Indiscriminate Artillery Attacks Add To Yemen’s Rising Civilian Death Toll

Human Rights Watch revealed this week that indiscriminate shelling into populated neighbourhoods in Yemen has claimed the lives of at least 30 civilians and wounded more than 160 others. Details about the attacks, which occurred over a ten-day period in May this year, have only just come to light due to a new report by Human Rights Watch. The organization documents several incidents where artillery was fired indiscriminately into Yemeni neighbourhoods, resulting in significant harm to the civilian population. Between May 21st and 23rd, for instance, at least twelve civilians, including four children, were killed in such attacks, with a further 29 injured. Human Rights Watch reports that the majority of these attacks were carried out by Houthi-Saleh forces, who pledge loyalty to former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. During these three days in May, Houthi-Saleh is alleged to have repeatedly shelled populated neighbourhoods of Taizz, Yemen’s third largest city and an area controlled by pro-government forces. A further attack on a Houthi-Saleh-controlled district North-East of Taizz, meanwhile, is thought to have been the work of government-affiliated forces.

The deadly shelling occurred after Houthi-Saleh forces were pushed back from several locations east of the city by pro-government forces. Yet, the May attacks do not appear to be unique events. Human Rights Watch, citing local monitors, says there have been numerous indiscriminate attacks in Yemen by Houthi-Saleh forces over the past two years. The Houthi-Saleh forces, which control Yemen’s capital and much of the country, are said to have repeatedly fired artillery rockets and mortar projectiles from elevated areas into populated places like Taizz. Occasional unlawful strikes into al-Hawban by pro-government forces have also been reported.

These attacks are not only tragic, but they may also amount to a violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch says. The laws governing armed conflict prohibit attacks that do not distinguish between military and civilian objects, and require commanders to choose methods of attack that minimise harm to civilians. The human suffering caused by the indiscriminate attacks on Taizz illustrates why it is so important that these laws are followed. In response to the attacks, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, urged Houthi-Saleh commanders to “immediately halt these indiscriminate attacks,” and pressed the Yemeni government forces to “ensure that their own forces are not launching similarly unlawful attacks outside the city.” Highlighting the seriousness of the attacks, Whitson also noted that the Commanders of the Houthi-Saleh forces “could face war crimes charges for ordering attacks that indiscriminately strike Taizz’s populated neighborhoods,” and urged all sides to “abide by the laws of war to minimize harm to civilians who have endured more than two years of fighting.”

The civilians casualties of the May attacks are the latest tragedy in Yemen’s devastating civil war. The conflict, which began in 2015, has resulted in the death of more than 10,000 civilians, with many more facing famine and an ongoing cholera epidemic. That details of the May attacks are only now coming to light underscores the difficulty of gaining an accurate understanding of an ever-worsening conflict that receives little mainstream Western media attention. The true extent of the human loss of the Yemen conflict may never be known. Yet, to obtain justice for those killed in the May attacks, and to prevent further such attacks from taking place, the international community must work to ensure the laws of war are upheld, and that those who violate such laws are brought to justice.