All sides in Yemen’s bloody conflict may have committed war crimes involving deadly air strikes, rampant sexual violence, and the recruitment of child soldiers, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
A team of UN-mandated investigators said in a report it had “reasonable grounds to believe that the parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law”.
Many of these violations may amount to “war crimes”, the report said, pointing to widespread arbitrary detention, rape, torture and the recruitment of children as young as eight to fight.
Kamel Jendoubi, who heads the UN team, said the investigators had identified a number of alleged perpetrators.
“A confidential list of these individuals will be presented today to the [UN] High Commissioner” for Human Rights, he told journalists in Geneva.
The damning report said air attacks by the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led military coalition had caused the most direct civilian casualties in the war, and a blockade of Yemeni ports and airspace may have violated international humanitarian law.
The alliance, which has been at war with Houthi rebels since March 2015, has repeatedly denied allegations of war crimes, and claims its attacks are not directed at civilians.
A spokesman for the Saudi military said the UN report was referred to a legal team for review and will announce its conclusions after it is completed.
UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said the report merited a response.
“We should review and respond to the [UN] experts’ report published today,” said Gargash in a tweet. “The coalition is fulfilling its role in reclaiming the Yemeni state and securing the future of the region from Iranian interference.”
Data collected by Al Jazeera and the Yemen Data Project has found almost one-third of the 16,000 air raids carried out in the country have hit non-military sites.
The attacks have targeted weddings and hospitals, as well as water and electricity plants, killing and wounding thousands.
The charity Save the Children has estimated that an average of 130 children die every day from extreme hunger and disease – a crisis brought about by the conflict.
And according to the UN, at least 10,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict. However, analysts say the death toll is likely to be higher.
The UN has described the situation in Yemen as world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“The group of experts has reason to believe the government of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, are responsible for violations of human rights,” said Jendoubi.
“Violations and crimes have been perpetrated and continue to be perpetrated in Yemen by the parties to the conflict.
“Members of the government of Yemen and the [Saudi-UAE] coalition may have conducted attacks that were disproportionate and could constitute war crimes,” Jendoubi added.
The experts also accused the Houthis of indiscriminate shelling in civilian areas and snipers targeting non-combatants.
They urged the international community to “refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict ” – an apparent reference to countries such as the United States and Britain, which supply the Saudi-UAE alliance.
Iran has been accused of supplying weapons to the Houthis, allegations Tehran denies.
Despite repeated petitions by human rights groups, the US assists Saudi Arabia and the UAE in “conducting aerial bombings in Yemen” and provides “midair refuelling services” for their warplanes.
Between 2010 and 2015, Washington also sold more than $90bn of military equipment to Riyadh.
But following a recent air attack on a school bus that killed 40 children, some members of Congress called on the US military to clarify its role in the war and investigate whether support for the air raids could render American military personnel “liable under the war crimes act”.
Asked about the UN report, US defence chief James Mattis said on Tuesday support for the Saudi-UAE coalition was constantly under review and was not unconditional.
“At no time have we felt rebuffed or ignored when we bring concerns to them. The training we have given them we know has paid off,” he told a press conference.
“Our conduct there is to try to keep the human cost of innocents being killed accidentally to the absolute minimum. That is our goal where we engage with the coalition. Our goal is to reduce this tragedy and to get it to the UN brokered table as quickly as possible,” said Mattis.
The UN investigators said nearly a dozen deadly air attacks they investigated over the last year “raise serious questions about the targeting process applied by the coalition”.
“Despite the severity of the situation we continue to see a complete disregard for the people in Yemen,” said Charles Garraway, one of the report’s authors.
“This conflict has reached its peak with no apparent sight of light at the end of the tunnel. It is indeed a forgotten crisis.”