Yemen: Coalition Warships Attack Fishing Boats
(Beirut) – Saudi-led coalition naval forces have carried out at least five deadly attacks on Yemeni fishing boats since 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. Coalition warships and helicopters have been involved in attacks that killed at least 47 Yemeni fishermen, including seven children, and the detention of more than 100 others, some of whom were tortured in custody in Saudi Arabia.
The coalition attacks on fishermen and fishing boats appear to be deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects in violation of the laws of war. Coalition officials who ordered or carried out the attacks or tortured detainees are most likely responsible for war crimes.
“Coalition naval forces repeatedly attacked Yemeni fishing boats and Yemeni fishermen without any apparent determination that they were valid military targets,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Gunning down fishermen waving white cloths or leaving shipwrecked crew members to drown are war crimes.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed survivors, witnesses, and knowledgeable sources about seven fishing boat attacks: six in 2018 and one in 2016. Civilians died in five of them. Coalition forces carried out the attacks using small arms and heavy weapons. Warships and helicopters were involved in the attacks from short distances away, so the civilian nature of the fishing boats should have been clear. The fishermen waved white cloths, raised their hands, or otherwise showed they posed no threat. In three attacks, coalition forces did not attempt to rescue survivors adrift at sea, and many drowned.
A fisherman described the attack on his boat: “The helicopter was close, about three meters up. They said [over a megaphone] ‘go forward,’ and four or five [fishermen] went forward, and the rest were near the [boat’s] stern. I was in the middle. Then they hit us with the big gun with bullets.” Seven fishermen died.
The coalition also detained, apparently without charge, at least 115 fishermen, including 3 children, in Saudi Arabia for between 40 days and more than two-and-a-half years. Seven former detainees said that Saudi authorities tortured and ill-treated apprehended fishermen and boat crew members and denied them contact with their families, legal counsel, and Yemeni government representatives.
The attacks and detentions severely affected remote fishing communities that lost the primary earners for dozens of families. They have also deterred other fishermen from going to sea. “Before the war, fishing was good,” said the wife of a fisherman. “But we heard that eight men from the neighborhood next to us were killed…so [my husband] stopped going.”
The San Remo Manual on Armed Conflict at Sea, which is widely viewed as reflecting customary laws of war at sea, requires attacking forces to do everything feasible to limit attacks to military targets. Vessels are presumed to be civilian unless they are carrying military equipment or presenting an immediate threat to the attacking vessel. “Small coastal fishing vessels” are specifically exempt from attacks. These vessels must submit to identification and inspection when required, and follow orders, including orders to stop or move out of the way. The laws of war also place a duty on parties to the conflict, whenever circumstances permit but particularly after an engagement, to take all possible measures to search for and collect the wounded and shipwrecked.
The Saudi-led coalition has consistently failed to investigate alleged war crimes and other unlawful attacks, including the attacks on fishing boats, Human Rights Watch said. No coalition personnel are known to have been disciplined or prosecuted for attacking Yemeni fishing boats.
The coalition body that reviews alleged laws of war violations by coalition forces, the Joint Incident Assessments Team (JIAT), has investigated fewer than 10 alleged attacks on civilians at sea, none of which appear to correspond with the attacks Human Rights Watch investigated. The JIAT did not find coalition wrongdoing in any of these cases or recommend payments to victims.
The fishermen and their relatives interviewed said that the JIAT had never contacted them. Saudi authorities gave monetary and equipment “assistance” to families of fishermen killed in only one case that Human Rights Watch investigated, and money to released crew members in another.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the coalition on June 21 about the incidents investigated, but has received no reply.
Houthi forces, who control much of northern Yemen and are the target of the coalition forces, have unlawfully attacked commercial traffic in the Red Sea. In its 2018 final report, the UN Panel of Experts noted Houthi attacks on a crude oil tanker, a bulk cargo carrier, and a World Food Program charter vessel. Houthi forces launched attacks with anti-ship cruise missiles, remote-controlled boats filled with explosives, and skiffs carrying armed men. Houthi forces have also announced their use of sea mines, which pose a grave risk to civilian vessels.
The UN Panel of Experts should investigate the attacks at sea and other attacks on civilians and recommend that the UN Security Council impose sanctions on officers and commanders responsible for violations of the laws of war.
Countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France should immediately cease all sales and transfers of weapons, including warships and helicopters, to Saudi Arabia, and should carefully review sales to coalition members given the possibility they could be used in committing violations, Human Rights Watch said.
“The naval attacks on Yemeni fishing boats make it clear that the Saudi-led coalition is not only killing civilians through countless illegal airstrikes, but also while conducting operations at sea,” Motaparthy said. “How much more proof do countries continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia need to stop all sales, including of warships, or risk becoming complicit in war crimes.”