by Thalif Deen
Saudi Arabia, which is leading a military coalition accused of indiscriminate bombings in war-ravaged Yemen, has escaped a UN “list of shame” for its dubious role as a serial violator of children’s rights in its ongoing military conflict in the neighboring Arab country.
Ban Ki-moon, who will be stepping down as UN secretary general when his 10-year term expires in December, has come under heavy fire for caving into pressure from Saudi Arabia. If they were not removed from the annex to the UN’s annual report on children and armed conflict, the Saudis had threatened to cut off millions of dollars in humanitarian funding.
“The credibility of the United Nations has been undermined,” complained an Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And Ban Ki-moon should be inducted into a UN Hall of Shame,” he said in an angry rejoinder.
Ban himself admitted that “this was a very difficult and painful decision I had to make because—there are so many, so many much more serious issues.” He told reporters that he “cannot burn down the whole house” in order to defy a single recalcitrant member state that was using its declining oil-fueled economic clout to prevail over his decision.
“I’m Chief Administrative Officer of this Organization,” Ban added. “I have to take care and consider so many crises happening at the same time.” He said the decision to backtrack on the list was “quite painful for me” but that he “had to make a decision just to keep all United Nations operations, particularly humanitarian operations, continuing.”
According to a UN report released last week, the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for nearly 60 percent of child deaths and injuries in the Yemen conflict last year, killing 510 and wounding 667. The situation has been worse this year as the coalition has continued its sustained military attacks on Houthi rebels, including the use of banned cluster bombs.
The coalition includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan, whose weapons come mostly from the big powers at the UN, including the US, UK, and France.
Asked for a response, James E. Jennings, president of Conscience International, said nobody disputes that the war in Yemen has slaughtered many innocent children, with a large percentage of deaths being blamed on the Saudi aerial bombing campaign. Since the protection of human life, especially the lives of the vulnerable and defenseless, is a primary duty of governments under the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions, international organizations like the UN have a special responsibility to judge fairly and report honestly.
“When special interests taint the system with privilege and mask what is blatantly obvious, then another chink falls from the wall of international solidarity protecting all the world’s citizens,” Jennings said, adding that, as in Syria, both sides of the war in Yemen are guilty.
“Shame, however, is far deeper than guilt. Even though avoidance of shame is a hallmark of Middle Eastern social psychology, there should be no place to hide from the obvious truth that those who do such things must be on the list of violators of children’s rights,” said Jennings.
Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, said whether a member state is placed on a list of countries that have committed a particular kind of war crime should be based on the evidence, not on how much money they contribute to the United Nations. If Saudi Arabia went through with their threat and did withhold their contributions, then other nations should step up and increase their contributions accordingly, preferably those like the United States and Great Britain, which provide the Saudis with the armaments used to commit these atrocities, he noted.
“They should not allow the secretary general to have to make the difficult choice between accepting substantial losses to humanitarian programs and covering up for the murder of children,” he said.
History of Double Standards
This is not the first time that major contributors have made such threats, said Zunes, who has written extensively on the politics of the UN Security Council. In 2013, Saudi Arabia opted to keep out of the Security Council—even though the Asian Group at the UN endorsed it for a two-year term—primarily because membership in the Council could have triggered more condemnations of the Saudis.
Zunes said that the United Nations has altered human rights reports and buried others, particularly those involving Israel, when the United States has threatened to withhold funding. Indeed, the United States and Israel suspended their contributions to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for including Palestine as a member. Their threats to do so in regard to the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other important UN agencies were successful in preventing Palestine from joining additional UN bodies, he declared.
Meanwhile the UN secretary general has also come under withering criticism from human rights groups that blasted him for relenting to Saudi pressure.
“It is unprecedented for the UN to bow to pressure to alter its own published report on children in armed conflict. It is unconscionable that this pressure was brought to bear by one of the very states listed in the report,” said Richard Bennett, head of Amnesty International’s UN Office. “This is a stark example of why the UN needs to stand up for human rights and its own principles—otherwise it will rapidly become part of the problem rather than the solution.”
The UN has never before removed a state it had already listed. But it was criticized for backing off from including Israel in last year’s report, following many credible allegations of hundreds of children killed and thousands injured in the 2014 armed conflict in Gaza. “By taking a step further, the secretary general has set a dangerous precedent that will put the lives of children in countries in conflict at even greater risk,” said Bennett.
Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch, said that after giving a similar pass to Israel last year, Ban’s office has “hit a new low by capitulating to Saudi Arabia’s brazen pressure and taking the country off its just published list of shame. Yemen’s children deserve better.”
He said the UN itself has extensively documented the Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes in Yemen that have caused hundreds of children’s deaths and hit many schools and hospitals. Human Rights Watch and other groups have made similar findings, Bolopion said, and “as this list gives way to political manipulation, it loses credibility and taints the secretary general’s legacy on human rights.”
Explaining his decision, the secretary general told reporters Thursday that the primary complaint of the coalition is that their names are listed together with terrorist and extremist groups. “Therefore, we are now in the process of considering what would be the better modalities of listing those countries,” he said, adding that there may be a way to list them differently, separately from non-state actors. “So let the member states judge. Those are not yet decided, but we will have to discuss this method,” he said.
Still, he pledged to “stand by my report.” But as how to present this report, particularly the listing, “we will have to discuss this matter.” He added, “That’s why I have accepted the proposal by Saudi Arabia to have some review on this matter. I invited them to come and we will have discussion on this matter.”
Photo: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets in Riyadh with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in February 2015 (courtesy of UN Photo/Mark Garten).
Thalif Deen, senior consulting editor at Inter Press Service, has been covering the UN since the late 1970s.