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Yemen and Human Rights

The future of war: Documenting human rights violations in Yemen

Protecting human rights in the middle of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

In our first episode of the season, Robert Malley identified the ongoing war in Yemen as the top conflict to watch in 2019. Yemen is home to the largest humanitarian crisis in the world: 60,000 people have been killed since the start of the war, 14 million are at risk of famine, and 2 million are internally displaced. More than 19,000 coalition air raids have hit Yemen since March 2015, averaging one every 103 minutes.

For Radhya Almutawakel, Chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, the only way to end the war in Yemen is to ensure that all parties to the conflict are held accountable for violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Almutawakel joins Displaced to assess the crisis from the perspective of someone who has worked on the ground. They discuss Almutawakel’s experience as an advocate for peace in Yemen, the obstacles to documenting human rights abuses in wartime, and the impact of drone strikes on local communities.

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is largely man-made — a product of intentional starvation tactics and indiscriminate bombing. Almutawakel walks us through the human rights violations her organization has investigated: airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, indiscriminate shelling by Houthi forces, detention, forced disappearances, and torture. Both sides have enforced blockades to restrict humanitarian assistance and necessary imports. “Yemenis are not starving,” Almutawakel affirms. “They are being starved, because parties to the conflict are using starvation as a tool of war.”

Radhya Almutawakel, Chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights

Compounding the problem of impunity in Yemen is the U.S. drone program.

Since 2009, the United States has carried out more than 270 drone strikes in Yemen, killing (by one estimate) close to 150 civilians. Communities “live in fear” of drone strikes, Almutawakel says, and there is little effort to investigate or account for incidents that kill civilians. As drone technologies proliferate, will the conflict intensify? “I can tell you that the problem is not with the technology,” Almutawakel affirms. “The problem is with accountability.”

Following the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, U.S. legislators took steps to withdraw support for military operations in Yemen. With the signing of a partial ceasefire agreement in December, there may be an opportunity to negotiate for an end to hostilities. But if the international pressure lets up, Almutawakel warns, “then we will start from scratch and all the violators will be stronger in face of civilians.”

“I want to see the impact in the ground. I want people to have a normal life and to be protected from violations by [the] state, by law, not by chance.”

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Related Resources

Crisis Watch on Yemen — The IRC

Death By Drones — Mwatana for Human Rights and Open Society Justice Initiative

The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War — Declan Walsh, New York Times

Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War? — Jane Ferguson, New Yorker

The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War — Martha Mundy, World Peace Foundation

Drone Strikes: Yemen — New America Foundation

Five Steps to Save Yemen’s Stockholm Agreement — Peter Salisbury, International Crisis Group

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.