNN that the report had been referred to the coalition’s legal team.
“After a legal review, the coalition will take the appropriate stance regarding this matter and it will be announced,” al-Maliki said.
‘Prioritize human dignity’
Tuesday’s report covers the period from September 2014 to June 2018 and was the result of an investigation by the panel, which was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council and conducted more than a dozen fact-finding missions in Yemen and neighboring countries.
The group highlights a lack of proportionality in the use of blockades, which “have had widespread and devastating effects on the civilian population,” and in direct attacks on civilians.
Since March 2015, 6,660 civilians have been killed in the conflict and more than 10,500 injured, according to the UN Human Rights Office, but the group of experts warns that the real numbers are likely to be much higher, pointing to coalition airstrikes that have hit residential areas, markets, weddings and medical facilities.
“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties. I call on them to prioritize human dignity in this forgotten conflict,” said Jendoubi, the expert panel’s chairperson.
Further potential violations of international law highlighted in the report include the implementation of severe naval and air restrictions such as the closure of Sanaa airport – which violates international humanitarian law covering protection for the sick and wounded – ill-treatment and torture in detention facilities across the country and restrictions to freedom of expression in the form of the relentless harassment of journalists by the government of Yemen and coalition forces.
‘The crisis has reached its peak’
As supporters of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the US and the UK are both implicated in the report’s allegations regarding disproportionate attacks on civilians.
The bomb that killed 51 children earlier this month was found by CNN to be a US-made, 500-pound (227 kilogram) laser-guided MK 82 bomb, a similar weapon to the one that killed 155 people in an attack on a funeral hall in October 2016. Earlier that same year, a strike on a Yemeni market – this time reportedly by a US-supplied precision-guided MK 84 bomb – killed 97 people.
The US has defended its role by saying that it does not make targeting decisions for the coalition.
In response to questions about the role of the US and UK in supplying weapons to the international coalition, UN expert Charles Garraway said that issue was “strictly speaking outside our mandate” and that “we do not to seek allocate percentage of blame on any particular party.”
The UN panel has, however, identified “wherever possible” individuals who “may be responsible” for the crimes, Jendoubi said. That confidential list will be sent to the High Commissioner later on Tuesday, he said.
The panel is calling for the “immediate cessation of violation against civilians,” in a conflict that Jendoubi said “seems to be overlooked.”
“This crisis has reached its peak with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel,” added Garraway. “It is indeed a forgotten crisis.”
CNN’s Katie Polglase and Hilary McGann contributed to this report.