Saudi strikes result in ‘disproportionate amount’ of destruction in Yemen – UN human rights chief

A boy walks past the a house damaged by a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa. © Mohamed al-Sayaghi
The Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen is to blame for a disproportionate number of civilian deaths and the destruction of infrastructure in the conflict, said the UN human rights chief who urged the UN Security Council to step up ceasefire efforts.

“Failure to act decisively does not only spell misery for the millions of vulnerable people in Yemen today. It would inevitably push the country into an irreversible process of Balkanization, the consequences of which would lie outside of anyone’s control,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein told the 15-member body.

The need to establish a long-lasting ceasefire is vital as instability on the ground creates a breeding ground for jihadist fighters who not only threaten Yemen, but the entire region as a whole.

“The potential ramifications of a failed state in Yemen would almost inevitably create safe havens for radical and confessional groups such as the so-called ISIS (or ISIL, Islamic State in Syria and the Levant). This, in turn, could expand the conflict beyond Yemen’s borders, potentially shattering regional stability,” Hussein said.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) met following the collapse of Sunday’s UN-sponsored peace talks on Yemen in Switzerland. While negotiations are scheduled to reconvene on January 14, fighting on the ground continues despite a fragile ceasefire agreement supposed to be in place until at least December 28.

Tensions in Yemen escalated after Shia President Saleh was deposed in 2012 and his Houthi supporters, reportedly aided by Iran, eventually seized the capital city of Sana’a last year. Houthi forces then advanced from Sana’a towards the south, seizing large parts of Yemen, and sending the current Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile.

In late March, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition responded with airstrikes in order to stop Houthi advances and reinstate Hadi. By late summer, the Saudi-led forces had started a ground operation, which so far has been stuck in a stalemate.

In a move to cease hostilities, Yemen’s exiled government said it was ready to join UN-sponsored talks if the Houthi rebels yielded to the demands of the UN resolution. Resolution 2216 calls on the rebels to vacate all cities seized within the last year and to recognize Hadi’s legitimacy to rule.

The UN estimates that the violence has resulted in a dramatic increase in civilian casualties, with over 600 children killed and more than 900 seriously injured. That is five times more than in 2014. The UN believes the conflict has killed at least 2,700 people since March, when Saudi-led airstrikes began. The collateral damage from Saudi strikes has seen a drastic rise in civilian deaths.

“I have observed with extreme concern the continuation of heavy shelling from the ground and the air in areas with high a concentration of civilians as well as the perpetuation of the destruction of civilian infrastructure – in particular hospitals and schools – by all parties to the conflict, although a disproportionate amount appeared to be the result of airstrikes carried out by Coalition Forces,” Zeid said.

Another deadly side effect of the ongoing violence is the humanitarian situation that is so dire that over 80 percent of Yemen's population is heavily reliant on international aid, which at times is impossible to deliver.

In her briefing to the Council, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang said that some 7.6 million require emergency food aid to survive. At least two million are now malnourished, including 320,000 children suffering from severe malnutrition. That is a two-fold increase since March.

Overall more than 14 million people lack access to healthcare with continued airstrikes leaving some 2.5 million people internally displaced. That is an eight-fold increase since the start of the conflict.

Human rights watchdogs have also accused the Saudi-led coalition of the careless aerial bombing of civilian targets, as well as Houthi forces of indiscriminate shelling.

“In the capital, Sana’a, the warplanes flying over our heads were the main threat. These planes keep inhabitants on high alert, give children sleepless nights, wake babies in the middle of the night, and – most dangerously – kill people,”said Celine Langlois, who served as Medecins Sans Frontieres' (MSF) Emergency Medical Coordinator in Yemen.

Just ahead of Tuesday's UNSC meeting, Human Rights Watch criticized the UN body for failing to condemn Saudi-airstrikes, while at the same time condemning the Houthi fighters.

“Yet the Council has reserved virtually all of its criticism for Houthi forces, which have used indiscriminate weapons and landmines that have harmed civilians, while remaining almost silent on coalition abuses,” Amy Herrmann, advocacy coordinator for Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

The UNSC failure to condemn Riyadh’s actions will only “embolden” the coalition to continue their abuses. Furthermore, HRW says that Saudi Arabian coalition has shown “no serious interest” in investigating the consequences of the strikes that NGO believes “may amount to war crimes.”

“Why is the coalition given a free pass? One possibility: follow the money,” Herrmann says, implying that condemning the coalition could jeopardize vital assistance now dangling in front of the UN.

In April, just few weeks into the air campaign, Saudi Arabia announced $274 million in humanitarian aid for the Arabian Peninsula nation. The pledge followed a UN appeal to provide emergency assistance to the millions affected by the conflict.