Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have carried out a series of air strikes targeting schools that were still in use, in violation of international humanitarian law, and hampering access to education for thousands of Yemen’s children, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today. The coalition forces are armed by states including the USA and UK.
The briefing ‘Our kids are bombed’: Schools under attack in Yemen, investigates five air strikes on schools which took place between August and October 2015 killing five civilians and injuring at least 14, including four children, based on field research in Yemen. While students were not present inside the schools during the attacks, the strikes caused serious damage or destruction which will have long-term consequences for students.
“The Saudi Arabia-led coalition launched a series of unlawful air strikes on schools being used for educational – not for military – purposes, a flagrant violation of the laws of war,” said Lama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International who recently returned from Yemen.
“Schools are central to civilian life, they are meant to offer a safe space for children. Yemen’s young school pupils are being forced to pay the price for these attacks. On top of enduring a bitter conflict, they face longer term upheaval and disruption to their education – a potentially lifelong burden that they will be forced to shoulder.”
In some cases the schools were struck more than once, suggesting the strikes were deliberately targeted.
“Deliberately attacking schools that are not military objectives and directly attacking civilians not participating in hostilities are war crimes,” said Lama Fakih.
The damage has severely disrupted the schooling of the more than 6,500 children who attend classes at the schools in Hajjah, Hodeidah and Sana’a governorates. In certain cases the schools had been the only ones in the area. No evidence could be found in any of the five cases to suggest the schools had been used for military purposes.
In October 2015 the Science and Faith School in Beni Hushayash, Sana’a was attacked on four separate occasions within the space of a few weeks. The third strike killed three civilians and wounded more than 10 people. The school, which was the only one in the village, was providing education to 1,200 students.
The Kheir School in the village of Hadhran, Beni Hushaysh, also suffered multiple air strikes causing extensive damage rendering it unusable. Other air strikes on the same village struck two civilian homes, killing two children and injuring their mother, and a nearby mosque, killing one man and injuring another, who were praying at the time of the attack.
Amnesty International is calling for the five attacks highlighted in this briefing to be investigated independently and impartially and for those responsible to be held accountable. It is also asking the coalition to provide full reparation to victims of unlawful attacks and their families.
“The lack of investigations by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, and those who provide them with arms and other support, into a growing list of suspected unlawful attacks suggests a chilling apathy for the devastating consequences this war has wrought on civilians in Yemen,” said Lama Fakih.
“Regardless of the outcome of planned peace talks next week it is crucial that independent investigations into these and other unlawful strikes are undertaken and that those responsible are held to account."
The country’s entire education system has suffered as a result of the conflict. According to UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) at least 34% of children in Yemen have not been to school since the air strikes first began in March 2015. The Sana’a based Ministry of Education has also shared data with Amnesty International reflecting that more than 1,000 schools are out of operation: 254 completely destroyed, 608 partially damaged and 421 being used as shelters for people internally displaced by the conflict.
As well as killing and injuring people, the attacks on schools have terrified civilians and caused students to suffer psychological trauma.
“Right now we are living in fear and terror. Today I saw the plane and I was very afraid and terrified,” said one 12-year-old child who attends al-Asma school in Mansouriya, Hodeidah which was destroyed in a coalition bombing in August.
The director of another school in Hodeidah city, the al-Shaymeh Education Complex for Girls, which catered for some 3,200 students described her horror after the school came under attack twice within a matter of days in August 2015 killing two people. No students were present at the school during the attack, but a man and woman were killed.
“I felt that humanity has ended. I mean, a place of learning, to be hit in this way, without warning… where is humanity? ...It is supposed to be illegal in any war to strike such places,” she said.
Prior to the attack, rumours had circulated online, including in social media, suggesting the school had been used to store weapons, but the director told Amnesty International this was untrue and that the school had been searched following the rumours- no weapons were found.
Although there have been occasions where schools in Yemen have been used for military purposes by the various parties to the conflict, in all five of the cases highlighted in this briefing no weapon remnants, evidence of secondary explosions or any other evidence was found by Amnesty International to indicate that the schools had been used for military purposes.
Both state and non-state armed groups should refrain from using schools for military purposes or operating nearby, which can have the effect of making them schools lawful military targets and subject to attack, consequently putting civilians at risk and having long-term adverse impact on children’s access to education.
UN Security Council Resolution 2225 on children in armed conflict adopted earlier this year calls on all parties to conflict to “respect the civilian character of schools” and also expresses serious concern that the military use of schools may render them legitimate targets of attack under international law and would endanger the safety of children.
Amnesty International’s briefing also highlights the urgent need for all states who supply arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, including the USA and UK, to suspend all transfers of weapons which are being used to commit violations of international law, including war crimes, to those carrying out attacks. In particular, states supplying arms to coalition forces should suspend transfers of general purpose bombs, fighter jets, combat helicopters and their associated parts and components.
Last month the US State Department approved an arms transfer worth $1.29 billion to Saudi Arabia, which includes the transfer of general purpose bombs from the Mark/ MK89 series, despite the fact that Amnesty International has documented their use in unlawful air strikes that have killed scores of civilians.
“It is simply appalling that the USA and other allies of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition have continued to authorise arms transfers to members of the coalition, despite the clear evidence that they are not complying with the laws of war – international humanitarian law. All such transfers must halt immediately,” said Lama Fakih.
“States supplying weapons to the coalition must also use their influence to press coalition members to act in compliance with their international obligations and to investigate violations of international humanitarian law.”
Countries such as the UK, that are party to the Arms Trade Treaty, are prohibited from authorizing an arms transfer if they have knowledge that the arms would be used to commit attacks against civilians, civilian objects or other violations of international humanitarian law.