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Atrocity Alert No. 189: Yemen, Central African Republic and Iraq

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Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

Renewed airstrikes threaten civilians in Yemen

Despite months of relative calm in Yemen, airstrikes and intense fighting around Sana’a have dramatically escalated over the past two weeks, causing the displacement of thousands of civilians. Since 21 January the international coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has increased its aerial bombardments in the districts of Nehm and al-Jawf as well as in Marib governorate, while fighting between Houthi forces and troops loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi has also intensified. Fighting also increased in Taiz Governorate, where mortars struck a busy market on 27 January, killing and wounding several civilians.

In response to this escalation the UN Security Council (UNSC) convened an emergency session on 28 January. During the closed-door briefing the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, “reiterated the importance of stopping the ongoing military escalation before it’s too late” and “warned that recent developments jeopardize the progress the parties had made on de-escalation and confidence-building.” Following the briefing, the UNSC issued a Press Statement calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for all parties to uphold their obligations under International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

Negotiations in Oman between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have been ongoing for several months and had raised hopes regarding a potential end to the five-year conflict. Just two weeks ago Special Envoy Griffiths applauded “one of the quietest weeks of the war in Yemen,” with very limited military movement on the ground and only one airstrike. The recent escalation threatens the Oman talks and leaves Yemeni civilians at risk of further destruction to their cities and towns in a conflict that has already displaced over 3.6 million people.

The escalation in violence should refocus the attention of the UNSC and the entire international community on the importance of the protection of civilians and halting ongoing violations of international law in Yemen. All parties to the conflict must meaningfully uphold their obligations under IHL, especially regarding the distinction between military and civilian targets. All parties should fully implement the terms of the Stockholm Agreement and extend the Hodeidah ceasefire to other areas, particularly Al-Dhale, Hajjah, Sa’ada and Taiz governorates. Accountability and justice must be prioritized as the warring parties continue to negotiate a potential resolution of the conflict.

Violence overshadows anniversary of peace agreement in CAR

On 25 and 26 January factions of the armed group Front populaire pour la renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC), clashed in the eastern resource-rich town of Bria in the Central African Republic (CAR). During the clashes at least 40 people were killed and more than 11,000 civilians, mainly women and children, fled the area.

The latest clashes occurred just weeks before the 6 February anniversary of the signing of a peace agreement between the government and 14 armed groups. The 2019 agreement was lauded as a historic attempt to end more than five years of armed conflict in CAR. Yet, twelve months after its signing, violence amongst armed groups leaves civilians at ongoing risk of displacement and death.

In a report from 14 December, the UN-mandated Panel of Experts on CAR warned that armed groups that are signatories to the peace agreement continue to commit serious violations of International Humanitarian Law, including deadly attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers, as well as sexual and gender-based violence. Rival armed groups also continue to fight for control of territory and resources in different parts of the country. According to the UN experts, “many armed group fighters and leaders have been satisfied with the status quo.”

Conflict in CAR erupted in 2013 when President François Bozizé was overthrown by the mainly Muslim Séléka rebel alliance. Abuses by the Séléka led to the formation of predominately Christian anti-balaka militias and the collapse of state institutions. Since then, predatory armed groups have splintered and remain in de-facto control over large parts of the country. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, both Séléka and anti-Balaka forces have committed possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

One year since the peace agreement was first signed, little has changed for the people of CAR. In order to avoid any further deterioration of the security situation and recurring atrocities, the international community should expand targeted sanctions against individuals and armed groups responsible for inciting or directing violence. In keeping with the current international arms embargo, neighboring states should also increase efforts to combat trafficking of arms and ammunition to groups that prey on vulnerable civilians.

UN report highlights flaws in Iraqi trials of ISIL members

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a joint report on 28 January raising concerns regarding trials in Iraqi courts of alleged members of the armed extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While emphasizing that Iraq “has been on the forefront of the fight against ISIL,” the UNAMI-OHCHR report highlights that basic trial standards have not been met, including relying on confessions extracted through torture or ill-treatment.

Between June 2014 and December 2017, ISIL conducted a systematic campaign of mass atrocities across northern Iraq, including mass killings, sexual slavery, torture and forcible transfer, that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. These attacks included atrocities that systematically targeted Iraq’s vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities, such as Yazidis, Turkmen, and Christians.

According to the joint UN report, from January 2018 to October 2019 the Iraqi courts processed over 20,000 terrorism-related cases involving alleged ISIL members. Utilizing existing anti-terrorism legislation, the courts imposed the death penalty for a wide range of acts that did not meet the “most serious crimes” threshold under International Human Rights Law (IHRL). However, no ISIL member has ever been charged with genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The government of Iraq should immediately adopt legislation to incorporate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity into domestic law and should accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The government should also amend its anti-terrorism laws, and ensure compliance with international fair trial standards. The international community should assist Iraq in this regard and in providing psychosocial support to all victims of atrocities. States with nationals currently at risk of execution should uphold their obligations under the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and repatriate detainees for domestic prosecution.