UN Panel of Experts' Report Describes a Fragmented Conflict, with Humanitarian Law Violations on All Sides

On January 26, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen released its annual report on the conflict in Yemen. The report described several of the most significant events of the war in 2017, including the Houthis’ missile launch that landed near an airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the dissolution of the Houthi-Saleh alliance in December, and the Houthis’ consolidation of control in northern Yemen. The Panel described rampant humanitarian law violations, with the Houthis, Saudi Arabia-led coalition, and the Yemeni government all responsible for torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and attacks on civilian. The report also described the formation of the Southern Transitional Council in May 2017, indicating that southern secession and further national fragmentation is a real possibility. The Panel also found that some of the Houthis’ missile remnants, military equipment, and UAVs were of Iranian origin, concluding that Iran is in non-compliance with the arms embargo imposed on the Houthis since the beginning of the conflict, and has failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of weapons to the Houthi-Saleh alliance.

Statehood and Fragmentation

“Yemen as a State has all but ceased to exist,” the report begins, “and is instead comprised of warring statelets—no one side has the political support or military strength to reunite the country” (2). The UN-recognized government has lost legitimacy in Yemen due to several factors:

  • Government workers have often gone without pay. Electricity and other basic services are unreliable, even in urban areas. This has caused a general dissatisfaction with the legitimate government in its areas of control.

  • Southern secession: In May 2017, several governors defected from the Hadi government to form the Southern Transitional Council with the express goal of southern secession. Troops under the ostensible control of President Hadi routinely display the flag of an independent South Yemen. The Panel concluded that secession is now “a real possibility” (14).

  • Until its collapse in December, the Houthi-Saleh alliance continued to assume the roles and responsibilities of the central government in its territory in the northern part of the country. Now that the alliance has been broken and Saleh killed, the Houthis have consolidated power and have taken “unilateral control of all State institutions within their territory” (10).

  • Contested areas such as al-Baydha and Ta’iz “provide further indication of the very real risks of the fragmentation of Yemen” (15).

    • Ta’iz is a “flashpoint in the conflict and a humanitarian disaster,” (15) and has been the focus of the most sustained fighting over the past year.

      • “Tension between local resistance elements, Salafi militias and Yemeni Army Forces spiked in October 2017, following the decision by the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council to sanction Abu al-Abbas, a key Salafi leader…. Abu al-Abbas continues to hold territory inside the city and exercises rights and responsibilities exclusive to the legitimate Government” (15).

Arms and implementation of targeted arms embargo

  • The panel identified “strong indicators of the supply of arms-related material manufactured in, or emanating from, the Islamic Republic of Iran subsequent to the establishment of the targeted arms embargo…particularly in area of short-range ballistic missile technology and unmanned aerial vehicles” (24).

  • On 4 November 2017, remnants of a short-range ballistic missile landed in close proximity to the King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, resulting in an escalation of regional tensions. After inspecting the remains of that missile in Riyadh, along with three other short-range ballistic missiles, the panel found the remnants are “consistent with those of the Iranian designed and manufactured Qiam-1 missile.” This means that they were “almost certainly produced by the same manufacturer” (28). However, the Panel “has no evidence as to the identity of the supplier, or any intermediary third party” (31).

  • Similarly, the Panel found that, based on the design of the unmanned aerial vehicles and the tracing of their component parts, the UAVs “emanated from the Islamic Republic of Iran” (32).

  • The Panel found that Iran is in non-compliance with the targeted arms embargo set out in UN Resolution 2216, as it “failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of Borkan-2H short-range ballistic missiles to the then Houthi-Saleh alliance” (33).

Impediments to the cessation of hostilities

According to the report, “No real progress towards a peaceful settlement was made during 2017. The political process has stalled as all parties to the conflict continue to believe that they can achieve a military victory that would negate the necessity for political compromise” (10).

  • The Houthis effectively banned the Special Envoy from their territory, refusing to accept any proposals from him. The Houthis “believe that they only have to survive and outlast the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in order to ‘win’ the war, which limits their willingness to negotiate” (10).

  • Despite the continuing military conflict between several of the political actors, the Panel “does not believe that any side is in a position to secure an outright military victory” (10).

  • Part of the reason that the conflict has been ongoing, the report suggests, is that “the political decision makers on all sides are not bearing the brunt of the war, the Yemeni civilians are. The Houthi leadership is largely insulated from attacks, and from the shortages of food, fuel, medicine, and water. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition relies on relatively low-risk airstrikes and a limited number of ground troops, which reduces the domestic political fallout” (10).

Economic Context and Financial System

  • The Panel examined Yemen’s fragmented financial system and found that there are competing central banks: The Houthi-controlled central bank in San’a, and the government-controlled bank in Aden.

  • “During 2017, the legitimate Government, local authorities, the Houthi-Saleh alliance and other militia forces all continued to collect ‘State’ revenues in their respective areas with only a limited return by way of the provision of public services. Their actions have eroded the foundations of the formal economy and created a liquidity problem, increasing the likelihood of a collapse of the Yemeni banking and financial system” (37).

  • In terms of daily economic realities, the Panel found that salaries often go unpaid, and medicine, fuel, and food are too expensive for most people to purchase even when they are available. There have been severe financial consequences due to the conflict on the import of food. Restrictions imposed by actors in the conflict such as Saudi Arabia have resulted in “significant additional financial costs to importers” (41). The black market now “threatens to eclipse formal transactions” (3).

Violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law

The Panel described several IHL and HRL violations on all sides.

  • Government of Yemen

    • The Panel found that the government had committed arbitrary arrests and disappearances, torture, ill-treatment and denial of timely medical assistance.

  • Houthi and Saleh forces

    • After investigating several cases, the Panel found that there was “almost certainly an indiscriminate use of explosive ordnance in densely populated areas” by Houthi-Saleh forces, resulting in the death of 23 civilians (50).  

    • The Houthis have executed individuals, destroyed homes of enemies, and have committed “arbitrary arrest and deprivation of liberty; torture, (including of a child); denial of timely medical assistance; prolonged enforced disappearances; lack of due process; and three deaths in custody.” After the collapse of the Houthi-Saleh alliance, 41 local journalists were arbitrarily detained by Houthi forces (49).

    • The Panel found cases in which individuals recruited children on behalf of Houthi forces and suggested that these cases were representative of a much larger problem.

    • Houthi-Saleh forces continued to obstruct the distribution of humanitarian assistance and prevent humanitarian access to some areas, particularly in Ta’iz.

    • The Houthi forces are using the civilian population as a pawn, the report found, “when they escalate their strikes against Saudi Arabia, knowing full well the reprisals will be felt by the civilian population” (53).

  • Saudi Arabia-led coalition

    • The Panel investigated 10 airstrikes by Saudi Arabia-led coalition that led to at least 157 fatalities and 135 injuries, including at least 85 children. The targets of these strikes included five residential buildings, two civilian vessels, a market, a motel and government forces. The Panel concluded that “even if precautionary measures were taken, they were inadequate and ineffective” (47). While the Saudi-led coalition was the only military entity capable of carrying out these attacks, the coalition has not acknowledged its involvement. In two cases, the Panel found clear evidence of airstrikes that contradicted the Joint Incident Assessment Team’s (the coalition’s investigative mechanism) conclusions, which had denied the Saudi-led coalition’s involvement.

    • The Panel found that United Arab Emirates forces detained individuals in at least three UAE-administered places of detention in Yemen. The Panel found that the forces of the United Arab Emirates were responsible for: torture, beatings, electrocution, constrained suspension and imprisonment, denial of treatment; denial of due process rights; and enforced disappearance.

    • The Saudi-led coalition ordered closure of land crossings, seaports, and airports in Yemen, with the effect of the threat of starvation as an instrument of war.


  • The Panel has seen no evidence to suggest that the two groups [AQAP and ISIL] are working together. Instead, the Panel finds that there is a tacit non-aggression pact between AQAP and ISIL based on their common enemies.

    • AQAP

      • Throughout 2017, AQAP averaged slightly more than one attack every two days, mostly in Baydha, Abyan, and Hadhramawt.

      • The Panel believes AQAP is more vulnerable than it has been in years, due to 4 factors: “a) a dramatic increase in air and drone strikes by the US; b) a sustained ground campaign by Yemeni and international forces; c) the arrests of several mid and low-level AQAP figures; and (d) internal dissension among members of the organization.”

      • “AQAP recruits within the tribes, but more importantly it relies on tribal non-aggression to survive. If the tribes of Yemen were to turn against AQAP, the organization would not survive” (22).

      • “The Panel assesses that the longer the current conflict lasts in Yemen, the more recruits AQAP will attract” (23).

    • US Drone Strikes

      • In Yemen, the US increased the number of air and drone strikes, which rose from 30 in 2016 to over 120 in 2017.  

      • On 16 October 2017, the United States carried out its first direct strikes on ISIL in Yemen, hitting two camps in Bayda. Since then, “the United States has carried out several more air and drone strikes against ISIL, all of which, to date, have taken place in Bayda” (24).

Cooperation with Stakeholders

  • The level of cooperation from the stakeholders restricted the reach of the Panel and its ability to research findings on the ground.

    • The Panel was unable to visit areas of Yemen under the control of the legitimate government (Ma’rib and Mukalla), territory controlled by the Houthi-Saleh alliance (Sana’a and Ta’izz), and the Mazyunah border between Yemen and Oman.

    • The Panel has sent 192 letters to Member States requesting information. Replies are awaited from: Australia, France, Iran, Marshall Islands, Oman, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Togo, UAE, the UK and Yemen.

    • The Panel met officials of the Government of Yemen, finding that although they expressed “full support to the Panel, they provided information of insufficient evidential quality” (8).


  • The report made the following recommendations to the UN Security Council (verbatim):

    • Consider including in its resolution or presidential statement a call on the member States of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition not to misuse resolution 2216 (2015) as a justification to obstruct the delivery of essential goods and humanitarian aid by air or sea;

    • As a confidence-building measure, consider authorizing the deployment of a neutral naval vessel to the sea approaches and entrance of Hudaydah port, under the auspices of UNVIM, thus increasing discharge rates and ensuring a neutral inspection and monitoring presence during commercial vessel discharges in Houthi- controlled territory

    • Consider including in its resolution language specifying that the components used for the manufacture of military equipment may fall within the scope of the targeted arms embargo

    • Consider commissioning an ad hoc report from the Committee, with assistance from its Panel of Experts, and working with other relevant United Nations bodies, including the Office for Disarmament Affairs, and in consultation with international and regional organizations and entities, to examine the use and impact of commercially available unmanned aerial vehicles in conflict zones for military purposes, and to make recommendations on appropriate counter-measures to their transfer and use.

  • The Panel recommends that the Committee:

    • Consider engaging with the International Maritime Organization (IMO),196 with a view to recommending that it liaise with the industry shipping group responsible for the publication Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy (BMP4) to ensure that the protection measures set out in the publication are still appropriate for addressing the new threats that have emerged in the Red Sea area

    • Consider engaging with the Combined Maritime Forces to encourage them to cooperate with the Panel in accordance with paragraph 10 of resolution 2117 (2013) and paragraph 8 of resolution 2342 (2017), and to respond to Panel’s requests for information

    • Consider reminding Member States of their obligation under paragraph 11 of resolution 2140 (2014) to freeze without delay all funds, other financial assets and economic resources on their territories that are owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by individuals or entities acting on behalf or at their direction of listed individuals, or by entities owned or controlled by them, in particular the United Arab Emirates with regard to Khaled Ali Abdullah Saleh and the assets he manages that are identified herein and in the report of the Committee dated 31 January 2017 (S/2017/81);

    • Consider engaging with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, encouraging it to issue a communiqué informing international auctioneers and museums that the export and sale of Yemeni artefacts is illegal and that measures should be taken to ensure that funding raised from transactions relating to Yemen’s cultural heritage will not be used to finance armed groups;

    • Consider encouraging the Government of Yemen to establish mechanisms with international financial institutions and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to allow those Yemeni banks with effective anti-money-laundering measures to transfer hard currency outside of Yemen in order to raise the letters of credits necessary to support imports

    • Consider engaging with the Office of the Secretary-General to examine the development and institution, within UNVIM, of a complaints mechanism for shippers and freight forwarders, to be made available through the UNVIM website.