The Saudi Arabia-led coalition used a British-made cruise missile to destroy a Yemeni ceramics factory, a civilian object, on 23 September, 2015, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today, based on field research and interviews with eyewitnesses at the scene.
The attack on the factory in the Sana’a governorate, which appeared to be producing only civilian goods, killed one person, and was in apparent violation of international humanitarian law (IHL), the laws of war.
This strike, using a British missile supplied in the 1990s, undermines the claim of Ministers that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s use of UK military equipment is consistent with IHL, and that the UK monitors such compliance “very carefully”. The organisations are unaware of any credible coalition investigation into this or other apparently unlawful airstrikes for possible IHL violations.
“The UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond claims he favours ‘proper investigations’ into possible breaches of the laws of war in Yemen. This strike provides a perfect test case – the UK should urgently press the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to open a credible investigation into this strike, as well as others that appear to have violated the laws of war,” said Lama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International.
“The latest revelations show UK policy to be both misleading and seriously ineffective. Despite multiple, well-documented cases of violations of the laws of war by the Gulf coalition in Yemen, UK Ministers have consistently refused to acknowledge this. The UK should suspend further sales of aerial munitions to coalition members pending a thorough investigation into this case, and other apparently unlawful air strikes,” said David Mepham, UK Director at Human Rights Watch.
Analysis of weapon remnants
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have examined the weapon remnants at the 23 September strike site and identified the munition used as a PGM-500 ‘Hakim’ air-launched cruise missile, supplied in the mid-1990s and manufactured by the UK firm Marconi Dynamics. The analysis compared fragments photographed at the strike site with unexploded remnants of the same missile type from a separate strike and found both were consistent with the deployment of an air-launched PGM-500 ‘Hakim’. The other recorded strike using this type of cruise missile hit an open field on 4 or 5 November in Sahar in Sa’da governorate in northern Yemen and did not result in any known casualties.
Marconi markings are clearly visible on a component part recovered from the Sana’a strike site. Stocks of this missile are in service with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Air Force, which has the capability to fire them from both Mirage 2000s and F-16F aircraft.
Witness accounts of 23 September strike
Amnesty International staff visited the Sana’a strike site on 6 November and they, as well as Human Rights Watch, later interviewed one of the factory owners and other witnesses to the strike.
The airstrike took place between 11 and 11:30 a.m. on 23 September in the village of Matna in Beni Matar district, west of Sana’a. Witnesses and one of the factory owners said that four missiles hit the Radfan Ceramics Factory in quick succession.
Ibrahim Ghaleb Mohammad al-Sawary, the son of one of the factory directors, who was in the vicinity during the attack, told Human Rights Watch: “I was getting ready to pray, leaning back on the wall of the factory when suddenly I heard whizzing followed by a very loud explosion. I started running away but less than two minutes later we heard the second explosion. I saw people running away from their homes – kids, older people and young people – all of them scared like us and running away without knowing where.”
He later returned to the factory, which had smoke rising from it and was in ruins, particularly the section with heavy machines used to heat and press the ceramics, which was entirely destroyed.
One man in the vicinity, Yahya Abd al-Karim al-Sawary, 28, was killed by shrapnel as he was fleeing the area. A local resident who asked to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that the victim had been working as a guard at a makeshift detention facility run by Ansarullah, the political wing of the Huthis, a Zaidi Shi’a armed group in northern Yemen. The site had originally been a government building known as the Productive Families Centre, approximately 140 metres from the factory compound. The airstrikes did not hit the detention facility.
Ali Ahmad al-Faqih, 55, who was injured in the attack, said that he had been on a motorbike trying to check on his family who live next to the factory during a brief lull between airstrikes – not realizing the attack had not finished: “I heard a whizz and knew it was a rocket coming,” he said. “I lay down and prayed out loud. I saw all my body covered in blood.” Al-Faqih was later taken to a private hospital, where he underwent surgery to remove shrapnel from his chest.
Another local resident told Human Rights Watch that a second civilian, Elham Hussein Hussein Taher, a 14-year-old girl who lived near the factory, was also injured in the attack.
Ghalib Muhammad al-Sawary, one of the factory owners, told Amnesty International that the factory had never been used for any military purpose. Other witnesses told Human Rights Watch that no fighters or military vehicles were in or near the factory at the time of the attack.
During its on-site investigation Amnesty International did not observe any evidence that would indicate that the factory had been used for a military purpose. The organization observed that the area directly surrounding the factory compound appeared to be residential and that it was next to the 26 September Hospital.
The strikes on the factory caused minor damage to the hospital. Amnesty International visited the hospital on 6 November and observed the damage and spoke with staff who had been there during the strike.
The owners of the ceramics factory, which opened in 1994, said that it was the only such facility in the country, and employed around 330 workers, primarily from the village of Matna. However, its owners said they were forced to stop operations in April this year due to security fears for its staff and difficulties obtaining fuel to operate machinery.
IHL prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians not taking a direct part in hostilities and on civilian objects, and attacks that do not distinguish between civilians or civilian objects and combatants or military objectives, or that cause disproportionate harm to civilians or civilian objects in relation to the direct military advantage that may be anticipated. Such attacks are serious violations of IHL and if committed with criminal intent can constitute war crimes.
All countries have legal responsibilities under international law to control the transfer of weapons and to restrict or prohibit their transfer in certain circumstances. The UK is a party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which came into force in late 2014, and played a leading role in its establishment. Under article 6 of the treaty, a country is prohibited from authorizing an arms transfer if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms would be used in the commission of “attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party.” Further, article 7 of the ATT requires that states assess the potential that the arms being exported could be used to commit a serious violation of international human rights or humanitarian law; if there is an overriding risk of this, their export shall not be authorised.
As it is now evident that there is such a risk, the UK and all other countries that supply arms to the members of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition should suspend all transfers of weapons that pose a substantial risk of being used in unlawful airstrikes in Yemen, particularly air-to-ground munitions, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.
An independent international inquiry should be established to investigate alleged violations by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, establish the facts, and identify those responsible for violations with a view to ensuring that they are held accountable.