Yemen Project Release: Attacks Causing Grave Civilian Harm
Today we publish a cluster of 20 incident assessments, Attacks Causing Grave Civilian Harm, as part of our ongoing Yemen Project. These assessments are the product of in-depth open-source analysis focusing on alleged Saudi-UAE airstrikes that have occurred in Yemen since the start of the aerial bombardment campaign on the 25th of March 2015. They can be read in full at the Yemen Project website.
Bellingcat’s investigations comprise review and verification of all available information in the public domain related to the incidents, including photographs, videos, satellite imagery and Arabic language social media posts discovered by their investigators. Through these reports, Bellingcat has drawn attention to a strategy of targeting densely populated locations by the Saudi-UAE led coalition in both Houthi and non-Houthi held territory. These investigations highlight a destructive pattern of attacks by the Saudi-led Coalition on densely populated markets, prisons, weddings and funerals in Yemen, leaving little to no accountability or acknowledgement in their wake.
The methodology followed by the investigators was designed in collaboration with lawyers at the Global Legal Action Network. It was created to increase the reliability of the information in the event that it is ever used as evidence in a court of law. It includes the use of technology which records all steps taken by the investigators to find evidence and immutably preserves the content relied on in the reports. Investigators are briefed on the core principles of international humanitarian law in order to inform their factual assessments, and all reasonable lines of inquiry are followed, including those which point to military activity in the vicinity of an attack which may explain an airstrike in favour of the attacker.
“Double-tap” airstrikes on markets
From the set of 20, Bellingcat has investigated eight alleged airstrikes on markets in Yemen. Seven of these occurred during daylight hours, when markets are most likely to be crowded. Using open-source information, researchers were unable to identify military targets in many of the strikes investigated in this cluster, calling into question the legitimacy of the attacks. However, even in light of identified military targets, the attacks on these locations appeared to kill and injure far more civilians than was proportionate to any likely military advantage. In some cases, such egregious civilian harm appears entirely foreseeable, suggesting that members of the Coalition have intentionally conducted indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.
On the morning of the 6th of July 2015, an airstrike killing around 40 people took place on a market in the Southern governorate of Lahj, according to Amnesty International. Through satellite imagery, Bellingcat was able to establish that the location of the attack was a bustling livestock market near to a petrol station and multiple other services, such as a Qat market and restaurant. The tarpaulin market stalls were visible in the middle of the road on images by satellite image service provider Google Earth Pro in both 2015 and 2016. Bellingcat also examined photographic and video content uploaded by local journalists who documented the site shortly after the attack, positively identifying two large impact craters. This may indicate a “double-tap” strike, a practice where one strike is followed by a second hitting those that respond or gather in the aftermath. Such strikes often kill civilian responders or rescue workers.
Similarly, on 12 May 2015 at approximately 16.15 in the western coastal town of Zabid, Hodeidah, multiple munitions struck a building which Bellingcat identified as containing a restaurant. The building was in the immediate vicinity of a market. According to Human Rights Watch, the attack killed 60 people, including 13 women and 8 children. Analysis conducted on a video posted by eyewitnesses on Facebook illustrates two distinct impact clouds rising from the direction of the building identified by Bellingcat; other open-source content showed the damage to the building and the injured and deceased victims. Reports suggested that a third bomb landed but did not explode. Dropping a second and third bomb on the same location while rescuers are working is a further indication that the Coalition did not have regard to the need to spare the civilian population as required by international law.
In addition to markets, the coalition has demonstrated an alarming disregard for civilians by repeatedly targeting heavily populated areas such as large gatherings at weddings and funerals across the country. Detention centres have also not been spared, causing the deaths of dozens of detainees. On the 12th of May 2015, a building in Hajjah later identified by Bellingcat researchers using videos from 2009 and 2013 as a detention center, was bombed. This represented the first of a pattern of strikes where the coalition had struck prisons that were still operational.
The Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), a body established and run by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition in 2016 in response to claims of potential IHL violations, has been roundly condemned as ineffectual by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Group of Eminent Experts. Bellingcat’s investigations support those condemnations. For example, in relation to the Abs Prison bombing, JIAT stated it had targeted two-weapon depots in Abs on 2015/05/13 that it claims were used by the Houthis. JIAT also claimed that it did not target nor damage the Abs prison and that the buildings targeted were 900 meters and 1,300 meters away from the prison respectively. Further, it found that both market attacks outlined above, Zabid and Fayoush, did not take place at all. JIAT’s brazen dismissal of the incidents investigated by Bellingcat is not singular or unique in its nature but rather represents a pattern of impunity and lack of accountability that has thus far shaped JIAT’s work on Yemen. JIAT investigated only 10 incidents from the set. In 7 of the reports JIAT either concluded that no attack happened or made a factual finding that appear to be incorrect, absolving the Coalition of responsibility.
Only on one occasion in this set, the infamous 9th of August 2018 strike targeting a bus full of children in the Northern Governorate of Sa’ada on did JIAT fully acknowledge the strike and express the intention to hold accountable those involved in the planning and execution of the bus bombing. However, JIAT’s recommendations only extended to condemning the striking of the bus while it was in a market (causing disproportionate civilian harm contrary to international law) – it did not acknowledge that the bus’s occupants were children. Even in the event that the bus was carrying high-value military personnel in addition to the children, an accountability body such as JIAT should address the deaths of the boys and explain why their deaths amounted to lawful collateral damage.
Coalition airstrikes causing grave civilian harm have continued into 2019. For example, We also investigated a 16 May 2019 airstrike which hit a densely populated area of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, destroying multiple properties and killing children. Only yesterday, reports emerged that a Houthi detention facility had been hit by an airstrike, killing over 100 people. This facility had previously been visited by the ICRC, whose findings are “discussed confidentially with the concerned authorities”.
Fuelling the conflict with arms, coalition allies the UK and the US have committed to billions worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE since the start of the conflict. Despite providing such immense military support, the UK and US have both neglected to independently investigate claims of international humanitarian law violations and potential war crimes, even where their arms have been directly tied to these incidents. This disregard for accountability has had devastating and far-reaching consequences on the civilian population in Yemen. The international community’s continued supply of arms without qualification to the Saudi and UAE governments has enabled the coalition’s repeated failure to push for accountability for violations of international law. As a consequence, failure to acknowledge civilian harm over the course of the conflict, has led to the continuation of airstrikes in densely populated areas.
In the UK, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has challenged the government’s decision licence the export of military equipment to Saudi Arabia. On 20 June 2019 the Court of Appeal ruled that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen are unlawful, however, despite overwhelming evidence and clear risk that UK weapons could be used in unlawful strikes, the UK government has appealed and is yet to make a decision on whether it will grant further arms licenses for sales to Saudi Arabia. Of significance to the government’s new decision will be the steps the Coalition has taken to address alleged violations. Based on Bellingcat’s investigations, such steps appear to have been purely token in nature and only forthcoming in response to overwhelming international outrage.
Bellingcat will continue to investigate airstrikes and will post further tranches of incidents in the coming months. The full set of Attacks Causing Grave Civilian Harm can be read at the Yemen Project website.