Breaches of Laws

Evidence of Breaches of International Humanitarian Law in Yemen by Saudi-led Coalition

The UK has continued to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, despite the now well documented breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) from Saudi-coalition airstrikes in Yemen. For example in Jan 2016 the UN Panel of Experts documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of IHL [5].

Indiscriminate Bombing of Civilians and Civilian Infrastructure – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Mwatana have also documented coalition airstrikes that have resulted in indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilians in breach of IHL [13]. Airstrikes have targeted infrastructure with devastating consequences. For example, in 2015 the coalition targeted schools (Amnesty International, 11/12/2015, [6]), and hospitals and other medical facilities, and since then have also targeted markets and mosques.

Students taking year end exams, World Bank Photo Collection, Photo ID 3831, by Bill Lyons 2007, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Creative Commons via Flickr

Students taking year end exams, Sana’a, Yemen, World Bank Photo Collection, Photo ID 3831, by Bill Lyons 2007, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Creative Commons via Flickr, [81]

Human Rights Watch say that between June and September 2017, the Saudi-led coalition carried out five apparently unlawful airstrikes in Yemen that killed 39 civilians including 26 children [100]. HRW say that the attacks caused indiscriminate loss of civilian life in violation of the laws of war. HRW investigated five airstrikes that occurred between June 9 and August 4, 2017. They did not identify any military objectives in the immediate vicinity of any of the areas attacked, except for one low-ranking Houthi-Saleh fighter in his home.

All governments that are party to an armed conflict are obligated to investigate alleged war crimes by members of their armed forces. However, the Saudi-led coalition’s Joint Investigation Assessment Team (JIAT) has not said it it will be investigating any of the five airstrikes that HRW investigated. The coalition also routinely issues blanket denials of any responsibility for well-documented violations.

A UN report of September 5th [91] suggested that civilians may have been directly targeted, or that operations were carried out regardless of the impact on civilians and without regard to the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack. In some cases, information suggested that no actions were taken to minimise the impact of operations on civilians.

Amnesty International have carried out several research visits to Yemen, and documented at least 34 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition that appear to have violated international humanitarian law, killing at least 494 civilians, including 148 children. They found that some of these airstrikes used arms manufactured in the UK, [101]

The U.N. and various human rights organizations have also accused Saudi-led forces of numerous war crimes, documenting scores of coalition attacks on a wide array of civilian areas, including hospitals, schools, homes and refugee camps, [69]. Such attacks are in breach of International Humanitarian Laws including:


Geneva Conventions – Additional Protocol I – Part IV Civilian Population – Article 48

In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.


Médecins Sans Frontières – On 15th August 2016 the Saudi-coalition bombed Abs Rural Hospital where a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic is based, killing 11 people and injuring 19. This was the fourth attack in 10 months on a MSF facility and it led to MSF shutting down it’s operations in Northern Yemen. The airstrike came despite MSF having repeatedly given all parties in the war their GPS coordinates, and despite the nearest military facility being around 1km away. The fin of the bomb used in the attacks was found at the site, and independent weapons experts identified it as belonging to a US made precision guided Paveway series aerial bomb [14].

The 4 attacks on MSF hospitals are amongst 130 health facilities hit in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in March last year [21]. MSF has asked for the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC), to carry out an investigation. The IHFFC are an independent body with a mandate to investigate suspected violations of international humanitarian law.


Use of Double Bombing – There are various specific incidents reported where the coalition have violated International Law. These include how Saudi bombs killed 114 mourners at a funeral in Yemen’s capital Sana’a 8th October 2016, and injured 613, [12]. This was a double bombing which is a tactic used whereby a first bomb is quickly followed by a second. UN experts investigating the bombing said this tactic would have resulted in more casualties to the already wounded and the first responders, which is prohibited under International Humanitarian Law. The first bomb on it’s own is also likely to be a serious violation of IHL as there was a disproportionate number of civilians killed and injured in the attack when compared with military personnel, and it wasn’t a military target [12].

Use of Cluster Munitions –

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented evidence of the Saudi-led coalition’s use of cluster munitions in populated, civilian areas in Yemen. The Saudi-coalitions reported use of cluster munitions in populated areas in Yemen would contravene IHL, [25 para, 26] as they are inherently indiscriminate – for more info see arms exports


In October 2016 two Parliamentary Committees said,

“Given the evidence we have heard and the volume of UK manufactured arms exported to Saudi Arabia, it seems inevitable that any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the coalition have involved arms supplied from the UK. This constitutes a breach of our own export licensing criteria.”[3].


Al Hudaydah port – In Unreported World, (“Yemen, Britain’s, Unseen War,” Channel 4 [15]), Krishnan Guru-Murthy reports on the port of Al Hudaydah, where the cabins of all 5 main cranes, used for loading and unloading containers from ships, had been surgically removed by precision bombing in an attack in August 2015 [57]

This was no attack on a military target, but a deliberate strategic attack on the food supply chain.

Food warehouses nearby were also bombed. Remnants of the missiles had been found and independent bomb experts identified them as belonging to Paveway bombs which have major components made in the UK. Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said: “These attacks are in clear contravention of international humanitarian law and are unacceptable,” ( 21/8/2015 [26]).


Article 54,

1. Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited

Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977


Map of Yemen

In a country where 90% of food is imported, the effects of such targeting is catastrophic, and would be known to be so, especially on the young and vulnerable. No one can honestly believe that the 5 cabins of the cranes constituted some sort of military target. Instead the bombing constitutes a serious breach of IHL. Similarly, on August 12th 2016, the coalition bombed and destroyed the main bridge to Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, on a road where roughly 90 percent of U.N. food and other aid is transported from the port city Al Hudaydah. Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam Yemen Country Director, said: “This road is the main supply route for Sanaa as it conveys 90% of World Food Program food coming from Al Hudaydah to the capital. Its destruction threatens to leave many more people unable to feed themselves, worsening an already catastrophic situation in the country,” [16].


Article 54, 2. It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive. Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977


Questions ???

This also raises many questions:

If it’s true what the Saudi foreign minister said, that the British officers who have been present in the Saudi Arabian HQ during operations were aware of the Saudi-coalitions targets, (see section below, on ‘Concerns Regarding the presence of British officers in the Saudi HQ’) then, were they aware that these cranes would be targeted?

If so, why did they not carry out their obligations and do whatever they could in their powers to prevent the bombing of the port from going ahead?

If it’s true that the presence of British officers in the Saudi HQ is, in part, to ensure compliance with International Humanitarian Law, then how come they are blatantly failing in this task in such a devastating way?



“Civilians are disproportionately affected by the conduct of hostilities owing to the widespread and systematic use of tactics that practicably, and in certain cases directly, constitute the prohibited use of starvation as a method of warfare.” UN Panel of Experts, (pg 3, [7])


There is a naval blockade being carried out by the Saudi-led coalition is one major cause of the famine, but it is the cumulative effect of these things together – the bombing of infrastructure, agricultural lands and the food supply chain – that have compounded the devastating effect.

The famine is on a huge scale, where almost half a million infants and young children need immediate treatment for severe acute malnutrition. Half of the country – that’s 14 million people – suffer from hunger and need help before it’s too late. Of these, 7 million are severely hungry and don’t know where their next meal will come from, (Oxfam, [17]).

What Laws are Being Breached?

A legal analysis from Matrix Chambers found that the UK government is breaking international, EU and UK law by supplying arms to Saudi Arabia in the context of its military intervention and bombing campaign in Yemen [27] . With the EU, Article two of the EU Council Common Position on arms exports, compels the UK to deny an export licence if there is “a clear risk” that equipment might be used in a violation of IHL, (2008, Council Common Position, Acts Adopted Under Title V of the EU Treaty). The UK government is also breaching the Arms Trade Treaty. Please see International Laws page for an outline of some relevant articles of law

We expect our UK Government to abide by the rule of law

It’s important to add here, that regardless of what laws apply, for many people it’s a matter of moral conscience that our country is not contributing to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for the Foreign Office. In 2015 Sir Simon McDonald, a senior official at the Foreign Office, said that although human rights was part of the work of the Foreign Office, he admitted it was secondary to the need to promote British companies abroad [40]. He told the Commons foreign affairs committee that human rights was “not one of our top priorities” and that human rights no longer had the “profile” within his department that they had “in the past”, [40]. This is deeply alarming as ministers continue to prioritise putting resources into supporting trade deals above that of tackling human rights issues in other parts of the world, and in the case of Yemen, actually continue supplying arms to Saudi Arabia when there is blatant evidence that the Saudi-led coalition has breached International Humanitarian Laws.

Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, the US and UK have together transferred

more than US $5 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia.

At the same time the US State Department and the UK’s Department for International Development have spent or budgeted to spend an estimated

US $450 million in aid

to Yemen over the past two years [101].


Please sign CAAT’s petition to STOP ARMS SALES TO SAUDI ARABIA – [73]


Ta'izz (Yemen) by eesti (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ta’izz (Yemen) by eesti (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Creative Commons via Flickr, [81]

CAAT Put the Arms Trade on Trial

In February 2016, CAAT challenged the UK government’s decision to continue to licence the export of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, through a Judicial Review. CAAT’s case focused on Criterion 2c, of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria [28] which says that licences should not be granted if there is a clear risk the equipment might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. On 10 July 2017 the High Court refused CAAT’s Judicial Review of the government’s decision to keep arming Saudi Arabia. However, CAAT will not stop there, and have already begun the process of appealing the decision. But CAAT need your support to be able to continue the legal battle, so please see here for details of how you can support CAAT – [59] – and see here to view legal documents from the judicial review – [58].