Human Rights Watch recently issued a detailed press release concerning violations of international human rights law in Yemen. Both the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi forces have obstructed the import and dissemination of critical aid for civilians, including fuel, medicine, food, and critical support infrastructure. According to Human Rights Watch, international humanitarian law (under Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, and customary international humanitarian law for a non-international armed conflict) requires warring parties to allow humanitarian personnel free movement. It also requires any warring party that imposes a blockade to do so in a manner that balances the anticipated military advantage with the potential harm to civilians. Human Rights Watch has identified numerous instances in which both parties to the conflict in Yemen have violated international humanitarian law, with devastating consequences for the civilian population.
According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi restrictions on fuel imports have particularly harmed civilians and caused ripple effects throughout Yemen. Fuel is necessary to run the generators that most Yemenis rely upon to provide electricity. Aid officials have said that limited fuel resources have made it “more difficult to pump clean water, run hospital equipment, and safely store vaccines.” A lack of fuel has prevented some hospitals from storing vaccines in sufficiently cold temperatures, providing heat relief for patients through fans or air conditioning, and keeping labs for medical tests operational. The Saudi-led coalition closed the fuel port of Ras Isa in June, which has contributed to the fuel shortage throughout Yemen. Houthi forces, meanwhile, have profited from oil sales and distribution on the black market, according to a UN Panel of Experts.
Human Rights Watch also cited numerous examples in which Houthi-Saleh forces blocked, confiscated, or interfered with the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians. A hospital official in Ta‘iz claimed that in one instance, Houthi forces confiscated medical equipment from two trucks, including dialysis materials. Houthi-Saleh forces have also laid landmines throughout Ta‘iz, preventing aid workers from entering specific areas to provide relief.
Human Rights Watch called for both parties to the conflict to stop interfering with humanitarian relief efforts. It also urged all states to support the creation of an independent inquiry at the UN Human Rights Council to investigate human rights violations in Yemen.
Saudi restrictions on fuel imports have exacerbated food scarcity and limited the ability of hospitals to provide medical care. According to Human Rights Watch, the coalition has delayed numerous shipments of humanitarian supplies such as, blankets, food, fuel, and medical supplies. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly delayed and diverted numerous shipments without explanation or justification. In one instance, the coalition diverted and held a shipment of blankets and vegetable oil from UN humanitarian agencies for three weeks despite having prior UN clearance. The NGO Save the Children also reported that its medical shipments designated for Hudaydah were rerouted to Aden, delaying the delivery to the intended beneficiaries for months as a result. Human Rights Watch calculated that only eight container vessels were able to enter Hudaydah from May to August in 2017. The organization also reports that the coalition has refused to allow imports of materials such as cranes, necessary to repair or replace port infrastructure. As a result, food imports have become more expensive because shipping companies have passed the increased costs associated with the failing infrastructure onto consumers.
Houthi interference with aid efforts in Ta‘iz have “resulted in the virtual collapse of Taizz’s health service, severely compromising people’s access to life-saving medical care,” according to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). In March 2017, the organization announced its withdrawal from a hospital in the Ibb governorate because Houthi forces prevented it from providing independent and impartial medical care. Human Rights Watch cited another instance in which Houthi forces refused landing permission for a plane containing vaccines for children destined for San‘a. In another, Houthi fighters raided Health Ministry buildings in San‘a and seized two vehicles designated for cold storage of vaccines.
Human Rights Watch also referenced statements from aid officials that claimed Houthi forces harassed, detained, and extorted them. Houthi forces often claimed NGO officials were secretly collaborating with coalition forces and thus detained them or limited their movement, thereby preventing aid workers from delivering relief to civilians. Houthi forces have also restricted access to humanitarian aid and goods in Ta‘iz. Human Rights Watch cited human rights activists who claim that Houthi forces often demand bribes from people trying to enter Ta‘iz. As a result, consumer goods prices have increased significantly, thus preventing civilians from purchasing vital goods such as food, medicine, and water.
Human Rights Watch concluded by reiterating that all parties to the conflict in Yemen are bound by international humanitarian law, including Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, and customary international humanitarian law for a non-international armed conflict. As such, the Saudi coalition is obligated to loosen its blockade to allow food, fuel, and medicine. If the coalition objects, it must provide a list of goods it defines as contraband so that shipping companies and aid agencies can still provide humanitarian relief without having their shipments seized. This would not, however, prevent imports of food, fuel, and medicine as those are necessary for the civilian population to survive. Realistically, the coalition can only prevent shipments of weapons or other material that would be be of exclusive military benefit. Houthi forces, meanwhile, must stop detaining and limiting the movement of aid workers. It must also stop seizing trucks and other equipment belonging to aid organizations so that they can continue to aid Yemeni civilians.