The Yemeni Civil War: Human Rights Violations by Coalition Forces

Source: REUTERS/Naif Rahma
Source: REUTERS/Naif Rahma


The Yemeni Civil War is currently considered the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.[1] More than three million Yemenis have been displaced; one million have contracted cholera—the largest outbreak of the disease in history; and 22 million—roughly three-quarters of the country’s population—are at risk of famine.[2] The conflict is rooted in a failed political transition that forced the longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.[3] In November of 2014, the Civil War broke out when Houthi Rebels allied with forces loyal to former President Saleh and seized control over much of the country.[4] President Hadi subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia and sought assistance from the international community.[5]

It was at this point that Saudi Arabia intervened based on an Article 2(4) exception to the U.N Charter[6], and formed the Saudi-led coalition.[7] On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia began a military intervention alongside eight other Arab states.[8] The U.S., U.K. and France also began supplying the coalition with logistical support.[9] Despite the apparent legality of the Coalition’s initial use of force, the Coalition has subsequently been accused of violating both international humanitarian law and human rights law.


The principle of distinction requires that “parties to [a] conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.”[10] While humanitarian law recognizes that some civilian casualties are inventible, it imposes a duty to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and to target only combatants and other military objectives at all times.[11]

Despite this established legal norm, the Coalition has seemingly failed to make these necessary distinctions. Coalition air strikes are responsible for most of the documented civilian casualties.[12] In 2018, the United Nations condemned the Saudi-led military coalition for killing civilians and destroying infrastructure, including health centers with airstrikes.[13] The Protocols to the Geneva Convention afford special protections to medical facilities and educational, cultural and religious sites in times of conflict.[14] Despite this, many such facilities and sites have been hit by coalition air strikes throughout this conflict, suggesting that either 1) distinctions are not being made between military targets and protected persons or objects; or 2) the no-strike list of protected objects has not been adequately shared or respected within the coalition command chain.[15]


Even before civil war erupted, Yemen relied heavily on food imports because of a scarcity of water for agriculture.[16] Since the beginning of the Civil War, an air, land and sea blockade by the Coalition has choked off supplies of critical resources including fuel, food, and medical aid.[17] International humanitarian law requires that all parties to a conflict allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief, including food, medical supplies, and other survival items.[18] This de factoblockade has left an estimated 78% of the Yemeni population in need of food, water and medical aid.[19] Even when supplies do make it to Yemeni ports, the war has disrupted critical infrastructure, including the road networks used for distribution.[20]


Although the airstrikes and blockades constitute the bulk of the Coalition’s alleged violations, a 2018 U.N. report also outlined grounds to substantiate the belief that the Governments of Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are responsible for additional human rights violations, including unlawful deprivation of the right to life, arbitrary detention, rape, torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and child recruitment.[21]


The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is rarely covered at length in the media, in part due to restrictions and difficulties traveling to the country, combined with reticence about explaining the complexities of the conflict. However, if an end to the conflict is to ever fully be realized, it is imperative that the world keeps in mind and acknowledges the human price of this war. This can only be done if world leaders, including those at the head of the American government, acknowledge the very real and very severe human cost of war, condemn the human rights violations occurring in Yemen, and ultimately end and rectify their own complicity.

  1. Daniel Nikbakht & Sheena McKenzie, The Yemen War is the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis, UN Says, CNN(Apr. 3, 2018),
  2. Alan Sipress et al., Five Reasons the Crisis in Yemen Matters, Washington Post(June 8, 2018), [hereinafter Why Yemen Matters].
  3. BBC, Yemen Crisis: Why is There a War?, (Nov. 20, 2018), [hereinafter Why is There a War?].
  4. Human Rights Watch, Yemen Events of 2017, (2017),
  5. Id.
  6. U.N. Charter art. 2, ¶ 4. The legal basis for Saudi’s initial intervention in Yemen relates to Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter. Id.Article 2(4) functions as an absolute prohibition on the use of force, however the use of force has been deemed permissible if it falls under one of three exceptions, including invitation by the government of the State in which the force is being used. Id.In the case of Yemen, the Coalition’s initial use of force has been justified under this exception. Oona Hathaway & Aaron Haviland, View from Socotra Island: Yemen War and Threats to UN Charter, Just Security (May 22, 2018),
  7. Human Rights Watch, supranote 4.
  8. Human Rights Council, Rep. on the Situation of Human Rights in Yemen, Including Violations and Abuses Since Sept. 2014, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/39/43, at 4 (2018) [hereinafter Rep. on the Situation of Human Rights] (explaining Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Senegal, Sudan, and the United Arab Emiratesform the Saudi-led coalition).
  9. 4-5.
  10. Id.
  11. Id.
  12. Rep. on the Situation of Human Rights, supranote 8 at 5.
  13. U.N. News, U.N. Agency Chiefs Condemn Saudi-coalition Led Air Strike that Killed Dozens in Western Yemen, U.N. (Aug. 24, 2018),
  14. Rep. on the Situation of Human Rights, supranote 8 at 6.
  15. Rep. on the Situation of Human Rights, supranote 8 at 6.
  16. Why Yemen Matters, supranote 2.
  17. Id.
  18. Rep. on the Situation of Human Rights, supranote 8 at 8.
  19. Selam Gebrekidan & Jonathan Saul, In Blocking Arms to Yemen, Saudi Arabia Squeezes a Starving Population,Reuters(Oct. 11, 2017),
  20. Why Yemen Matters, supranote 2.
  21. 14.