First in, last out: civil society casualty recorders in Yemen

Article by Iona Craig, Yemen Data Project and Rachel Taylor, ECC Advocacy Director

Yemeni children play in the rubble of buildings destroyed in an air raid. ©2019 European Union (photographer: Peter Biro)

In recent years the international community has shown increasing recognition of, and support for, casualty recording. This has been reflected in resolutions of the Human Rights Council, as well as research and policy papers from across the humanitarian and disarmament sectors. As of 2020, the UN has published yearly data on the number of conflict-related deaths per 100,000 population, by sex, age and cause (Sustainable Development Goal indicator 16.1.2). This reporting has created far greater demands on states and international agencies to collect information on conflict deaths – in other words, to conduct effective casualty recording.

These developments are greatly welcomed, and an essential step towards a world in which every death is recognised with equal dignity. However, internationally-mandated casualty recording initiatives are a valuable addition to, and not a replacement for, civil society-led casualty recording organisations (CROs). The dissolution in October 2021 of the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE) shows that international mandates are always subject to political considerations which could amend or cut short their role at any time. In contrast, the independence and autonomy of CROs enables them to continue documenting casualties for as long as is necessary, regardless of external political pressures.

The dissolution of the GEE put an end to the only independent international mechanism to investigate violations of humanitarian law, human rights violations and war crimes in the country. Much of the work of the GEE, embodied in their reports on violations and abuses, relied on information from CROs and local human rights organisations. Their efforts continue unabated, despite the unprecedented vote by UN Human Rights Council members against renewing the mandate of the GEE. Without the umbrella of the GEE the work of these groups is now more important than ever, but the risk is that their work becomes piecemeal against the powerful forces of political decision makers, the conflict’s belligerents, and their supporting nations.

A report by Yemen Policy Center, published in November 2021 following the end of the GEE’s mandate, highlighted the interdependence between Yemen’s local human rights organisations and the emergence of sustainable peace. It noted that collaborative efforts and alliances between local groups are needed to advance the human rights agenda in Yemen, particularly given the reluctance of the international community to take an active role in addressing violations and supporting accountability and redress measures. Local, regional and international actors in Yemen are, as the report noted, “seeking new ways to silence human rights groups and close civic spaces”.

A strong human rights movement and accountability mechanism can only be achieved by collective, collaborative action. Given the absence of regular future GEE investigations and reports in drawing together the multiple local efforts of conflict monitoring and casualty recording, underlining what the GEE previously described as the “pandemic of impunity”, the burden is now upon civil society groups to maintain scrutiny of the conflict’s actors in order to pursue accountability. In November, following the end of the GEE’s mandate, the locally-led CRO Yemen Data Project recorded a 16-month high for civilian casualties. This rate has increased every month since. It would appear that belligerents are already taking advantage of this environment of reduced oversight and increased impunity.

It is imperative that those Human Rights Council member states who voted in favour of continuing the GEE’s mandate redouble their efforts in supporting Yemeni civil society organisations left to fill the gap. More broadly, all states with an interest in the upholding of international humanitarian law, human rights law, and the laws of war, should encourage and facilitate the work of CROs globally.

Yemen Data Project is a member of the international Casualty Recorders Network. Follow them on Twitter @YemenData for up-to-date information on the impact of the conflict.