Yemen and the Stockholm Agreement: Background, Context, and the Significance of the Agreement
On December 13, 2018, parties to the conflict in Yemen came together in Stockholm, Sweden, and agreed to a series of undertakings that raised hopes for a peaceful settlement of the conflict that began in 2015 and has resulted in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and allegations that war crimes, crimes against humanity, and human rights abuses were committed by all sides.
The Stockholm Agreement sparked discussion of whether the parties had finally reached a lasting peace for Yemen. Implementation of the Agreement, however, has been checkered with moments of positive steps towards compliance followed by retrogression into violent confrontations. For example, recently in May, UN reports raised hopes that Houthi forces were effectuating troop redeployment as agreed, only to be followed by fresh clashes in Hodeidah days later that threatened to break the tenuous ceasefire agreed to in Sweden. This followed a March statement from ambassadors to Yemen from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council expressing "extreme concern" and calls for "implementation of the proposal in good faith without further delay," as reports describedparties stockpiling munitions and preparing for strikes out of fear that the Agreement would be manipulated for strategic advantage.
In the face of the fragile state of the Agreement's implementation, the background, context, and terms of the Agreement are explored below in order to recognize its the significance; particularly for victims seeking not only peace and security, but recognition and accountability for the violations and crimes they have suffered.
Background to the Conflict
The conflict in Yemen is rooted in a popular uprising in 2011—influenced by the Arab Spring—against Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in power for more than thirty years. The uprising eventually led to a political deal, brokered by the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council (a union of Arab states in the Gulf), whereby President Saleh handed power to his vice president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in 2012 in exchange for immunity. A National Dialogue Conference was held the following year as part of the agreed transitional dialogue process, which included the drafting of a constitution.
The process began to break down in 2014 as a result of tensions between the parties over power sharing and the draft constitution. In September 2014, negotiations ended between the Houthis (and other armed groups that supported former President Saleh) and the government of President Hadi, when forces aligned with former-President Saleh seized control of areas of Yemen, including the capital city of Sana'a. Escalation in conflict resulted in the formation of the Saudi-led coalition in March 2015 in support of President Hadi, which included Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Senegal, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar (which left the coalition in June 2017). The coalition received support in the form of arms sales and intelligence sharing from countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.Since joining the conflict, the Saudi-led coalition has conducted significant air campaigns that have further escalated the scale of the conflict, resulted in significant civilian deaths, and contributed to the growing humanitarian crisis.
In January 2015, President Hadi was forced to resign and was placed under house arrest by Houthi forces; a position he then retracted after escaping to Aden, and then to Saudi Arabia where he was again placed under House arrest in 2017. In late 2017, the alliance between former President Saleh and Houthi forces broke down on account of his openness to dialogue with the Saudi-led Coalition, and on December 4 he was killed in a Houthi attack.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has repeatedly been reported as one of the worst in the world, with estimates that 80 percent of the population (approximately 24 million people) require humanitarian assistance. Described as one of the largest famines in decades, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that at the end of 2018, more than 20 million people were "food insecure," and nearly 10 million people suffering from extreme hunger. An economic crisis, marked by the depreciation of the Yemeni rial, has raised the prices of food, medicine, and fuel. With 90 percent of these commodities imported into Yemen, the dire economic situation has only worked to spur the famine and humanitarian crisis further. Likewise, battles over port cities, such as Hodeidah, and bombardments affecting Yemen's infrastructure, have blocked the movement and accessibility of humanitarian aid into and throughout the country, worsening the humanitarian crisis.
UN officials have described the "humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen [as] a man-made disaster, where conflict has exacerbated and exponentially increased the suffering." As reported by human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, the humanitarian crisis is only "exacerbated by continuing grave and widespread violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law."
The Conflict Under International Law
When analyzing the alleged humanitarian and human rights violations, as well as international crimes committed by parties on all sides, the classification of the conflict under international law is of note. It is widely accepted that the conflict in Yemen is classified under international humanitarian law as a non-international armed conflict.
This classification results from an assessment that looks at the level of armed violence involved in the conflict based on the duration of the conflict, number of forces, and particularly the types of weapons and equipment used in Yemen. Most importantly, the conflict in Yemen is deemed a non-international armed conflict because the many overlapping conflicts between various parties either involve two non-state armed groups or involve a government force and one non-state armed group; all with sufficient organizational control to sustain military operations under international humanitarian law. Although the conflict involves a coalition of multiple foreign states, it cannot be described as a conflict between states, because the foreign states are only indirectly involved in providing support to domestic actors.
The law applicable to the conflict includes the 1949 Geneva Conventions of which Yemen is a party, and the minimum standards of Common Article 3, which includes protections of "[p]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities" from violence to life, mutilation, cruel treatment, torture, hostage taking, outrages upon personal dignity, and unfair trials. In 1990, Yemen further ratified Additional Protocol II of 1977 concerning non-international armed conflicts.
Yemen is also party to a number of human rights instruments that the state, and arguably non-state actors, are bound by, including the Convention against Torture, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The applicability of human rights law is particularly relevant when considering the terms of the Agreement and attention to human rights considerations.
The Stockholm Agreement in Three Parts
The undertakings set out in the Stockholm Agreement came in three parts—the Hodeidah Agreement, the Taïz Understanding, and a prisoner swap agreement. Taken together, these undertakings committed parties to (1) a ceasefire in the city of Hodeidah and the ports of Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Issa, as well as redeployment of forces on both sidess; (2) an opening of humanitarian corridors for the movement of aid via these ports;  and (3) a prisoner swap aiming to release more than 15,000 prisoners and detainees. Parties also agreed to discussions towards creating a humanitarian corridor that would allow humanitarian aid into the Taïz Governorate.
An examination of each part of the agreement suggests that international attention to findings of serious international crimes and human rights abuses in Yemen played a part in influencing the actions of the parties to agree to the terms and the terms they ultimately agreed to in Sweden.
Ceasefire and Redeployment of Forces
The first term was an "agreement on the city of Hodeidah and the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa," which, first and foremost, agreed to an "immediate cease-fire," and then a "mutual redeployment of forces" in these areas.
This followed reports of successive airstrikes in Hodeidah province by coalition forces and of Houthi fighters using protected positions, such as hospitals, to stage fighting, prompting a statement of concern from the UN Security Council on compliance with international humanitarian law. It also came after the Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Group of Eminent Experts "raise[d] serious concerns about international humanitarian law violations and possibly war crimes" committed as a result of "attacks in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution." Documentation from the Redeployment Coordination Committee, tasked with implementation of the Stockholm Agreement terms, highlighted that it was the "stark humanitarian conditions" that "compelled the reaching of an agreement on [Hodeidah]," and that the ceasefire and redeployment efforts are critical to the goal of easing the humanitarian crisis.
Facilitating the Movement of Humanitarian Aid
Following this, the second term of the agreement as set out in both the Hodeidah Agreement and the Taïz Understanding aimed at the "opening of humanitarian corridors to allow" to "facilitate the freedom of movement of civilians and goods . . . and the delivery of humanitarian aid."
In agreeing to this term, it is important to recognize that in the months before the parties met in Sweden, the UN and international organizations highlighted "disproportionate restrictions on the safe and expeditious entry into Yemen of humanitarian supplies and other goods indispensable to the civilian population." It was further asserted that these restrictions constituted international crimes in a report to the UN General Assembly that found that "blocking humanitarian assistance, failing to uphold the relevant laws of war or failing to provide international relief systems with the necessary resources in the context of famine conditions" could constitute a "war crime or a crime against humanity and that in the most serious cases these should be referred to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution." The report specifically noted besieged cities, blocked supplies and airstrikes by both Houthi and Coalition forces as contributing to Yemen's humanitarian crisis. Following these findings and conclusions, the parties agreed to take steps to allow the movement of aid to address the humanitarian crisis.
The final term of the Stockholm Agreement concerns a prisoner swap. Here, the parties specifically acknowledge that the issue of prisoners, detainees, and missing and disappeared persons was a "humanitarian issue" concerned primarily with "reunit[ing] the bereaved families" in accordance with "international humanitarian law, human rights and relevant laws of the Republic of Yemen and relevant United Nations resolutions."
It makes clear that the agreement came as a result of reports of widespread human rights abuses in prisons rising to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and leading to a finding in the Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Group of Eminent Experts that "the Governments of Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia" and also the "de facto authorities are responsible for international human rights violations," which "amount to the following war crimes: rape, degrading and cruel treatment, torture and outrages upon personal dignity."
Conclusion: The Significance of the Agreement
The intention of the parties to take into account human rights considerations when agreeing to the Stockholm Agreement is critical. With serious and widespread international crimes and human rights violations alleged on all sides, it is significant that in supporting the Stockholm Agreement the parties explicitly "[r]ecogniz[ed] the importance of urgently addressing" the "humanitarian situation" concerning prisoners in Yemen and basing their agreement on "the legal processes and provisions, particularly, the conventions, principles and norms of international humanitarian law [and] human rights." The parties went so far as to involve the International Committee of the Red Cross in order "to ensure respect for fundamental humanitarian principles and procedures," and acknowledge that humanitarian considerations motivated the ceasefire and redeployment of troops in Hodeidah.
This recognition speaks directly to the question of what human rights obligations attach to each party to the Agreement and who can be held responsible for their violation. As noted above, Yemen is a signatory to a number of human rights treaties for which the government of Yemen agreed that all Yemeni citizens would be guaranteed such rights as those to life, liberty, security, health andadequate food, clothing and housing, and against arbitrary detention as well as torture or inhumane treatment.These human rights instruments, however, only directly impart an obligation on the Yemeni government, which signed and accepted the provisions. Questions remain about the nature of the obligations of non-state actors to the conflict, de facto authorities, and foreign powers, such as the states within the Saudi-led coalition—all of which have been implicated in serious human rights violations against the people of Yemen.
Here, the Stockholm Agreement assists in regard to the government of Yemen and Houthi fighters, who agreed to the terms. Evidence that the parties to the Agreement were motivated and influenced by human rights considerations, coupled with explicit acknowledgment that terms to the agreement were humanitarian in nature and made in accordance with international human rights law, indicate acknowledgment ofhuman rights and humanitarian responsibilities in regard to indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, access to humanitarian aid, and abuse and torture during arbitrary and unlawful detention. Most significantly, it also creates a basis for victims to hold these parties responsible for breaching these obligations.
About the Author: Haydee Dijkstal is an international criminal and human rights lawyer.