The litigation documented by this initiative seeks to address the continued large-scale flow of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition despite the devastating civilian and humanitarian impact of their involvement in the armed conflict in Yemen.Explore cases on Yemen-linked arms transfers
The Republic of Yemen has been ripped apart by more than ten years of hostilities, which have had a devastating effect on the civilian population and the infrastructure and services on which it relies. The escalation of armed conflict in 2014 compounded the already dire living conditions in a country long considered as the most poverty stricken Arab nation, resulting in what is regarded as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history.
The armed conflict in Yemen has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, immense humanitarian suffering, and widespread destruction of civilian and essential infrastructure. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) more than 145,000 Yemenis have died as a direct result of armed conflict since 2015.
The agreement of a UN-mediated truce in April 2022 marked the first pause in hostilities since 2016 and gave some hope that there might be an improvement in the humanitarian situation and that the warring parties might even be willing to begin negotiations towards an end to the conflict. Efforts to extend the truce beyond 2 October 2022 failed. In April 2023, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Yemen visited Sana’a as part of a broader effort to stabilise the truce and ceasefire. However, these talks were also suspended.
The situation in Yemen rapidly deteriorated after the Ansar Allah/Houthi organisation, commonly referred to as ‘the Houthis’, seized control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in 2014 following an escalation of long-standing tensions that had erupted in the aftermath of a popular uprising in 2011. In response to increasing Houthi control, and at the request of the President of the internationally recognised government of Yemen, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a Saudi-led Coalition launched a military offensive in March 2015 with the goal of restoring Hadi’s rule and driving out Houthi fighters from the capital and other major cities, signalling a marked escalation in the conflict.
Between April and October 2022, a UN-mediated truce resulted in the first pause in hostilities since 2016. While the truce ended in October 2022, there has been no major escalation since. In April 2023, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Yemen visited Sana’a for talks with the Houthi-led Supreme Political Council, as part of broader efforts towards political stability; however, these talks did not reach a conclusion and it is unclear when they will resume.
‘Air and Missile War’
The Houthis and Coalition forces have since been engaged in what is colloquially known as an “air and missile war”. The Houthis have launched ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into Saudi territory, while the Saudi-led coalition have carried out numerous airstrikes across northern Yemen in addition to deploying ground troops. All parties to the conflict have committed serious violations of
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is the legal framework that governs activities during armed conflict.
, including both targeted and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure. All parties to the conflict have also committed serious human rights abuses, with frequent reports of arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, and ill-treatment as well as the denial of movement and other fundamental rights, particularly in Houthi-controlled areas.
Yemen is heavily reliant on the import of goods and essential aid for its survival, with around 90% of commodities including food, medicine and fuel imported into the country. All parties to the conflict have imposed restrictions on the delivery of essential goods and humanitarian aid, which have had a hugely adverse impact on access to basic services and engendered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 80% of Yemen’s population in need of humanitarian aid and protection.
Both the Houthis and the internationally-recognised government of Yemen (ROYG) have employed measures of economic warfare that have had a drastic impact on the humanitarian situation. This includes reports of the diversion of funds, manipulation of oil and gas prices among other measures that are contributing to a collapse of the Yemeni Rial. The Houthis have also disrupted the payment of salaries to public sector employees, a major factor in the deterioration of the humanitarian situation.
The Coalition has enforced a naval and air blockade, with varying levels of restrictions on imports, since its involvement in the conflict in March 2015, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. This recently published report by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) analyses in detail the impact of these restrictions, arguing they could amount to war crimes and could give rise to the accountability of foreign defence companies and third states who have provided assistance to the Coalition.
Widespread Civilian Harm and Destruction
Saudi airstrikes have resulted in widespread civilian harm and destruction for the Yemeni civilian population and worsened the humanitarian crisis, with numerous attacks that appear to have violated IHL and may amount to war crimes. The Yemen Data Project estimates that, from 2015-2020, a third of all airstrikes carried out by the Coalition hit civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and residential buildings. As of October 2022, it is estimated that more than 25,000 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have killed or injured more than 19,200 civilians since March 2015.
The Coalition has received arms, military equipment and intelligence from Europe, the US and other Western states since its involvement in the armed conflict. There is evidence that Western-manufactured arms and components have been used by Coalition forces in Yemen, including in unlawful attacks. The impact of this large-scale flow of weapons in fuelling and exacerbating the crisis in Yemen has led to a wave of litigation as documented by this initiative.
- For a detailed overview of the numerous consequences of ongoing hostilities in Yemen, see the 2021/22 country reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as some key figures from the ICRC.
- For a visual overview of the scale of the involvement of European arms in Yemen, see this platform by Forensic Architecture.
- To find out more about the outbreak and progress of the conflict, read this report from Amnesty International and the backgrounder from the Council on Foreign Relations.
- See an overview of key ongoing concerns from Mwatana for Human Rights in March, 2022 as well as its documentary on the impact of western arms in Yemen.
- Detailed analysis of ongoing developments in Yemen can be found on the International Crisis Group website.
Since the outbreak of armed conflict in 2014, there have been several phases of the conflict with fighting between numerous groups across the country. National and international actors have taken steps towards peace and accountability over the last few years, however, these have as yet proved ineffective to resolve the ongoing crisis in Yemen.
Explore the drop-down boxes to find out more information about significant developments in the trajectory of the conflict.
Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, in 2011, protests spread across Yemen against President Ali Abdullah Saleh who had been in power for over 30 years. These peaceful protests deteriorated into armed clashes between government forces and opposition groups, including the Houthis, after the government used excessive force against demonstrators.
For a detailed breakdown of how the peaceful protests deteriorated into armed clashes, see this analysis by Human Rights Watch.
Mounting pressure eventually led to Saleh handing over power to his Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in exchange for immunity in a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, in February 2012. This was followed by the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) – a process of transitional negotiations, involving Hadi’s new government, the Houthis and several other armed groups, towards a new constitutional system that was hoped would resolve tensions between these factions.
For analysis of the structure and objectives of the National Dialogue Conference, see here.
Negotiations began to break down in 2014 as the NDC participants failed to agree on key outcomes of the Conference, allowing the Houthis to increase their influence and control over territory, eventually taking control of the capital. The Houthis continued to consolidate power after gaining control of Sana’a and in early 2015, they began to move south towards Aden on the Arabian Sea, where President Hadi had escaped having been forced to resign.
For an overview and legal analysis of the situation in Yemen as the Houthis increased their control, see this Lawfare blog post.
As the Houthis advanced towards Aden, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia and requested international support, triggering the formation and involvement of the international coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia. It is of note that despite the involvement of foreign state actors, under international humanitarian law, this is classified as a non-international armed conflict as the Coalition acted with the consent of the internationally-recognised government of Yemen.
For a detailed overview of the classification and parties to the conflict, see this entry on RULAC.
The UN was relatively slow to respond to the escalating crisis and when it did intervene in April 2015, although well-intended, its actions were considered to be misguided and directly impacted the humanitarian situation. UN Resolution 2216, passed on 14 April 2015, formally recognised Hadi as the ‘legitimate’ president of Yemen, and called for Houthis to fully disarm and surrender territory they had seized including Sana’a.
This resolution isolated the Yemeni population as it was perceived to legitimise the Coalition’s military intervention and failed to take concrete measures to protect civilians, in turn allowing the Houthis to strengthen their control. It also imposed an arms embargo against the Houthis, which was used as justification by the Coalition for the blockade of Yemeni ports.
The Coalition has enforced a naval and air blockade, with varying levels of restrictions on imports, since its involvement in the conflict in March 2015, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Notably, following attacks in Saudi territory in November 2017, the Coalition closed all sea, land and air access preventing the entry of all goods, including humanitarian aid, into Yemen. Since this complete blockade ended in April 2018, the Coalition has continued to impose restrictions on the entry of humanitarian aid as well as the import of food, medicine and other essential goods into Houthi-controlled territory.
For detailed analysis on the blockade and how this can be considered as torture, see this report by OMCT.
The ROYG and Houthis first agreed to UN-mediated peace talks in late 2018 resulting in the Stockholm Agreement, which was intended to avert escalation in the besieged city of Hodaidah on Yemen’s Red Sea coast. While this initially averted hostilities in Hodaidah, the other terms of the deal, which included prisoner exchange and de-escalation efforts, have never been implemented.
For an overview of the outbreak of the conflict and the significance and limitations of the Stockholm agreement, see this article in the American Society of International Law journal.
See this joint NGO statement from December 2021, which highlights the limited implementation of the agreement.
Armed conflict damaged Yemen’s central government and divided the country into numerous local power centres. In particular, alongside Saudi-Houthi confrontations, long-simmering tensions between Hadi-loyalist forces and a separatist UAE-backed group operating in southern Yemen – the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – erupted in open combat in the summer of 2019 with the STC capturing key territory in the south, including government headquarters in the city of Aden.
This was followed by sporadic skirmishes, however at the end of 2020, the parties ultimately put a power-sharing arrangement brokered by Saudi Arabia (the Riyadh Agreement) into effect and established a shaky coalition government with representation from northern and southern factions to unite the two parties against the Houthis.
For analysis of the role of the STC, see this article by the International Crisis Group.
The Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (GEE) was established in 2017 at the request of the Human Rights Council in order to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Yemen with a mandate to examine all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and other violations of international law committed by all parties to the conflict since September 2014.
The GEE presented four reports to the Human Rights Council, which reported evidence of possible war crimes committed by all sides, and made several recommendations to address accountability for serious crimes in Yemen, including recommending the creation of an international criminal investigation body and calling on the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC. Its reports also emphasised the role of arms transfers in perpetuating the conflict and potentially contributing to violations of international law, and repeatedly called for third states to stop providing arms and military support to parties to the conflict in Yemen.
In October 2021, the Human Rights Council rejected a resolution to renew the mandate of the GEE in an unexpected development that reportedly resulted from concerted behind-the-scenes lobbying by Saudi Arabia. This is a critical loss to efforts to hold parties to the conflict, as well as arms-contributing states, accountable for international law violations.
Find out more about their mandate and read their most recent report here.
Commencing on 2 April 2022 a UN-mediated truce that mandated a cessation of hostilities throughout Yemen was agreed, marking the first pause in hostilities since 2016. In particular, the parties agreed to cease all offensive military operations in Yemen and across its borders, to allow ships to enter Hodeidah port, and to reopen the national airport to commercial flights. There was also agreement to work towards reopening road access to areas of Yemen, including Taiz.
Initially established for a two-month period, the truce was extended for a further four months. While this did have an impact on the intensity of fighting and the civilian cost of the war, the truce was violated on several occasions and the humanitarian situation in certain areas remained dire.
Notably, the Houthis refused to open routes into Taiz, a major city which connects the North and South of the country where humanitarian aid is desperately needed. The Houthis have blocked the main roads in and around the city since 2015, impeding the entry and flow of humanitarian aid and exacerbating the suffering of Taiz’s besieged residents.
The truce came to an end on 2 October, 2022, when the warring parties failed to reach agreement on a third extension by this deadline. This led to international concern that the lull in fighting witnessed in recent months will come to an end and all parties have been urged to refrain from renewed attacks. However, the overall security situation in Yemen has remained relatively stable since the ending of the truce, with no major escalation. That said, military activity around the front lines has been recorded.
For analysis of the extent to which the truce was respected, see the ACLED truce monitor.
For a brief overview of the decision not to renew the truce, and an initial assessment of its possible impact see this explainer by Amnesty International.
For further information on the humanitarian situation in Taiz, see this press release issued by a coalition of NGOs calling for the urgent reopening of Taiz roads.
On 9 April 2023, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Yemen visited Sana’a for talks with the Houthi-led Supreme Political Council, which was also attended by Omani officials. This was part of an effort to stabilise the truce and ceasefire, support the prisoner exchange process and explore venues of dialogue between Yemeni actors to reach a sustainable, comprehensive political solution in Yemen.
However, negotiations ceased without reaching a conclusion. The proposal to the Houthis discusses a two-year process involving three stages of talks between the Houthis and the Presidential Leadership Council (representing the internationally recognised government): confidence-building measures, including the payment of salaries to civil servants to include security and military personnel in Houthi-held areas; the reopening of roads; and the expansion of flights from Sana’a airport during the first six months followed by three months of preparations ahead of final status talks over a transition period. It is not clear when talks will resume. Regardless, in April 2023, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) facilitated the release of 973 detainees over four days as part of a prisoner swap agreed upon in Switzerland in March.
Parties to the Conflict
Although the Saudi-led coalition versus the Houthis fight has been depicted in media coverage as a binary conflict, hostilities have occurred across Yemen involving a number of groups, including Coalition-backed armed groups, whose alliances and allegiance have been relatively fluid.
More information on the main groups involved in the conflict in Yemen can be found in the drop down boxes below.
After fleeing Yemen for Saudi Arabia in 2015, Hadi continued in his office from Riyadh as leader of the internationally recognized government of Yemen (ROYG). In April 2022, Hadi announced the formation of a new presidential council to take over his responsibilities. The Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) was formed as the executive body of Yemen’s internationally recognised government to seek a “comprehensive political solution”. It is led by Hadi’s advisor, Rashad al-Alimi, who has authority over the army. There are seven other members who make up the council.
The General People’s Congress (GPC) is a political party established in 1982 by President Ali Abudallah Saleh. They acted as the governing party since 2002, but high-ranking and influential members defected from the party after the government’s crackdown on the 2011 protests. It further fragmented after the killing of President Saleh in 2017 and its internal leadership is irrevocably split.
The Islah Party was formed in 1990 and has been part of the official government of Yemen. It gained prominence during the 2012-2014 political transition. They have engaged in clashes with the Houthis since the latter took over Sana’a in 2014. They were the first party to support Saudi Arabia’s March 2015 announcement of the launch of Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis and have since maintained a strong relationship with the latter.
The Houthis initially resembled a theological movement advocating for peace. The title ‘Houthis’ is given to the followers of the movement’s late leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. The movement follows a sect of Shia Islam and is mainly based in Yemen’s northern areas, close to the Yemeni-Saudi border. The Houthi movement was not a supporter of Saleh’s policies, particularly that he tolerated the establishment of Sunni shrines in northern Yemen. As a result, the Houthis started adopting some belligerent stances, galvanising Saleh to launch six wars against their areas since 2004. The Houthis have a close relationship with Iran.
The Houthis have complete control of Hodeida’s harbour, city, and northern entrance. A coalition of forces (dubbed the “Joint Resistance Forces”) has been stationed there along the Red Sea coast to the south since 2018, when the “Joint Forces” attempted to retake Hodaidah from the Houthis (before the Stockholm Agreement halted the fighting). This comprises an alliance between the Tihamah Resistance, Southern Giants Brigades, and the Tareq Saleh-led Guardians of the Republic. They work independently from President Hadi and are not formally a part of the ROYG.
Catalysed by Ali Abdullah Saleh’s economic failures and the corruption that weighed down the state and the marginalised population of southern Yemen, The Southern Movement (otherwise known as Hirak) – a political movement that originated in the south- was established in 2007. With the deterioriating political and economic situation, Hirak appealed for the forced resignation of the Saleh regime’s southern security forces, the redistribution of resources and a readjustment to the balance of power between the north and the south as the former enjoyed greater political and economic entitlements.
Established in May 2017, this group arose as a sub-state to challenge the authority of Mansour Hadi’s government through advancing the interests of the Southerners by promoting stability in the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al-Mandab. The goal of the STC is to advocate for independence of the Southern region based on the country’s pre-1990 territorial borders.