(Beirut, March 26, 2017) – An apparent Saudi-led coalition attack on a boat carrying Somali civilians off the coast of Yemen highlights the need for accountability on the second anniversary of the Yemeni armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. Several witnesses reported that on March 16, 2017, a helicopter fired on the boat, killing at least 32 of the 145 Somali migrants and refugees on board and one Yemeni civilian. Another 29, including six children, were wounded, and 10 more remain missing. Photos of the boat taken the next day show damage consistent with gunfire from an aerial attack.
All the parties to the conflict denied responsibility for the attack. Only the Saudi-led coalition has military aircraft. The Houthi-Saleh forces do not. Somalia, which supports the coalition, called on the coalition to investigate. But the coalition has repeatedly shown itself unable or unwilling to credibly investigate its own abuses.
“The coalition’s apparent firing on a boat filled with fleeing refugees is only the latest likely war crime in Yemen’s two-year-long war,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Reckless disregard for the lives of civilians has reached a new level of depravity.”
One of the boat’s four Yemeni crew members told Human Rights Watch that the boat was about 50 kilometers off the coast of the Yemeni port city of Hodeida, traveling away from Yemen, when it was attacked. That evening the captain had told the passengers to be quiet as they were transiting through “a very dangerous place,” two people onboard told Human Rights Watch. Earlier in the journey a vessel had approached and told the crew to stop the boat, but the boat continued.
Four people aboard the boat said that at about 9 p.m. they saw a helicopter repeatedly shoot at the boat. A Somali woman refugee, 25, who was wounded in the attack, said, “All of a sudden, I saw a helicopter above us. … They attacked abruptly. … When they kept firing at us, those of us who spoke Arabic kept saying, ‘We are Somalis!’” Another woman said that she was hit by a fragment from an explosive weapon. A crew member and others said a large naval ship also fired on the boat.
After the attack, the boat docked at Hodeida port at about 4:30 a.m. The head of the fishing port, Daoud Fadel, said, “We couldn’t find a place to put the bodies, so we had to put them in the place where we store the fish.” Another witness said that, in addition to those who had been taken to nearby hospitals for treatment, about 15 men were wounded from bullets or fragments during the attack.
Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi-Saleh forces denied carrying out the attack. The official state news agency of the United Arab Emirates reported that a UAE military source denied that its forces had been involved and welcomed an international investigation into the incident. Coalition members have naval vessels patrolling access to the Hodeida coast, while Houthi-Saleh forces maintain control over the port. The US, which has been carrying out airstrikes in Yemen against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), also denied carrying out the attack.
Under the laws of war, attacks against civilians that are deliberate or reckless are war crimes.
Since March 26, 2015, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has carried out military operations, supported by the United States, against Houthi forces and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The coalition has conducted numerous airstrikes that have unlawfully struck homes, markets, hospitals, and schools.
The Houthi-Saleh forces have indiscriminately shelled civilian neighborhoods, recruited child soldiers, and arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared scores of civilians. Since the start of the current conflict, at least 4,773 civilians had been killed and 8,272 wounded, the majority by coalition airstrikes, according to the United Nations human rights office.
Human Rights Watch has documented 62 apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes, some of which may amount to war crimes, that have killed nearly 900 civilians, and documented seven indiscriminate attacks by Houthi-Saleh forces in Aden and Taizz that killed 139 people, including at least eight children. Human Rights Watch has also documented the Houthi-Saleh forces use of banned antipersonnel landmines and the coalition’s use of widely banned cluster munitions. Both parties have blocked or restricted critical relief supplies from reaching civilians.
On March 23, 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for an international, independent commission of inquiry into allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all sides in Yemen, a call repeatedly made by national, regional, and international organizations over the past two years.
The UN Human Rights Council fell short of establishing a full stand-alone inquiry in September 2016, but passed a resolution mandating the UN human rights office to deploy additional human rights experts to investigate abuses by all sides. Governments should fully support the office’s expanded investigative mandate in the absence of a standalone international inquiry, Human Rights Watch said.
The Saudi-led coalition-appointed Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) has failed to meet international standards. It has absolved the coalition of responsibility in nearly all of the 17 incidents it has so far investigated and released findings that differed drastically from those of the UN and others.
Although the coalition has conducted widespread unlawful attacks, the United States, United Kingdom, and France continue to sell billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch was not able to determine which coalition member carried out the attack on the refugee boat, but the US State Department has approved licenses for the sale or servicing of military helicopters to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan. Governments should suspend all weapon sales to Saudi Arabia or risk complicity in future unlawful coalition attacks, Human Rights Watch said.
“Despite the growing mountain of evidence of coalition abuses, the US, UK, and France seem more focused on selling arms to the Saudis than on their possible complicity in coalition war crimes,” Whitson said. “After two years of unlawful attacks on civilians and civilian structures, Saudi Arabia’s allies should reconsider their support and use their leverage with Riyadh to end the violations.”