Today marks six years since the escalation of the conflict in Yemen turned into an all-out war which has brought devastation, death and destruction to Yemen, turning it into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. In this context, promoting International Humanitarian Law (IHL) among all the parties to the conflict is an absolute necessity.
Over the past few years, the situation has become more complex with the fragmentation of armed actors representing an unprecedented challenge for humanitarian engagement. This is due to the fact that armed actors have been merging, splitting and fighting each other on a regular basis. As Vance Culbert, Head of Middle East and North Africa Region points out, “the relationships between armed actors in Yemen has rapidly changed over the past years. This underlines the importance of our engagement with a broad range of actors in the country.” While engaging armed actors alone is not sufficient to ensure that IHL is respected, Mr Culbert goes on: “in addition to getting armed groups to directly commit to respecting international humanitarian norms, Civil Society plays a strong role in influencing the behavior of armed groups. Geneva Call’s support for the IHL network allows Yemenis to advocate for their own rights.”
This strategy has borne fruits; through training and awareness raising sessions, Geneva Call trained hundreds of armed actors’ high-ranking officials and soldiers on adhering to the law of armed conflict. Key influential Civil Society Organizations, officials, academics, NGOs and the media were also equipped with the skills necessary to further promote IHL. In parallel, Geneva Call’s Fighter not Killer campaign exceeded expectations by reaching nearly 2 million people on social media in the first year of its launch (2017). By August 2018, it had reached 3.3 million people, including the general public and members of armed actors. In addition, the Fighter Not Killer mobile app was launched in Yemen in August 2018, reaching almost 1 million individuals, fighters from all sides as well as civilians, encouraging them to promote IHL norms and advocate for improved protection.
In 2019, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) took a significant step to bring their policies and behaviour in line with international standards by signing three of Geneva Call’s Deeds of Commitments. The STC pledged to prohibit the recruitment and use of children below 18 years old and to facilitate the provision of education to children. Since then, Geneva Call has been working closely with the STC leadership to make sure that this public commitment to strengthen the respect of the rights of civilian populations is implemented on the ground. In recent months, and following close engagement and discussion on IHL, STC took steps to have in place a screening mechanism on the age of recruitment within the internal system they had initiated.
“The journey towards IHL adherence by parties to the conflict is long and arduous” says Dina el Mamoun, Country Director in Yemen. “While the steps taken by the different actors on fulfilling their obligations under IHL are important, many others are needed if we are to see noticeable improvement in the protection of civilians in Yemen. To this end, Geneva Call is committed to continue this engagement with armed actors in Yemen and play a leading role in this regard.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Geneva Call has been focusing on the importance of protecting medical missions and medical personnel. Thanks to Geneva Call’s intervention, Taiz Axis Force, a group of military brigades in charge of the Taiz governorate, have publicly declared their commitment towards the protection of civilians during the pandemic by signing a Unilateral Declaration on the Protection of Healthcare and cooperating to limit the spread of COVID-19. In past weeks, the commander of Taiz Axis Force issued a directive to the forces under his command to ensure the respect of IHL during the recent escalation in the fighting in Taiz.
In parallel, during the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, Geneva Call engaged the STC leadership to advocate for the protection of displaced persons, and in response, the STC gave assurances that no group under their umbrella would target displaced persons in transit under the pretext of COVID-19 measures.
In 2021, Geneva Call will continue its best efforts to play its part. However, it is essential that IHL is placed at the forefront by parties to the conflict and the international community’s considerations. The humanitarian situation in Yemen cannot improve while IHL obligations are disregarded.