What started as a civil war in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, quickly escalated into proxy warfare involving the military presence of multiple international forces on the ground. Thus, only a year after the outbreak of the war in 2014, different belligerent groups added themselves to the conflict to offer support to either the forces loyal to the current Yemeni president, Abh Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, or the forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. While Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other GCC countries back the pro-Hadi security forces, the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia armed group from northern Yemen loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, allegedly receive support from Iran.
Six years after the beginning of the conflict, the situation in Yemen has worsened considerably, especially from a humanitarian point of view with organisations such as Human Rights Watch defining it as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. Nonetheless, with all the parties to the conflict implicated in gross violations of human rights, the people of Yemen have also been ravaged by abuses such as indiscriminate attacks resulting in civilian casualties, arbitrary detentions, deliberate starvation and blockades on the import of humanitarian goods.
As a member of the coalition, the United Arab Emirates plays a significant role in military operations in Yemen. Yet, unequivocal evidence suggests that Emirati forces have been equally involved in the perpetration of flagrant human rights violations against the civilian population. Before withdrawing most of its ground troops in 2019, the UAE financed, armed and trained local Yemeni forces, including the Hadrami Elite Forces and the Shabwani Elite Forces, to combat terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS. Recent reports compiled by Human Rights Watch reveal that these local forces and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council with its military wing “the Security Belt” committed several cases of abuse while ostensibly fighting Yemeni affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Arbitrary arrests, detention, and unlawful killings
Members of the local forces trained by the Saudi-led coalition, especially by the UAE, have reportedly used excessive force during raids and arrests. On different occasions, family members of wanted suspects were forcibly detained to put pressure on such suspects to turn themselves in. The latest report issued by the UNHRC and the OHCHR in September 2020 highlighted the mass arrests committed by the UAE-backed Security Belt in 2019 whereby migrants were detained on “national security” grounds. According to various accounts from the victims themselves, the detainees were subjected to forced nudity, rape and gang rape. One victim recounted being raped on multiple occasions over 13 days by 28 different soldiers.
Various sources indicate the presence of a number of unofficial places of detention and secret prisons in Aden and Hadramawt, including two detention centres run by the UAE and one run by Yemeni security forces with backing from the UAE. Survivors, relatives of victims, and detainees alike have shared worrying accounts concerning the perpetration of atrocious crimes in these facilities at the hands of prison officials. According to such reports, the inmates are subjected to beatings with fists, weapons and other metal objects, electrocutions, forced nudity, cavity searches, threats, threats of retaliation against family members and sexual violence, including anal rape with wooden and steel poles. More recently, UAE forces at the secret detention facility in al-Buraiqeh coalition base in Aden, have been accused of sexual violence against men and boys.
Additionally, torture continues to be practised as a punitive measure against the inmate population. In a 2017 article, the Middle East Monitor described one torture practice used in Yemeni prisons, the grill method, in which “the victim is tied to a pit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire”. The article added that the visible signs of torture on the corpse of Yemeni citizen, Ahmed Dubba, confirm that prisoners regularly undergo brutal punitive practices, violating their right to receive protection from inhumane and degrading treatment. The physical and psychological torture practices inflicted upon detainees at the UAE-controlled Bir Ahmad detention centre are similar to the ones described above. Most of the prisoners at Bir Ahmad are kept in detention without any official charges brought against them, in violation of provisions under the Yemeni constitution. Furthermore, they are denied access to legal counselling services and nor do they have the right to challenge their detention before an impartial court.
Since the beginning of their involvement in the conflict, Saudi and Emirati forces have carried out unlawful airstrikes that led to civilian casualties as they regularly targeted residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings and medical facilities. The Human Rights Watch concluded that, as of 2020, the Saudi-led coalition has conducted more than 20,100 airstrikes in Yemen which is the equivalent of more than 12 attacks a day. As a consequence, essential infrastructure in the country has been damaged. Between 2014 and 2020, numerous schools, hospitals, bridges, factories, humanitarian aid warehouses and mobile clinics have been destroyed in what may be defined as a grave breach of international humanitarian law.
Imposed blockades on the import of food and medical supplies
The Saudi-led coalition, and therefore the United Arab Emirates, are responsible for the imposition of restrictions on the import of food and medical supplies. The decision to shut down critical ports and the Sana’a International Airport has been justified by Saudi and Emirate officials as a measure to counter the import of arms in the country. Yet, this translates into a de facto ban on the import of food and fuel supplies which directly impacts the civilian population. Furthermore, there are reports concerning the deliberate diversion of fuel tanks at the hands of the coalition forces in an attempt to prevent hospitals and other healthcare facilities from receiving the fuel needed to power their generators.
On September 16, 2020, Yemen entered its sixth year of civil war. The same month, at the forty-fifth session of the UN Human Rights Council, the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, the UNHRC body responsible for documenting allegations of human rights abuses in the conflict, noted that “Yemen remains a tortured land, with its people ravaged in ways that should shock the conscience of humanity”. However, with European countries such as the United Kingdom and France supplying arms to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, key belligerent actors in the conflict and recognised perpetrators of human rights abuses, one may question the extent to which our conscience has been shocked or whether more needs to be done.