Detainees endure torture and abuse in Yemen amid a lengthy and volatile civil war, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Within a veiled system of eighteen prisons in southern Yemen, the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”) and Yemeni officials are committing arbitrary detentions, torture, and forced disappearances. Various reports from Amnesty International, the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, and others reveal UAE and Yemeni forces using torture tactics such as electric shocks, beatings, waterboarding, and sexual violence that likely amount to war crimes. These reports also suggest the U.S. military is complicit in these violations of international law.
Local government forces operate these prisons under the authority of the UAE, a United States ally. Many detainees in these secret facilities were arrested under claims of terrorist-related activities, but are often critics of the Saudi-led coalition, community leaders, or journalists. Some people have been detained for up to two years. Many families fear their loved ones have died in custody. Others have been approached by individuals who claim their missing family members have died but, when questioned, UAE-backed Yemeni officers deny the deaths. According to Amnesty International, nineteen of the fifty-one men arrested earlier this year have not been confirmed alive or dead. The UAE has publicly denied torturing detainees as well as any connection to prisons in Yemen.
The existence of UAE-run detention centers has come to light in the past couple years, further increasing scrutiny of U.S. involvement in Yemen. Amnesty International has advised that the United States investigate potential American involvement in these detentions, including U.S. military personnel’s knowledge of the torture and the possible use of intelligence gathered through these cruel and inhumane methods. In response to the Trump administration’s unavailing support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination, the U.S. Senate introduced a resolution on November 28, 2018 that could force the removal of U.S. troops from Yemen. The resolution, approved by a vote of sixty-three to thirty-seven, is already facing pushback from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and could meet future obstacles since it relies on the controversial War Powers Resolution of 1973. Nonetheless, humanitarian groups see this recent resolution as a strong statement in line with public opinion that U.S. military must leave Yemen.
Torture, forced disappearances, and arbitrary detainment are violations of international criminal and human rights law. Articles 2 and 4 of the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) call for states to respect human dignity by refraining from committing or being complicit in acts of torture and inhumane treatment; Articles 10 and 11 specifically demand that states educate military and law enforcement personnel on the prohibition of torture in detention and interrogations. The UAE, the U.S., and Yemen have all ratified the CAT. Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute) recognizes torture, sexual violence, and forced disappearances as crimes against humanity; under Article 8, torture is also recognized as a potential war crime in the context of an international armed conflict. The U.S., UAE, and Yemen have each signed but not ratified the Rome Statute; however, unlike the U.S., Yemen and the UAE are still bound to abstain from acts that “defeat the object and purpose of” the Statute because they have not announced their clear intent not to become a party pursuant to Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. All three states have ratified the Fourth Geneva Convention, in which Article 32 strictly prohibits the use of torture or corporal punishment by a state or its agents in times of war. Finally, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) affirms the need to protect people from forced disappearances, including by arrest or detention, and ensures all victims the right to seek and to know true information about the fate of disappeared persons. Unfortunately, none of the states implicated in Yemen have signed the ICPPED. At this time, any responses to the unjust treatment of prisoners must focus on claims of torture, sexual violence, or other inhumane treatment as prohibited by the CAT, Rome Statute, and Fourth Geneva Convention.
The UAE and Yemeni officials under its authority are violating international criminal law and human rights standards by torturing detainees in Yemen, and the U.S. is likely complicit in these prohibited acts. Failing to follow the rule of law in armed conflict threatens the rights of people in custody and furthers instability in Yemen. The UAE should stop torturing prisoners and release all arbitrarily detained persons or make their status known to their families. And the U.S. should cease its military participation in interrogations of detainees in Yemen and reconsider its partnerships with the UAE and Saudi Arabia; thus, the next vote on the resolution to remove U.S. armed forces from Yemen should continue without delay.