ODVV Interview: Impunity in the Yemen crisis is...
A convoluted conflict that has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the war in Yemen is now in its seventh year, with a staggering death toll of more than 100,000 and dire economic repercussions that have made life in the most impoverished Arab nation additionally painful.
International efforts to extinguish the conflict have so far made little success and humanitarian assistance is supplied with great difficulty. Nearly 24 million Yemenis, constituting four fifths of the entire population, require urgent humanitarian aid. A child dies every 10 minutes due to malnutrition or disease, and the country’s health sector, reeling from a massive loss of human capital and demolition of infrastructure, is unable to cope with a double whammy of cholera outbreak and COVID-19 crisis.
Years of protracted political crisis and military intervention spearheaded by Saudi Arabia have affected every aspect of human life in Yemen. Close to 80 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty and USD90 billion of the nation’s economic output has faded away. While international observers and United Nations experts argue the warring parties might have been involved in the commission of war crimes and gross human rights violations, an accountability gap has existed since the outset of the crisis resulting in the atrocities and abuses remaining unaddressed.
Ardi Imseis is an assistant professor at Queen’s University’s Faculty of Law. A distinguished legal scholar, he is a member of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts tasked by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate and report on the violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the conflict in Yemen. He has had a 12-year career with the United Nations, working with its different agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has spoken to Prof. Imseis about the humanitarian situation in Yemen, the recent policy reforms by the Biden administration on supporting the coalition countries and the latest findings of the Group of Experts.
Q: The war in Yemen is grinding on with immeasurable human costs. Given that President Joe Biden has withdrawn the US support for offensive operations against Yemen and put a temporary halt on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, are there hopes that the situation will improve in the coming months?
A: The Group of Experts has constantly appealed to the international community to collectively back peace, not war, to put an end to civilian suffering in Yemen. The United States has a key role to play, given its level of influence on the parties to the conflict, including through the transfer of weapons to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition. As with every third state, it has the obligation to respect and ensure the respect for international humanitarian law. However, the responsibility to take measures increases with the level of influence that a specific state has over the parties to the conflict.
The Group of Experts is heartened by President Biden’s recent announcement that the US is “ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” While the US remains committed to supply the Saudis with arms for defensive purposes, it remains unclear how things will develop on the ground.
We reiterate our concern with the continued arms transfers to all parties to the conflict, not merely those destined for Saudi Arabia. We reiterate that in certain cases, the provision of arms or logistic support to a party to the conflict could amount to knowingly aiding or assisting the party in the commission of an internationally wrongful act, hence making the state providing arms responsible for such act. Therefore, in addition to the positive moves already made, we urge the new Biden administration to support peace and accountability for crimes committed in Yemen by all sides.
Q: In December 2020, the early warning mechanism of the United Nations concluded that three features of famine, namely food insecurity, income deprivation, and acute malnutrition could be noticed in Yemen, the roots of which should be traced in the heightening of tensions in the recent months. Considering that the majority of population is dependent on humanitarian aid and that the United Nations agencies are critically underbudgeted, do you expect the humanitarian crisis to become more severe?
A: The Group of Experts is particularly concerned by the humanitarian situation in Yemen, and even more by the current lack of funding for international humanitarian assistance which undoubtedly exacerbates the humanitarian crisis in the country. Nevertheless, the conduct of the parties to the conflict compounds an already dire humanitarian situation. The group’s last report describes a series of policies and practices attributable by parties to the conflict amounting to interference with the delivery of humanitarian aid in violation of international norms, either by unduly restricting access or by engaging in practices that undermine the ability of humanitarian organizations to carry out their work.
We join the appeal made by the United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres, to the international community to act urgently to save Yemeni people from famine.
Q: Observers say the duplication of parallel government institutions in Yemen is one of the factors underpinning the unfavorable economic situation in the impoverished country. There are currently two central banks in Yemen making decisions based on war politics, and as a result, the steep depreciation of the Yemeni rial has dragged some 80 percent of the population beneath the poverty line of USD2 per day. How do you analyze the situation?
A: As detailed in the group’s last report, there are a number of factors that have contributed to a substantial decline in the already marginal purchasing power of Yemenis. The dual Central Bank system, which has limited Yemenis access to cash since 2016, has resulted in the creation and regulation of alternative currencies, and has further destabilized the economy. For example, the Central Bank of Yemen relocated to Aden by President Hadi in 2016 began printing new bills while the Central Bank in Sana’a also printed new bills. This complicated an already strained exchange system in Yemen, further devaluing the Yemeni rial and contributing to depreciation, inflation, and the black market. The complications reached new heights in December 2019, when the de facto authorities banned the use of the bills newly printed by the Central Bank of Yemen in Aden in their territories. The dual currencies also resulted in considerable increased fees for money transfers.
Q: One of the recent reports of the United Nations Group of Eminent and International Regional Experts for Yemen stressed that there is an acute accountability gap in the Yemen war, recommending that the United Nations Security Council refers the situation to the International Criminal Court. Why has the group reached such an understanding? Have the parties responsible for violence and violations of human rights been compellingly held accountable?
A: One of the key elements of our mandate relates to seeking accountability for violations and abuses of international human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law committed in Yemen since 2014. Throughout its three previous mandates, the Group of Experts has been reporting on such violations, some of which may amount to international crimes. It has made repeated calls for relevant authorities to conduct prompt investigations into alleged violations and to prosecute those responsible, in line with their international obligations.
The group is not aware of any trials that have been completed relating to violations it has documented. The group has also stressed the need to realize victims’ rights to an effective remedy including reparations. Regrettably, the group has seen no timely and effective remedies for victims in Yemen. The situation in Yemen, therefore, is one in which impunity is endemic, systematic and widespread.
Given the inability or unwillingness of the parties to the conflict, including Yemen itself, to address this situation, the group believes that it is vital for the international community to intensify its engagement with parties to the conflict and other states, to combat impunity and support accountability related initiatives. This is why we have made a number of recommendations to the international community in the way of addressing the acute accountability gap, including the recommendation that the UN Security Council refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.
Q: Last year, a group of British lawyers with the Stoke White law firm lodged a complaint with the United Nations calling for an investigation into the role of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in violating human rights and committing war crimes during the Yemen war. What do we know about the involvement of these two states in forced disappearances, torture in underground prisons and targeting civilian infrastructure across Yemen since the conflict erupted in 2014?
A: Lamentably, as the conflict in Yemen steadily enters its seventh year, the situation on the ground is in an even worse state, with civilians bearing the brunt of the fighting, and with no real promise of accountability on the horizon. The group strongly welcomes such initiatives that are needed to address the existing accountability gaps, but underscores that no party to the conflict has clean hands.
Over the last three reporting periods, the group has investigated a range of violations committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, including many that emanate from coalition operations. The group found reasonable grounds to believe that parties to the conflict in Yemen are responsible for pervasive and incessant international human rights law and international humanitarian law violations, many of which may amount to war crimes.
The summary of these findings is included in A/HRC/45/6. In addition to highlighting the parties to the conflict responsible for violations, the Group of Experts identified, where possible, potential perpetrators of crimes that may have been committed. A list of names of such individuals has been submitted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on a strictly confidential basis to assist with future accountability efforts.
Q: Besides all the challenges Yemen is facing today, a perturbing health emergency is also in the making, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Only half of the country’s health clinics are operational, hospitals are struggling with the shortage of physicians and nurses, cholera is spreading swiftly and only in the first eight months of 2020, 180,000 new cases of infection were reported. Due to the country’s unstable situation, COVID-19 cases and fatalities are not registered and reported accurately. How is it possible to improve the situation and ensure all Yemenis can have access to affordable medical care?
A: As the Group has repeatedly warned, based on its investigative findings, the availability of medical services in Yemen has been profoundly affected by the ongoing conflict and the health system is on the brink of collapse, as health facilities have been destroyed and health workers have been targeted by the warring parties. Yet, the outbreak of COVID-19, one of the most challenging global pandemics to have faced humanity in contemporary history, has come at a time when barely half of the health facilities that are operational in Yemen are functional, and facilities that are functioning are underequipped to cope with the disease. The Group of Experts has emphasised the fact that an immediate cessation of hostilities leading to an inclusive and durable peace is the only way to end ongoing human rights violations, including the right to the highest attainable standard of health.
Q: Has the United Nations been successful in discharging its peace-making responsibilities during the crisis in Yemen? 2021 is the seventh year that war has been casting its long shadow over the lives of Yemenis. Has the United Nations achieved its goals and delivered its duties reliably?
A: It is eminently clear that the United Nations has not met with success in its ongoing attempts to bring peace to Yemen. This is not a negative reflection on the vital work the UN performs, however, including through its good offices and peace-making function. The Group of Eminent Experts is confident that the Secretary-General and his special envoy will redouble their efforts to resolve the conflict as soon as possible. To this end, the Group of Experts calls upon the international community as a whole to take a more active role in bringing peace and accountability to the Yemeni people.
The group believes any sustainable and inclusive peace must involve respect for human rights. This requires accountability and an end to impunity. It also requires full participation of all sectors of society, including women, youth, and minorities. The Group of Eminent Experts hopes these elements will be prioritized by the special envoy in his efforts to achieve peace.
By: Kourosh Ziabari