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Saudi-led coalition of accused evading legal liability on Yemen airstrikes

29th Sep 2017
Saudi-led coalition of accused evading legal liability on Yemen airstrikes

Civilian buildings destroyed by Saudi-led coalition, Yemen Sana’a, October 2015 (Photo: Almigdad Mojalli/VOA/Creative Commons)

Harun Nasrullah

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the Saudi-led coalition of evading international legal liability by refusing to present information on their role in alleged unlawful airstrikes in Yemen.

On September 8, HRW reported that none of the current or former coalition members it contacted to release their findings of war violations as required by international law have replied.

The coalition’s unwillingness to conduct serious investigations into alleged violations of the laws of war was evident in its response to airstrikes on apartment buildings in Sana’a, the capital, on August 25 that killed or wounded more than two dozen civilians.

The coalition said it had referred the case to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), which has largely absolved the Coalition of wrongdoing. The coalition spokesperson did not provide any details regarding which countries’ forces may have participated in the attack. The Red Cross called the attack “outrageous,” and said there was no apparent military target in the area.

The coalition currently consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan; Qatar withdrew in June. The coalition has conducted thousands of airstrikes in Yemen since March 2015, including scores that appear to violate the laws of war, some of which may be war crimes, yet JIAT and coalition members have provided no or insufficient information about the role that particular countries’ forces are playing in alleged unlawful attacks.

HRW said the failure of the coalition to credibly investigate violations by their own forces for more than two years of armed conflict underscores the need for an independent international investigation into alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

HRW Middle East Director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said, “Civilians who are paying the price of this war deserve far more than blanket denials or generic expressions of sympathy.”

“UN member countries should make crystal clear to coalition members that they are failing to meet even basic standards of transparency, and that none of the warring parties seem to be willing to do so – the Human Rights Council will step in and make sure these violations are investigated.”

She adds, “It borders on the absurd for the coalition to claim its own investigations are credible when it refuses to release even basic information like which countries participated in an attack and whether anyone has been held accountable.”

The coalition said that it carried out the attack, but insisted that the civilian casualties were the result of a technical error and that it had targeted a “legitimate military objective” – a command-and-control center that Houthi-Saleh forces built “with the sole purpose of using the surrounding areas as well as its civilians as shields to protect it.”

While Saudi Arabia leads the coalition, available information shows that other countries have participated in the military campaign to varying degrees. In March 2015, the Emirati State news agency reported that Saudi Arabia had deployed 100 aircraft to take part in coalition operations, the UAE had deployed 30, Kuwait 15, Bahrain 15, and Qatar 10.

Media and policy reports have provided some detail on specific incidents in which coalition members have played a role in the air campaign: In May 2015, a Moroccan F-16 aircraft crashed while on a mission in Yemen. In December 2015, both a Bahraini F-1 jet and a Jordanian pilot flying an F-16 carrying out coalition operations crashed. In 2015, Egypt conducted air strikes on Yemen’s western coast.

In March 2017, after a helicopter attacked a boat carrying Somali migrants and refugees off the coast of Hodeida, killing and wounding dozens, a member of the UAE armed forces said the UAE was operating in the area but denied the UAE carried out the attack.

In July, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, established by the Security Council, expressed concern that coalition members “seek to hide behind ‘the entity’ of the Coalition to shield themselves from state responsibility for violations committed by their forces. … Attempts to ‘divert’ responsibility in this manner from individual States to the Saudi-Arabia led coalition may contribute to further violations occurring with impunity.”

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