As it turns out, blackmail is good strategy for governments that want to get away with killing children in conflict. This week, Saudi Arabia and its allies reportedly threatened to pull hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the United Nations, unless UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon removed the Saudi-led coalition from his annual “list of shame” for violations against children in Yemen. Their strategy worked. Less than a week after Ban issued the list, he announced that he was removing the Saudi-led coalition, “pending review.”
The decision is at odds with overwhelming evidence of the Saudi-led coalition’s responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of children in Yemen. The UN, as well as Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups, have documented hundreds of children killed by indiscriminate coalition airstrikes. According to the Secretary-General’s report, the coalition was responsible for 60 percent of the 1,953 child casualties it documented in Yemen in 2015, and for many attacks on schools and hospitals. A UN Panel of Experts identified 119 separate coalition airstrikes that it determined were unlawful.
Yesterday, a group of 20 organizations issued a joint letter to Secretary-General Ban, expressing outrage with his decision and urging him to return the coalition to the list. Failing to do so would send the message that governments can just use bullying and threats to avoid being held accountable for their actions.
To be clear, the responsibility here lies not just with Saudi Arabia or the Secretary-General. It also falls on the United States. Last year, the UN’s top envoy on children and armed conflict recommended that Israel be put on the list of shame, reporting that at least 540 Palestinian children had been killed during Israel’s military operations in Gaza in mid-2014. When the United States threatened to cancel assistance to the UN in protest, Ban capitulated and removed Israel prior to the list’s publication. Justifying the coalition’s removal, the Saudi ambassador to the UN said, “We have to ask the question: Why was Israel removed from the list last year?”
Politics trumping human rights is not new at the United Nations. But this manipulation of the truth is a new low – at the expense of children and the UN’s reputation.