Human Rights Watch recommends that the UN Security Council impose asset freezes and travel bans on senior coalition officials, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, unless the coalition fully lifts its blockade on Yemen. The coalition is currently restricting humanitarian aid and commercial imports from reaching civilians living in Houthi-controlled territory. The blockade contributes to the massive humanitarian crisis, causing a fuel shortage and widespread food insecurity. These actions may amount to using starvation as a tool of warfare, a war crime under international law.
The coalition has imposed a naval and air blockade on Yemen since the current conflict began in March 2015 that has severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law. The coalition closed all of Yemen’s entry points in response to a missile strike on Saudi’s Riyadh airport on November 4, 2017, by opposing Houthi-Saleh forces. While the coalition eased some restrictions in late November, it continues to prevent much aid and nearly all commercial imports from reaching Houthi-controlled ports, which has an unlawfully disproportionate impact on civilians’ access to essential goods.
Yemen depends on commercial imports for food, fuel, and medicine; these imports are blocked under the current blockade. Fuel is necessary for water sanitation systems and hospitals; as a result of the blockade, there is a severe fuel shortage in Yemen. Houthi forces also contribute to fuel shortages by selling fuel on the black market and importing fuel for military purposes. Without fuel, hospitals in several cities are unable to operate. Additionally, hospitals have diverted their revenues for paying for the huge price increases in fuel, which reached up to 300% in some governorates, instead of for medicines and vaccines. Without clean water and functioning hospitals, Yemen risks further outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and diphtheria.
Although the Saudi-led coalition have allowed some ships carrying food and aid to port in Houthi-controlled seaports, the coalition still severely restricts the flow of essential goods, and it has blocked almost all commercial ships from landing. The ports of al-Hudaydah and Saleef, both in Houthi-controlled territory, used to process 80% of Yemeni imports; the remaining ports, such as Aden, don’t have a high enough capacity to process the amount of goods that the country needs. However, the coalition continues to turn away ships, overriding the UNVIM’s clearance of these ships and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Many Yemenis are unable to obtain the medicine they need to survive, and increased prices of food have led millions to the brink of famine.
The coalition also restricts humanitarian access to San’a, the capital and largest city of Yemen which is under Houthi control. Since 2016, commercial flights have been suspended to the San’a airport, and the coalition has imposed arbitrary restrictions and regulations for humanitarian aid workers. Humanitarian flights were suspended from November 6 to November 25.
The coalition’s actions in restricting humanitarian aid and commercial imports violate international humanitarian law (IHL), which prohibits blockades that cause disproportionate civilian harm and impeding the distribution of humanitarian aid. IHL also prohibits using starvation as a method of warfare - and the coalition has risked widespread starvation with its disproportionate blockade of Yemen. Even the partial lifting of the blockade won’t prevent 150,000 children from dying of malnutrition in the coming months. As the laws of war state, military commanders and civilian leaders who willfully carry out violations of IHL may be prosecuted for their war crimes. The Security Council’s sanctions committee for Yemen placed sanctions on top Houthi commanders and members of the Saleh family months ago; HRW calls for the same punishments to be applied to leaders on all sides of the conflict.