Listen to the story.
Marco Werman: Today marks the 100th day of Saudi coalition airstrikes on Yemen, and the NGO, Human Rights Watch, got access to what may be the most bombed out city in the country. It’s called Saada, not to be confused with the capital, Sanaa. Saada is near the border with Saudi Arabia and it’s a home base for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the ones the Saudi-led coalition has been trying to defeat. As I mentioned, Human Rights Watch investigators were just in Saada and they were looking into the deaths of nearly 60 people, including women and children, and the investigators say those deaths violate the laws of war. Belkis Wille is one of the authors of that report. She says her team went to Saada specifically because it’s been totally cut off from Western media.
Belkis Wille: The first night of the war, the coalition bombed the telecommunications centers, so there’s no phone network, absolutely no internet up there, so it’s been sort of a free-for-all, the coalition can bomb whatever they want. We really wanted to focus our research there because it’s one of the areas where the least amount of information has gotten out.
Werman: How big a city is Saada?
Wille: Saada is usually home to about 50,000 people, and on May 8th Saudi Arabia actually issued a statement around 11 o’clock in the morning saying, “By 7 PM tonight, we view the entire city as a military target.” Now, that’s a very, very blatant violation of the laws of war. Now, in this war, Saudi Arabia levied a naval blockade on the country. The result of that has been very little fuel coming in, so that means people don’t really have enough fuel to run cars, so you saw people trying to flee actually on foot. Very few families, therefore, could get out by the 7 PM deadline, so a lot of families were stuck and couldn’t abide by that deadline. When I got into Saada, which was about four weeks ago, I’d say by now it’s pretty much a ghost city.
Werman: Now when you say Saada is one of the hardest hit places, I mean we’re talking about a city that’s got some 200 bomb craters, from what I’ve heard. What makes an airstrike unlawful during a war?
Wille: So, one of the key principles of the laws of war is that the side of the war that’s carrying out the strikes has to constantly discriminate between military and civilian objects and it cannot carry out strikes on civilian objects unless they’re being used for a military purpose. They also have to make all efforts possible to avoid civilian casualties. While we did not see Saudi Arabia and the other members of the coalition directly targeting groups of civilians, we did not see them taking care to avoid damaging civilian objects. In fact, we saw the opposite--we saw a pattern of attacks on, for example, every single key marketplace in the city. Those targets happened, most of the time, in the middle of the night. So, it doesn’t look like they were trying to hit, let’s say, a Houthi commander that was standing in the middle of the marketplace. Instead, they were actually trying to remove the marketplace itself. Maybe they would argue, “Well, if we get rid of the marketplace it means that the fighters in town have a harder time buying food.” But any civilian who’s living in that town now can’t buy food either. So, that’s why these strikes are so problematic under the laws of war. It means that they have a disproportionate effect on the civilians that are still living there.
Werman: Now, you mentioned the lack of communications coming out of Saada. Is there anything to suggest that Saudis are targeting Saada specifically because they know they can do it with relative impunity?
Wille: Well, I think Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition carrying out airstrikes are targeting Saada particularly because it is the stronghold of the Houthis, their target in this war. I also think that they do know that because so little information is coming out of there, they can be less careful. The other thing that we at Human Rights Watch have documented is the use of cluster munitions that are inherently indiscriminate in that they cannot differentiate between military and civilian targets, very problematic. One-hundred and sixteen countries around the world have said these should never be used. Unfortunately, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen are not countries that feel that that’s the case.
Werman: You mentioned the U.S. support for the Saudi airstrikes--the Saudi-led coalition has also been accused of using U.S.-supplied cluster munitions in Yemen. Do you see any evidence of that?
Wille: Absolutely. So, we’ve documented the use in five incidents of cluster munitions, three different types of cluster munitions, two of which are U.S.-made, U.S.-sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And interestingly, all five incidents have been in Saada. So again, I think we see that the coalition is willing to do things in Saada that they’re not doing elsewhere in Yemen because of the lack of information getting out, and therefore they see it as an area with less scrutiny and the bar is lower, and therefore there’s more they can get away with.
Werman: Ms. Wille, your organization, Human Rights Watch, is calling on the Saudis and the Houthis to abide by the laws of war. What would you like the United States to do?
Wille: Well, we would like to see the United States as a friend to Saudi Arabia, to put a lot more pressure on Saudi Arabia, first and foremost, to be much more careful in the way that they’re conducting this war. That means abiding by the laws of war that require you, when you carry out a strike, to do all of the things we’ve mentioned: to carry out strikes only on legitimate military object, not civilian objects; to take all possible measures to minimize civilian casualties--that includes, where possible, giving warnings to civilians, giving them enough time to leave the areas. But then the second part of it, which is where you carry out a strike that goes wrong, so we see a large number of casualties, that you carry out transparent investigations and you hold accountable those that were in command and control of that strike so that there is a remedy, so that the family that lost members of their family get compensated and that there’s a fix in the process so that going forward we don’t keep seeing strikes with such a high civilian death toll.
Werman: Belkis Wille with Human Rights Watch, speaking with us from New York. Thank you.
Wille: Thank you so much.