The United Nations Secretary General’s office, headed by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, publishes an annual report about the condition of children in war-torn areas. The 2015 report, released last week, revealed that during that year 1,953 children were either killed or injured as a result of armed conflict. This figure is six times higher than it was in 2014, with 60% of these casualties caused by coalition groups led by Saudi Arabia in the multisided war in Yemen. The report also stated that the same coalition was responsible for 48% of all of the attacks on schools and hospitals -with the UN establishing 101 such attacks – twice the number that what was reported in 2014.
Based on its leadership role of the Yemen coalition, Saudi Arabia appeared on the U.N.-”blacklist” of violators of children’s human rights released last week. However, shortly thereafter, Saudi Arabia was removed from the list. Ban Ki-moon’s sudden change of heart has resulted in a massive outcry from human rights groups who have accused Ban Ki-moon of letting political pressure affect his judgment. In response, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric stated that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took the decision pending a joint review of cases with Saudi Arabia. Dujarric did not specify whether the Saudi Arabia Coalition in Yemen would be added to the blacklist if the review endorsed the findings in the original report. However, Saudi Arabia’s UN Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi said they were wrongly placed on the list, and that “this removal is final.”
The Saudi Arabian Coalition in Yemen
The Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen began in 2015 with the intention of influencing the outcome of the Yemeni Civil War. Saudi Arabia headed a coalition of nine Arab states, which carried out a series of air strikes in Yemen, and also imposed an aerial and naval blockade. The intervention resulted in a dramatic worsening effect on the humanitarian situation in the region, reaching the level of a humanitarian tragedy. After the Saudi-led coalition declared the entire Saada Governorate a military target, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen said that air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition on Saada city in Yemen were in breach of international law.
A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that from March until June 2015, almost two-thirds of civilians killed in the Yemeni conflict had died as a result of the air strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. The actions of the coalition resulted in over 60 percent of child deaths in Yemen, with 510 deaths and 667 children seriously injured. The report stated that the coalition had carried out half the attacks on schools and hospitals. On July 2015, the UN declared Yemen a “level-three” human rights emergency – the highest UN emergency level.
In addition to the deaths of children directly caused by the armed conflict, the war in Yemen has resulted in nearly 10,000 children under the age of five to die from preventable diseases, because of lack of access to essential health services, like vaccination and antibiotics. According to a report released by UNICEF in March 2016, nearly 320,000 children in Yemen were at risk for “acute malnutrition,” with further millions of kids at risk of respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases and measles.
The Effect of Political Pressure
After it became public that the UN had placed Saudi Arabia on the UN blacklist of children’s human rights violators, Saudi Arabia responded by threatening to break relations with the United Nations and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to its humanitarian relief and counterterrorism programs. Ban Ki-moon told reporters that he had been threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan, and Syria, if he did not temporarily delete the Saudi-led coalition from the list. The threat worked, with the UN subsequently dropping the Saudis from the list of the world’s worst violators of children’s rights in conflict zones.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time the UN gives in to political pressure. Last year, the United States warned that Congress might cut off funding to the UN if it included Israel on the same blacklist of armed entities that killed or injured children in conflict. In that case, the Secretary General removed Israel from a draft blacklist before it was made public. Pushing for the delisting of Saudi Arabia, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador, stated that it was unfair for Israel to be quietly let off the hook, while the Kingdom was not.
On another occasion, in 2014, Ban Ki-moon invited Iran to United Nations-brokered political negotiations over Syria. After he was advised by American officials to rescind the invitation, he appeared before reporters and stated that Iran could not attend. The State Department had demanded that prior to attending the negotiations, Iran accept certain conditions that it knew Tehran would find unacceptable. The result was that Iran did not attend the negotiations. Again, the political pressure exerted by the US worked to change the Secretary General’s original position.
Although it might be unrealistic to expect the UN to be completely unaffected by political pressures, the office of the Secretary General of the UN should be expected to carry out its mandate and its responsibilities without being concerned about funds being withdrawn by countries that disagree with its decisions. Every time the Secretary General gives in to political pressure, the UN loses credibility in its alleged efforts to eradicate human rights violations. Whether the answer is to change the UN model to decentralize power and give more autonomy to the office of the Secretary General, or to force countries to commit funds for use by the UN without the ability to withdraw such funding regardless of the UN’s decisions, it is important to recognize the need for change. For the UN to maintain its authority as a supranational organization to be accorded respect by all nations, its fairness, integrity and trustworthiness must never be in doubt.