STORY IN FOCUS – INTERVIEW WITH MS. MELISSA PARKE AND MR. ARDI IMSEIS, MEMBERS OF THE GROUP OF EMINENT INTERNATIONAL AND REGIONAL EXPERTS ON YEMEN
Q1: Can you explain the role of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (‘Group of Experts’) and the importance of the extension of its mandate?
The Group of Experts was established pursuant to a request by the Human Rights Council to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2017 to create a group to investigate violations and abuses being committed by parties to the conflict in Yemen. Whilst the exact phrasing of the mandate has been modified slightly over the last 3 years, the Group of Experts has the mandate to monitor and report on the situation of human rights in Yemen and to carry out comprehensive investigations into all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and all alleged violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict since September 2014, including examining the possible gender dimensions of such violations. The Group of Experts is also tasked with establishing the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations and abuses and, where possible, to identify those responsible.
In addition, the Group of Experts is mandated to make recommendations on improving respect for and protection and fulfilment of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and to provide guidance on access to justice, accountability, reconciliation and healing as appropriate. It is empowered to engage with Yemeni authorities and all stakeholders, in particular relevant United Nations agencies, the field presence of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Yemen, authorities of the Gulf States, and the League of Arab States, with a view to exchanging information and providing support for national, regional and international efforts to promote accountability for violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen.
In October 2020, the Human Rights Council renewed the mandate of the Group of Experts for a further year. It also expanded the Group’s mandate in several respects, including explicitly recognising the role of the Group of Experts in collecting, preserving and analysing information, and mandating the Group of Experts to explore and report on recommended approaches and practical mechanisms of accountability to secure truth, justice, and redress for victims, in coordination with relevant mandates of the UN Special Procedures.
Q2: Could you outline the focus and main investigative issues prioritised by the Group of Experts since the start of its mandate in the collection of information and preparation of findings
The mandate of the Group of Experts is broad, in that we are charged, inter alia, “to carry out a comprehensive examination of all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights and other appropriate and applicable fields of international law committed by all parties to the conflict since September 2014” [emphasis added]. Unsurprisingly, it has been a challenge to monitor and investigate all violations in this ongoing multiparty conflict. Accordingly, as a matter of economy the Group of Experts has been compelled to prioritise incidents for examination using the criteria developed throughout its recurrent mandates: namely, the gravity of the alleged violations; their significance in demonstrating patterns; access to victims, witnesses and supporting documentation; and the geographic locations of the incidents. Despite not being able to exhaustively document the huge number of alleged violations, the Group considers that its work illustrates the main patterns and types of violations taking place in Yemen. The Group has investigated and reached findings on violations showing consistent patterns of harm to civilians by all parties to the conflict, whether through ongoing unlawful airstrikes, indiscriminate shelling, interference with humanitarian aid, land mines, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence and enforced disappearances, attacks on journalists, human rights defenders, and minorities, violations of the rights of women, men, migrants and children (including as child soldiers), and endemic impunity.
Q3: As mentioned in the Group of Experts’ September 2019 report, the World Food Programme (WFP) declared Yemen “the world’s largest food crisis”, referred to by many organisations as “entirely man-made”. Could you elaborate upon why you focused on looking into violations affecting access to food?
The Group of Experts’ investigations on violations affecting access to food is driven by the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Although, it remains to be established whether the parties have intentionally used starvation to advance their military aims, the Group considers that, in a situation of such acute food insecurity, the conduct of the parties displays a reckless disregard for the impact of their operations on the civilian population and access to food.
The Group’s last report describes a series of policies and practices attributable to all parties, interference in humanitarian aid, as well as measures at the economic level, that have contributed to the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Q4: In its September 2019 report, the Group of Experts cited that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated in its 2019 humanitarian response plan that around 24.1 million people in Yemen would be in need of humanitarian assistance to survive. The same year the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator publicly confirmed findings of pockets of famine-like conditions in dozens of places across Yemen. How does the Yemeni humanitarian crisis feature in the Group of Experts’ 2020 Report?
The Group of Experts has continued to draw attention to the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen and to the ways in which conduct of the parties is contributing to and/or exacerbating this situation. According to OCHA, nearly 80% of the population remain in need of humanitarian aid and protection. WFP estimates that over 20 million people are food insecure, with malnutrition disproportionately affecting marginalised and at-risk groups. Over 3.5 million internally displaced persons in Yemen, most of them women and children, face acute vulnerabilities, including 1.5 million in the Ma’rib Governorate alone, who lack access to adequate health care, food, water, housing, and education. Added to this is the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, occurring at a time when barely half the health facilities in Yemen are functional.
Rather than being the incidental result of hostilities, the continuous deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Yemen is directly attributable to the conduct of the parties to the conflict.
Absent the conclusion of a comprehensive, sustainable and inclusive peace, the dire humanitarian situation could be substantially mitigated if parties to the conflict began to respect and comply with their obligations under international law. The Group has highlighted specific conduct of parties which is contributing to this situation – for example, the shelling of sites like the Red Sea Mills demonstrates a reckless disregard for the impact of such attacks on the civilian population and their access to food, or attacks impacting essential infrastructure, such as hospitals. The unlawful use of landmines also has an ongoing impact: engendering fear amongst many farmers in relation to farming their lands or herding or grazing their livestock, and preventing fishers, for example, from accessing coastal areas. There has also been a failure by the parties to the conflict to properly facilitate access to humanitarian relief.
The Group highlighted the way in which other actions and policies of authorities have diminished the population’s capacity to access basic necessities: for example, the irregular payment or non-payment of salaries for most civil servants since 2016. Many Yemenis interviewed by the Group noted that even when food, water, medicine and fuel were available, they were prohibitively expensive. The Group of Experts has drawn attention to the impact of other policies. One stark example of this is the continuing closure of Sana’a International Airport since August 2016 by the Government of Yemen and the coalition’s preclusion of civilians from accessing life-saving health care and humanitarian supplies. Another is the coalition’s restrictions on imports and access to Al-Hudaydah port, which have contributed to shortages of fuel and other necessities and to inflation, thereby exacerbating the economic and humanitarian crisis. The Group of Experts has also noted allegations of for example, the diversion of water supplies.
The humanitarian situation will only improve if such violations of both international humanitarian law and international human rights law cease.
Q5: Both state and non-state parties to the conflict in Yemen have been widely reported to have violated their obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians. Have you observed further violations of this nature?
In its latest reporting period, the Group of Experts documented a range of conduct by parties to the conflict amounting to impeding humanitarian relief supplies in violation of international norms, either by unduly restricting access or by engaging in practices that undermine the ability of humanitarian organisations to carry out their work.
This follows on from the Group of Experts’ earlier work in 2019 in relation to parties impeding WFP’s access to the Red Sea Mills. In its most recent report, the Group examined reports of burdensome requirements imposed by the Houthis on humanitarian agencies in relation to permits, access, management, and operations.
It made the point that while parties to a conflict are entitled to oversee the delivery of assistance, bureaucratic requirements cannot unjustifiably delay or impede access to humanitarian relief.
The Group of Experts also received allegations that both the Houthis and the Government of Yemen imposed conditions that food distribution projects include beneficiaries considered loyal to the relevant party. Other allegations of interference investigated included, for example, the raiding by armed elements allegedly linked to Houthi forces, of several aid organisations in Al Jawf, forcing those organisations to cease operations. As noted above, the Group of Experts also highlighted the continuing impact of the closure of Sana’a international airport by the coalition and the Government of Yemen, as well as the impact of the restrictions at Al-Hudaydah Port.
Q.6 How, if at all, has the pandemic affected the Group of Experts’ ability to work inside Yemen investigating and otherwise engaging with Yemeni civil society and actors?
Since our second mandate, our physical access to Yemen has been denied, requiring a number of innovations in method, including the inordinate use of remote forms of communication with witnesses, colleagues and other relevant stakeholders. Apart from the new burdens and constraints COVID-19 brought to the daily lives of civilians in Yemen, tragically, already living in a war-torn environment, the pandemic only exacerbated difficulties in our work. Measures to stem spread of the virus that were imposed in both Lebanon (where our secretariat is located) and Yemen, coupled with the poor internet connectivity in the two countries, significantly slowed the investigation pace. It impeded victim and witness access to safe spaces for remote interviews with our investigators. We were compelled to curtail field missions, alter our working methods and even narrow the breadth of matters investigated.
Q6: What has been the main issue for the Group of Experts in relation to the documentation and reporting on belligerent parties’ denial of humanitarian access for vulnerable civilians?
Sadly, as we reach six years since the start of the conflict, the people of Yemen continue to suffer serious human rights violations and abuses at unprecedented levels. All parties to the conflict have continued to show a complete disregard for international law and for human dignity. Of the significant constraints limiting the Group’s ability to gather information, we regret that, for a second consecutive year the Group was not able to access Yemen and other coalition countries, despite having sent requests for permission in January and February of this year. In addition, the Group of Experts has observed a noticeable increase in the general atmosphere of fear throughout Yemen. We continually encountered people who were afraid to speak out of fear for the reprisals that they would face. This was true in all areas of the country where we were able to reach people. As well, we noted many cases where people were detained, abused, and worse just for speaking out in ways that were not exactly in line with relevant authorities in charge. Notwithstanding these constraints, the Group of Experts was able to gather sufficient information to make findings in keeping with the standard of proof and methodological requirements.
Q7: In its previous report the Group of Experts stated that, while deep concerns were justified it remained to be established whether parties to the conflict have intentionally used starvation as a method of warfare. Could you explain the challenges in establishing such a determination?
Yes. In our 2019 longer report, the Group of Experts expressed concerns that parties to the conflict have used starvation as a method of warfare in Yemen by attacking objects indispensable to the survival of the population, imposing blockades or using siege-like tactics, and impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance. We acknowledged, however, that further investigation would be required.
One of the particular challenges in relation to investigating this violation relates to gathering and verifying information relating to the objective or purpose of parties in carrying out particular military operations. It may be possible to establish that certain objects indispensable to the survival of the population were impacted by hostilities (e.g. by an airstrike or shelling). However, it is also necessary to consider whether the parties had acted with the requisite intent (i.e. ‘purpose’) associated with the prohibition of the use of starvation as a method of warfare under international humanitarian law.
As the Group of Experts has indicated, further investigations are warranted in relation to this matter.
Q8: What further support, if any, does the Group of Experts need from organizations such as GRC, Yemeni actors, and other UN agencies in fulfilling its mandate?
The Group of Experts reiterates its thanks for the assistance and support it has received from governments, non-governmental entities, United Nations agencies and partners working on Yemen, as well as the cooperation provided by individual officials and institutions within Yemen. The Group’s cooperation with NGOs remains a strategic priority because NGOs are key player in promoting justice and accountability. The Group of Experts is constantly engaging with NGOs and other stakeholders to further explore best approaches to holding perpetrators accountable for their actions and to help civilians in Yemen not only seek appropriate justice but also to recover after the trauma of war.