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UN Says the US-backed Saudi Campaign in Yemen Has Disproportionately Targeted Civilians

The Security Council held its first open session on Yemen after nearly nine months of conflict.
December 22, 2015, 10:55pm
Yahya Arhab/EPA

Two days after peace talks adjourned with little sign of progress, the UN's human rights chief told Security Council members on Tuesday that an inordinately high percentage of attacks on civilians in Yemen's 9-month civil war can be attributed to a Saudi-led and US-backed coalition fighting there.

According to figures presented by High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein at the council's first open session on the conflict, more than 2,700 civilians have been killed, and more than 5,300 injured since late March, when Riyadh's coalition began bombing Yemen.

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"I have observed with extreme concern the continuation of heavy shelling from the ground and the air in areas with high concentration of civilians as well as the perpetuation of the destruction of civilian infrastructure — in particular hospitals and schools — by all parties in the conflict," Zeid told the council. He added, however, that "a disproportionate amount appeared to be the result of airstrikes carried out by Coalition forces."

The Saudi-led coalition, which has received vital logistical support from the US, including aerial refueling over Saudi airspace, and what the US terms "targeting assistance," has rarely admitted to killing civilians in the conflict. The same can be said for the Houthi rebels and their allies loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who launched a rapid and deadly military expansion in the leadup to Riyadh's response.

Zeid said that among the thousands killed this year, more than 600 children had perished in Yemen this year alone, along with 900 that have "suffered serious injury."

Related:  'All We Could Find Were Body Parts': America's Role in Yemen's Civilian Carnage

The bloody intervention began as a bombing campaign, and has since called upon a fragmented assortment of fighters — some official members of the coalition, some mercenaries, and many local forces — that are aligned against the Houthi expansion. After some success, including the recapture of the southern port city of Aden, the conflict has shifted to a grinding war of attrition. Many fighters initially aligned with the Saudi-led operation have made clear they don't wish to fight outside of certain areas, including the south, where secessionist sentiment is strong. Though the Saudis professed goal is to reinstate President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the nominal Yemeni leader remains deeply unpopular among many Yemenis and even members of his own government.

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Anti-Houthi forces have fought with the rebels for months over the contested city of Taiz, where hundreds of thousands of people remain besieged and largely cut off from humanitarian supplies. A seven-day ceasefire that began last week, and which was subsequently broken widely and repeatedly, was never respected in Taiz.

While Taiz continues to be ravaged by the Houthis and and an assortment of armed groups, the rest of the country — already the poorest in the Arab world — verges on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. Kyung-Wha Kang, the UN's assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, told the council that some 7.6 million people are now in need of emergency food supplies to survive.

"At least two million people are malnourished, including 320,000 children who suffer from severe malnutrition, a two-fold increase since March," said Kang. "While some 14 million people lack adequate access to health-care assistance, Yemen's health system is close to collapse."

US ambassador Samantha Power, who presided over the meeting as council president for November, said its member states were "united on Yemen." But what there is to unite on remains unclear.

Six days of peace talks in the Swiss town of Biel ended on Sunday with few results outside of some humanitarian arrangements. One diplomat who spoke with VICE News said they were meant to continue until Tuesday, but there was so little agreement among the representatives that UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, adjourned them until January 14.

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On Tuesday, Ahmed told the Council that he was encouraged the the Biel talks yielded plans for future discussion, but added that they "revealed deep divisions between the two sides on the path to peace and the shape of a future agreement."

As fighting picks up in areas where it slowed last week — and continues unabated where it never stopped — an end game in Yemen remains murky. Already wracked by low oil prices, the Yemen intervention has further depleted Saudi coffers. The persistence of the Houthis and forces loyal to longtime strongman Saleh have flummoxed the Saudis as they attempt to navigate what Ahmed on Tuesday called the worst conflict in Yemen's history. Meanwhile, as several council members noted on Tuesday, al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate and militants associated with the so-called Islamic State have stepped into the security vacuum.

Related: Exclusive: Saudi Arabia Admits Bombing MSF Hospital in Yemen — But Faults MSF

For the US, and Power, the war and their initially blanket support of the Saudi coalition has in recent months come under heavy criticism from human rights groups. Not a month goes by without reports from the likes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International implicating the US, as well as the UK, in arms sales to the Saudis -— and in the case of Washington, directly offering services to Riyadh without which the coalition would likely falter. Saudi strikes, say both groups, have been directly tied to hundreds of civilian deaths, and could constitute war crimes.

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On Tuesday, Power reiterated that the US continues to "urge the Saudi-led coalition to ensure lawful and discriminate targeting and to thoroughly investigate all credible allegations of civilian casualties, and make adjustment as needed to avoid such incidents."

Yet the Saudis rarely if ever address reports of civilian casualties, and at times offer perplexing and contradictory versions of where and when their aircraft are operating. Last month, Human Rights Watch named the US as party to the conflict, an important step that would require Washington to investigate airstrikes that it played a role in. The US, however, continues to refer questions about civilian casualties to the Saudis, who remain mum.

All this makes for an awkward spectacle at the UN, where Power was able to conclude her remarks on Tuesday by saying "the parties have a chance to end the conflict, and the United States joins the other members of this Security Council in urging them to do so," — evidently not considering her own government's role in the war.

Watch VICE News' documentary Yemen: A Failed State: