Fears are growing for the safety of civilians in the strategic western port city of Hodeidah amid reports that a major offensive by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition is due to get under way soon, said Amnesty International as UN states meet at a donor conference in Geneva on April 25.
As well as putting civilian lives at grave risk, an assault on the country’s fourth most populated city that seriously disrupts the functioning of the port risks cutting off a crucial lifeline to a country that is 80 percent dependent on imports exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation.
“The conflict in Yemen has already inflicted unbearable suffering on the country’s civilians, who have borne the brunt of the fighting for more than two years. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has flagrantly flouted international humanitarian law by repeatedly carrying out indiscriminate and other unlawful air strikes in densely populated areas throughout Yemen. Thousands of civilians have been killed and injured; and there has been massive destruction and damage to homes and infrastructure. There must be no repeat of such unlawful killing and destruction in Hodeidah,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s office in Beirut.
“As the front line steadily shifts north along the Red Sea coast and the risk of an assault on Hodeidah city and surrounding areas looms, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, as well as Huthi-Saleh forces and other parties, must refrain from carrying out indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. It is vital that they take all feasible precautions to ensure that the civilian population is protected. This includes giving residents effective advance warning of any attacks, and allowing time for them to evacuate safely.”
The city of Hodeidah had an estimated pre-war population of more than 400,000. According to the Task Force on Population Movement co-led by the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration, as of January 2017 the governorate of Hodeidah was home to at least 100,000 internally displaced people.
The likelihood of a major operation in Hodeidah also underscores the need for the international community to suspend all transfers of arms, munitions, military equipment or technology and logistical support to all parties to the conflict for use in Yemen.
Over the past two years of fighting, all parties to the conflict, including the Huthi and anti-Huthi armed groups and militias, have carried out unlawful attacks that have killed or injured civilians and failed to distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 13,000 civilians have been killed or injured since fighting engulfed the country in March 2015.
In May 2015, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition declared the northern city of Sa’da a “military zone.” Civilians in the area were not given enough time to evacuate, leading to thousands of people being trapped as the city was indiscriminately carpet-bombed by coalition forces for three months, in attacks that flagrantly violated international humanitarian law.
In mid-2015 both Huthi and anti-Huthi forces also endangered civilians as they battled to take control of Aden and Ta’iz. In ground-launched attacks documented by Amnesty International which injured and killed nearly 200 civilians, all parties routinely failed to distinguish between fighters and civilians in violation of international law. An urban war in the city of Ta’iz continues to this day unabated, contributing to civilian suffering.
Amnesty International’s researchers who were on the ground during the Sa’da offensive and the urban fighting in Aden and Ta’iz witnessed first-hand the devastating consequences for civilians who were granted neither safe passage nor effective warning.
The presence of fighters from the Huthi armed group or other pro-Saleh forces amongst civilians and in civilian areas would not justify the coalition treating the entire city of Hodeidah as a military target – whether or not they officially declare it a military zone as they did in Sa’da.
The consequences of such unlawful conduct would be devastating far beyond Hodeidah since the city’s port is a crucial access point for lifesaving international aid. While the port is currently not operating at full capacity due to damage to its facilities, 80 percent of goods imported into Yemen flowed through Hodeidah’s port at the time the conflict started. The UN has warned that changes in the flow of imports through the port “would have grave consequences”.
Yemen is currently facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. At least 21 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance in order to survive, and approximately 7 million are on the brink of starvation.
It is vital that all parties to the conflict grant unfettered access for impartial humanitarian assistance so that it can reach civilians in need without delay.