Nearly four years ago, in a statement on Yemen, Michelle Bachelet, then-the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that "there has been little meaningful accountability for the human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict—and no possibility of remedy and reparations for the victims. These are essential elements of any durable and just peace, and must not be viewed as an afterthought."
Exactly one month later, a landmine laid by the Houthi armed group, also known as Ansar Allah, exploded while a 14-year-old Yemeni boy was herding sheep. The boy lost both his legs. Houthi fighters had mined areas in Taiz governorate that the boy's family depended on to cultivate, herd and log wood. By 2022, the boy's family had received no reparation for the wrongs done to them. The boy's mother told Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni human rights group, "Our suffering started with landmines since 2015, and our suffering continues until now."
The conflict in Yemen has caused massive harm to people who had no say in the decision to go to war and played no role in the fighting. Since 2014, when the Houthis seized control of the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, the warring parties have killed, maimed or otherwise harmed civilians in Yemen. Many of these harms were a result of breaches of international law by the Houthis, by the internationally recognized government of Yemen, and by Yemen's warring state allies, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who led the coalition of states that intervened in the war in 2015.
Human rights organizations and U.N. bodies have worked to shed light on the links between warring party conduct, international law violations and civilian harm in Yemen, but there has yet to be a thorough mapping of the civilian harms stemming from international law violations during the current conflict. Mwatana, which does not purport to offer a comprehensive account, has documented many thousands of civilians killed, wounded or subjected to detention-related abuse by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, the Houthi armed group, the internationally recognized government of Yemen, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council and others. For each of these cases of recorded violence, not only a person, but a family and a community were affected.
Justice is, first and foremost, for those harmed, but justice benefits all those who gain from an international rules-based system.
- Kristine Beckerle
In the face of egregious war-time wrongs, both international humanitarian law, which applies during conflict, and international human rights law, which applies at all times, require two key remedies. States should punish individuals responsible for international crimes, and wrongdoers should provide reparations to the victims of their violations. Both criminal prosecutions and reparations are intended to re-enforce the rule of law, repress further wrongs and repair the harm done to victims and to the wider community. Justice is, first and foremost, for those harmed, but justice benefits all those who gain from an international rules-based system.
Those demanding justice, particularly reparation, for themselves and others harmed in Yemen face a significant challenge. In many parts of the world, including the Middle East, people remain practically dependent on their nation-state to provide reparation to them or to demand reparation from others, including their warring state allies, for grave wrongs committed against them during war.
Within Yemen, the rule of law has broken down, courts are largely controlled by those fighting, and domestic pathways for people or organizations to influence government policy entail real risks of harassment, imprisonment, forced exile and death. Outside of Yemen, regardless of how much harm Yemen's wealthy Gulf neighbors have done to its citizens, government officials have worked with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to block efforts at international accountability. These efforts have shielded not only Yemen's allies, but also its opponents, including the Houthis and Iran, from accountability.
When warring parties fail to hold themselves accountable, as they often do, other states can still act to support people's demands for justice. The U.N. Security Council has the ability to create accountability mechanisms like tribunals and reparations commissions, but the Security Council is often paralyzed by the threat of powerful state's vetoes. For Yemen, the Security Council has imposed sanctions on the Houthis and their allies, but never on members of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. The Security Council has barely whispered the word accountability and never mentioned reparation since the war began.
In 2015, activists turned to other U.N. bodies. These activists knew that in response to mass violations elsewhere, U.N. bodies had set up fact-finding inquiries and novel, criminally-focused investigative mechanisms. In 2017, after tireless organizing and persistent demands, states at the U.N. Human Rights Council heeded activists' calls and created a U.N. body tasked with investigating abuses by all warring parties in Yemen: the U.N. Group of Eminent Experts. Between 2017 and 2021, it investigated, reported and acted as an often lonely voice echoing Yemeni civil society demands for criminal accountability and reparation. In 2019, when Bachelet, then the U.N.'s highest human rights official, called on those with influence not to neglect accountability and reparation in Yemen, she was building on the Group of Eminent Experts' recommendations.
A year and a half later, states at the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to disband the team of experts investigating grave war-time wrongs in Yemen. The vote followed heavy lobbying by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The war continued, as did international law violations and associated civilian harms.
Despite continued advocacy and activism by dozens of Yemeni, regional and Western civil society groups, states have failed to set up a new mechanism for accountability in Yemen. Worse, states, including former champions that helped create the Group of Eminent Experts, have failed to take even the first, necessary step of introducing a resolution at the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly.
When asked why, officials from states that claim to defend the international legal system say they have not made a move because they do not have the votes. But, that's identifying work needed, not providing an answer as to why Yemenis should be patient, more than eight years into this costly war, for more reliable friends on justice. Civil society groups have been relentlessly seeking allies. Latin American states, for example, have been leaders on victim-centered approaches to justice in other contexts, including conflicts in their region, and could speak up on Yemen. States should be helping activists find the votes, not deferring action until an unidentified, future time when the geopolitical landscape may—or may not—be more favorable.
The price of waiting is high. Time destroys evidence. Conflict destroys it faster. More pressingly, failing to ensure reparations is choosing to leave war's costs where they landed. In Yemen, war's costs have too often landed on civilians who bear no responsibility for the war nor for the wrongs committed during it. Yemenis harmed by warring parties are in need of remedy now.
One woman's husband, four sons, daughter-in-law and grandson were all killed by a coalition airstrike in Yemen in 2015, which destroyed the family home. The woman told Mwatana, "Nothing was left for [those of us that survived] except the clothes that we were wearing." Years later, she was still struggling with the attack's effects. "I am tired of being evicted by people because I can't pay rent," she said. The airstrike that killed this woman's family is one among many thousands conducted by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. The Yemen Data Project estimates these airstrikes have killed or wounded nearly 20,000 civilians since 2015.
There are many steps that states can take to push forward on reparations in Yemen. States could, as noted, create a new international accountability mechanism through the U.N. that includes a mandate to support reparative justice. States could also fund and support the creation of a civil society accountability platform, like that which was created for Belarus in 2021 following the government's suppression of mass protests. Or, drawing inspiration from Ukraine, states could support the creation of an international registry of damages.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompted significant, international movement on reparations. In November 2022, the U.N. General Assembly recommended that states create an "international register of damage to serve as a record" on "damage, loss or injury to all natural and legal persons, as well as the state of Ukraine." The U.N. General Assembly recognized that Russia must provide reparations for its violations of international law and that, eventually, an international mechanism for reparation would need to be set up. In the months before, prominent academics and lawyers had explored what documentation and mechanisms were necessary to support demands for reparations for people in Ukraine.
Much distinguishes the conflict in Yemen from that in Ukraine, of course. In a war like Ukraine's, for instance, an individual might reasonably expect their nation-state to demand reparation on their behalf, at least from an opposing, warring state. In a war like Yemen's, the nation-state whose citizens have been most harmed is the same state that invited in foreign militaries that have carried out grave international law violations against its citizens—and the same state that has failed to provide its citizens, both in areas it controls and those it does not, with any form of credible protection from, let alone accountability for, its own and others' abuses.
In both Yemen and Ukraine, people have been wrongfully harmed. For both Yemen and Ukraine, any reparations mechanism will eventually need to identify potential victims, determine the extent of the damage done, and link that damage to a responsible actor and an international wrong.
In Yemen, war's costs have too often landed on civilians who bear no responsibility for the war nor for the wrongs committed during it.
- Kristine Beckerle
The war in Yemen began in 2014. It escalated in 2015. It is now 2023. There is every reason for work to begin as soon as possible—to identify victims, to determine the extent of damage, and to explore reparative measures that would account for wrongs done to people in Yemen by Yemeni actors, including non-state armed groups, and by regional states—before further information and evidence are lost.
In a recent meeting, a high-level diplomat said it is up to Yemenis to determine their future. It should be, but this is not most civilians' present reality in Yemen. The vast majority of Yemenis continue to be largely excluded from meaningfully participating in spaces in which decisions are being taken about their future by warring parties, be those decisions under the auspices of the official U.N. peace process, or in back-channel talks between Saudi Arabia and Houthi leaders.
Yemeni activists, advocates and survivors have worked to change this, including by repeatedly calling on those with influence to stand with them in their demands for justice. They've been specific. They've called for criminal accountability and reparation that includes acknowledgment of the wrongs done them. They've pushed to ensure that mistakes in the recent past, like the deal that granted former long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his aides immunity, are not repeated. They've fought for justice to reach all those that have harmed them, from the non-state armed groups that have sought to crown themselves as rulers to the regional powerhouses that would love to pretend that this war and all its ills have been an entirely Yemeni affair.
What happens next depends on those with influence heeding the demands of Yemen's peacemakers, not its warmongers. More than eight years of war is far too long for reparation for its victims to have remained an afterthought.