The United Nations’ top human rights official on Tuesday joined the growing chorus of senior U.N. officials calling on Saudi Arabia to take greater care not to target civilians or civilian buildings in its bombing campaign against rebels in Yemen.
Prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, warned that some of the actions may amount to war crimes – a caution other officials have made in recent days. But Prince Zeid’s comments may carry special weight because he is a member of Jordan’s royal family. Jordan is a member of the Saudi-led coalition carrying out the bombing campaign with U.S. support.
“Every hour we are receiving and documenting deeply disturbing and distressing reports of the toll that this conflict is taking on civilian lives and infrastructure,” Prince Zeid said.
In the last week, the U.N.’s humanitarian aid coordinator for Yemen and its expert on internally displaced persons also have warned of high civilian casualties since the Saudi-led bombing campaign began March 26. On Friday, Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, wrote U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, cautioning that the U.S. role in refueling coalition bombers could make it a party to any violations of international law. The organization urged Carter to press the Saudis to do more to protect civilians.
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While U.N. officials also have blamed Houthi rebels for civilian casualties, they note that the Saudi-led coalition has frequently bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals. At least 364 civilians are reported to have died since March 26, including at least 84 children and 25 women, Prince Zeid said. Another 681 civilians – possibly more – have been injured.
“Such a heavy civilian death toll ought to be a clear indication to all parties to this conflict that there may be serious problems in the conduct of hostilities,” Prince Zeid said. “The parties to the conflict are obliged to ensure that international humanitarian law and international human rights law are scrupulously respected and that the civilian population is protected.”
“Any suspected breach of international law must be urgently investigated with a view to ensuring victims’ right to justice and redress and to ensure that such incidents do not recur,” he said.
Privately, senior humanitarian official say they are concerned that the burgeoning crisis could unravel to become an even worse humanitarian catastrophe than the ongoing conflict in Syria.
U.S. officials have not commented on the rising concerns over civilian casualties. On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two leaders of the Yemeni rebellion, Abdul Malik al Houthi, who leads the Houthi rebels, and Ahmed Ali Saleh, the son of Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and a key supporter of the Houthi movement.
“Using violence and other means, al Houthi and Saleh continue to undermine the political process in Yemen and obstruct the peaceful transition of power in Yemen despite repeated calls from the international community that they desist from their destabilizing actions,” Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said in a statement.
Saleh’s father agreed to step down in a deal brokered by the United States and Saudi Arabia after months of turmoil linked to the Arab Spring. His replacement, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was considered a close U.S. ally but fled the capital, Sanaa, in February after Houthi rebels took control. He sheltered briefly in Yemen’s second largest city, Aden, before fleeing the country last month.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council, with Russia abstaining, imposed an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels.
Drawing on reports from a large team of U.N. human rights monitors working in Yemen, Prince Zeid said coalition airstrikes had targeted residential areas and civilian homes in five cities in Yemen. He focused particularly on one strike that took place on Saturday.
“On Saturday, an airstrike, reportedly targeting a nearby military base in Taiz, hit a residential area about 500 meters away, killing 10 civilians and injuring seven,” he said. “All such attacks need to be thoroughly and transparently investigated by the coalition forces.”
He said that over the past three weeks at least 52 public buildings have been either damaged or destroyed by airstrikes, shelling or other ground fire. His office was unable to provide a precise breakdown of responsibility, however.
Zeid also put all the combatants in the conflict on notice about possible violations.
Meanwhile, a slow trickle continued of Americans escaping Yemen. Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, told McClatchy that a charter flight that flew from Sanaa to Khartoum, Sudan, carried 10 Americans among its 152 passengers. On Sunday, 10 Americans were aboard a chartered flight that left Sanaa and arrived in Sudan.
More than 3,000 Americans are thought to be trapped in Yemen by the fighting, but the Obama administration has said conditions there are too dangerous to risk a military operation. Those Americans who have left have either escaped in aircraft and boats chartered by other countries or on U.N.-organized flights. The International Organization for Migration says it has identified 16,000 people who need international travel assistance, including about 5,000 ready to travel now.
Millman said the next evacuation flight was slated to take place Thursday.
Kevin G. Hall contributed to this report from Washington.