How the UN Is Abetting Saudi War Crimes Against Children
A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition has been waging a ruthless assault on Yemen for 14 months, bombing urban centers, factories, weddings and a center for the blind, and the United Nations just failed to take a modest step toward holding the alliance to account.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted Thursday that he removed the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen from a "list of shame" of armed forces that violate the rights of children after the Gulf monarchy threatened to withdraw funding from UN programs in retaliation. Yet, immediately following his acknowledgement that he caved to “undue pressure,” Ban declared that he stands by his decision and will not immediately restore Saudi Arabia to the blacklist.
The controversy stems from the UN’s annual report on “Children and armed conflict,” which notes that Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen is killing children in large numbers. Here is one excerpt from the report, which covers January to December of 2015, regarding bloodshed in Yemen:
The United Nations verified a six-fold increase in the number of children killed and maimed compared with 2014, totaling 1,953 child casualties (785 children killed and 1,168 injured). More than 70 percent were boys. Of the casualties, 60 percent (510 deaths and 667 injuries) were attributed to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and 20 percent (142 deaths and 247 injuries) to the Houthis.
The report also notes that the Saudi-led “coalition air strikes destroyed 15 health facilities in the governorate of Sa’dah” and that the alliance was responsible for 57 percent of attacks on schools.
The Saudi-led coalition was previously included in an annex to the report, known as the “list of shame,” that identifies grave violators of children’s rights, including ISIL and the Taliban. But earlier this week, Ban announced he “has accepted a proposal by Saudi Arabia” to remove the Gulf monarchy from that annex, “pending the conclusions” of a joint review.
The move set off outrage among humanitarian organizations, with Sarah Lee Whitson of Human Rights Watch telling NPR, “There's a reason why the secretary-general called this a list of shame. It's meant to shame countries that are abusive and have been the worst abusers of children. The notion that you can get off it if you scream loud enough and are rich enough is scandalous."
In statements to reporters on Thursday, Ban sought to both justify and apologize for his decision. “This was one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make,” he said. “The report describes horrors no child should have to face.”
“At the same time, I also had to consider the very real prospect that millions of other children would suffer grievously if, as was suggested to me, countries would defund many UN programs,” he said. “Children already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and so many other places would fall further into despair.”
It is unclear how Ban intends to address the root causes of these crimes against children if he is not willing to hold perpetrators to account.
Notably, Ban appeared to imply that multiple states had exerted pressure yet failed to name all of those implicated, merely stating, “It is unacceptable for Member States to exert undue pressure” and “I stand by the report.”
The United States and the United Kingdom, two permanent members of the UN Security Council which commissions the report, are directly backing the Saudi-led onslaught, with the Obama administration announcing a fresh deployment of American troops to Yemen last month.
Saudi ambassador Abdullah al-Mouallami adamantly denied that it exerted such pressure in an interview with the New York Times, saying, “It is not our style.”
This claim is dubious. Last year, the Netherlands abandoned a proposal for a United Nations inquiry into human rights violations committed in the Saudi-led war on Yemen following aggressive lobbying from Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is refusing to condemn the removal of the Saudi-led coalition from the blacklist. In an exchange with an unnamed reporter on Thursday, Mark C. Toner, deputy spokesperson for the State Department, said, “Look, I’m not going to second-guess the UN’s decision and the secretary-general’s decision,” he said. “It’s up to him to explain and defend his rationale for doing so.”
The U.S. has employed identical tactics to shield its allies from criticism. Last year, Ban Ki-moon removed Israel from a list of militaries and guerilla groups that violate children’s rights following intense pressure from the United States and Israel. In 2011 the United States withdrew its funding of UNESCO after the Palestinian Authority was granted full membership in the agency.