The Saudi Arabia–led bombing campaign in Yemen is off to a dreadful start, at least when it comes to the civilian toll. During the first week of military operations against Houthi fighters, the Arab coalition’s warplanes struck heavily populated areas in the capital, Sanaa, and other civilian centers. Dozens of civilians, including children, died in the strikes. According to the World Health Organization, since the beginning of the conflict, 643 people were killed and 2 226 injured in the overall fighting. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch, where we work, has found no evidence of military targets that could justify the heavy toll in the March 30 strike on a well-known displaced persons camp in Mazraq (Northern Yemen), where 29 civilians were killed and 41 wounded, including 14 children and 11 women.
When the United States announced that it would provide logistic and intelligence support to Operation Decisive Storm, it became associated with the war. Depending on interpretations of international law, it may have legal obligations to minimize civilian harm under the laws of war. But even if it doesn’t, its close proximity with the campaign should be incentive enough to push the coalition to rethink its tactics.
The stakes are high, since the humanitarian situation is sure to get worse. The International Committee of the Red Cross has, from day one, cited obstacles, including a lack of security guaranties, which have prevented urgent medical assistance from reaching civilians. In the last few days, some aid shipments have made it in to the country, but not nearly enough to address this increasingly complex humanitarian crisis. Going forward, all parties to the conflict will have to get serious about their obligation to facilitate humanitarian access.
Ominously, some of the Arab coalition members have poor records of abiding by the laws of war. There is credible evidence that Saudi Arabia used cluster munitions in Yemen during 2009 air strikes against Houthi forces,
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