An international law group has submitted new evidence to the UK government alleging that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has covered up evidence of its unlawful airstrikes on civilian targets.

The allegations will put pressure on the UK government as it prepares its response to a court order directing it to reconsider all existing British government licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.

In June the UK court of appeal said the previous method of granting new licences, largely depending on assurances of the Saudi government, was inadequate. The government is expected to provide its response next month in a move with big ramifications for future UK-Saudi relations.

How long has the war been going on?

Yemen has been troubled by civil wars for decades, but the current conflict intensified in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government against Houthi rebels aligned with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The war is widely regarded as having turned a poor country into a humanitarian catastrophe. Riyadh expected its air power, backed by regional coalition including the United Arab Emirates, could defeat the Houthi insurgency in a matter of months.

Instead some reports suggest nearly 100,000 people have died. Others put the death toll much lower, but fighting this year alone has displaced 250,000 people. There are more than 30 active front lines. A total of 80% of the population – more than 24 million people – need assistance and protection, including 10 million who rely on food aid to survive.

What is the cause of the war?

Its roots lie in the Arab spring. Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in a bid to force the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to end his 33-year rule. He responded with economic concessions but refused to resign.

By March 2011, tensions on the streets of the capital city, Sana’a, resulted in protesters dying at the hands of the military.

Following an internationally brokered deal, there was a transfer of power in November to the vice-president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, paving the way for elections in February 2012 – in which he was the only candidate to lead a transitional government. Hadi’s attempts at constitutional and budget reforms were rejected by Houthi rebels from the north.

The Houthis belong to a small branch of Shia Muslims known as Zaydis. They captured the capital, forcing Hadi to flee eventually to Riyadh.

What has happened to the peace process?

The UN brokered an agreement in Stockholm in December 2018 to demilitarise the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, and after five months of tortuous talks a small part of the agreement has been implemented on the ground. The Houthis had promised a two-phase redeployment out of the city, and agreed that an alternative force – poorly defined in the Stockholm agreement – would take over security in the areas they vacated. But talks between the Houthis and the UAE-backed government forces stalled over the details.

Faced by an impasse, the UN sanctioned a unilateral Houthi withdrawal from the three main ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast – Hodeidah, Ras Issa and Saleef. The Yemeni government described the withdrawal as a sham, saying the Houthis had merely rebadged their fighters as coastguards. They pressed for the resignation of Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen. Not everyone in the Yemen government agreed with this analysis and the foreign minister quit.

No progress has been made on the second phase of redeployment, or the exchange of political prisoners. Griffiths is now trying to secure enough progress in Hodeidah to get off this hook and say the time is ripe for wider political talks on a transitional government to be held in Bonn.

Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic editor

Photograph: Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/X03689

A 288-page report submitted to the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, by the Global Legal Action Network and UK law firm Bindmans contains witness testimony as well as crater and bomb-fragment analysis from scores of strikes carried out by the coalition. It is the most comprehensive independent analysis of the Saudi bombing campaign compiled so far.

The report says the attacks appear to violate international humanitarian law by “targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure”.

The evidence was largely compiled by Mwatana, an independent Yemeni human rights group used by the UN to collect evidence in Yemen. In many cases, its evidence, gathered very soon after Saudi bomb strikes, directly contradicts the post-strike investigations conducted by the Saudi-led coalition.

Mwatana, seen as impartial by the UN, has field researchers operating in 21 out of Yemen’s 22 governorates.

Saudi-led airstrikes on Houthi positions in Sana’a in September 2016.

Saudi-led airstrikes on Houthi positions in Sana’a in September 2016. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

The evidence collated in the report was obtained by Arron Merat, a researcher for the Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle. It is also being submitted to the Commons committee on arms export controls.

“This evidence shows not only that Riyadh is targeting Yemeni civilians but that it is covering them up with whitewash ‘investigations’,” Merat said.

“What’s worse is that the British government says that it bases its decisions on whether or not to approve arms sales to Saudi Arabia on information provided to it by Saudi Arabia.”

The appeal court ruling on 20 June requires the Department for International Trade to review all extant export licences for arms that could be used in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, checking against past allegations of alleged civilian attacks.

The appeal court ruled the government had unlawfully approved weapons transfers to the coalition by not formally assessing the record of alleged violations of international humanitarian law.

Under British law, it is illegal for the government to licence arms exports if there is a “clear risk” that they might be used to deliberately or recklessly kill civilians.

UK ministers have admitted in court filings they did not undertake any independent analysis, but had relied upon the ad hoc reports from the coalition’s own Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT).

Mwatana looked at more than 400 bombing incidents, and the GLAN/Bindmans report highlights 16 documented instances where evidence of an attack compiled by Mwatana was denied. In a further four instances, the report says JIAT claimed the attacks were justifiable assaults on military targets where on-the-ground evidence suggested otherwise.

The report says JIAT falsely denies responsibility for many attacks, including a 21 September 2016 attack on a funeral in Hodeidah city, which killed 23 people, including five children. The report includes photographs of the tail fins from guided missiles and a missile fragment which has been identified as coming from a US-made GBU-16 bomb. Only the coalition has the capacity to deliver such munitions.

“The explosion was powerful, and we were shaken around as if we were dummies,” a witness to the attack told Mwatana. “I had never imagined that our neighbourhood would be bombed.”

Similarly, JIAT also denied an attack on a market at the al-Khoukha roundabout in Hodeidah governorate on 10 March 2017, which killed 21 civilians including three children. A witness interviewed by Mwatana said that the market was “full of people” and that nobody was afraid when the bombing of the nearby military camp (about 200 metres away) started, because it was so frequently bombed.

Yemenis stand over the rubble of houses destroyed by a Saudi-led airstrike on Sana’a, Yemen, in September 2015.

Yemenis stand over the rubble of houses destroyed by a Saudi-led airstrike on Sana’a, Yemen, in September 2015. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

JIAT also concluded no airstrike took place on in the Unesco-protected al-Feleihi district of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, on 18 September 2015. New evidence filed by Bindmans and Mwatana includes pieces of bomb fragmentation that have been identified as coming from an air-delivered explosive.

GLAN’s director Gearóid Ó Cuinn said: “The UK government can either rely on discredited Saudi assurances or listen to those who have documented painstakingly the constant civilian deaths caused by coalition airstrikes.”

Saudi Arabia has accused the Houthi rebels it has been fighting in Yemen of using civilian buildings to hide from airstrikes, but even if this were correct international law requires such strikes to be proportionate and justified by the high military value of the identified target.

Radhya Almutawakel, the chair of Mwatana for Human Rights, said: “The UK should have stopped selling arms to the Saudi coalition a long time ago. We hope this evidence helps them finally make the right decision”.

Further evidence of alleged violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition are expected to be published later this month by the open-source investigators Bellingcat.


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