This photo shows Amal who is looking at her destroyed home in Sana’a after it was hit by an airstrike in April 2015. A girl looks at her destroyed home in Sana’a, Yemen. © UNICEF/UN018341/Jahaf

Diplomatic Fallout from the UN’s Children in Armed Conflict Report

Ban Ki Moon today issued a fairly remarkable statement that seemed to confirm that Saudi Arabia threatened to cut funds from UN humanitarian agencies if the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was included in a so-called “blacklist” of militaries that are responsible for violating children’s rights.

The context here is that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition was named in an annex to an annual report that is prepared by the Ban Ki Moon’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict. The report surveys conflicts around the world in which children are particularly at risk, either because they are serving as child soldiers or the are victims of armed conflict. The report compiles data on the impact of various conflicts on children and adopts a name-and-shame policy of identifying armed groups that are particularly injurious to children.

The annex in question lists “parties that recruit or use children, kill or maim children, commit rape and other forms of sexual violence against children, or engage in attacks on schools and/or hospitals, or abduct children in situations of armed conflict on the agenda of the Security Council.”  In addition to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, four other parties to the conflict in Yemen were named, including Al Qaeda and Houthi rebels.

The report offered evidence to back up this designation, saying that 60% of all child casualties could be attributed to the Saudi-led coalition.

The United Nations verified a sixfold increase in the number of children killed and maimed compared with 2014, totalling 1,953 child casualties (785 children killed and 1,168 injured). More than 70 per cent were boys. Of the casualties, 60 per cent (510 deaths and 667 injuries) were attributed to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and 20 per cent (142 deaths and 247 injuries) to the Houthis. In 324 incidents, the responsible party could not be identified. ISIL claimed responsibility for an improvised explosive device attack on a mosque in Amanat al-Asimah that killed seven children and injured six, in addition to causing many adult casualties. Of the child casualties, 60 per cent were caused by air strikes, predominantly in Amanat al-Asimah, Hajjah and Sa‘dah. Significant civilian casualties, including children, as a result of air strikes continued to be documented early in 2016. Ground fighting accounted for 29 per cent of child casualties, with the vast majority in Ta ‘izz, Aden and Dali‘. Child casualties as a result of landmines and explosive remnants of war were documented, with 15 children killed and 67 injured in Abyan, Aden, Amanat al-Asimah, Amran, Bayda’, Dali‘, Dhamar, Lahij, Ma’rib, Sa‘dah, Shabwah and Ta‘izz.

Despite this evidence,  Saudi Arabia vigorously protested being included in the blacklist. This apparently led to an unusual statement by Ban Ki Moon on Monday, saying that Saudi Arabia would be dropped from the annex, pending a review. That decision faced widespread criticism from human rights groups.  Then, yesterday, Colum Lynch reported in Foreign Policy that Saudi Arabia has put the heavy squeeze on Ban Ki Moon.

Saudi Arabia threatened this week to break relations with the United Nations and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to its humanitarian relief and counterterrorism programs to strong-arm the U.N. into removing Riyadh and its allies from a blacklist of groups that are accused of harming children in armed conflict…In their Monday warning, senior Saudi diplomats told top U.N. officials Riyadh would use its influence to convince other Arab governments and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to sever ties with the United Nations, the officials said.

And now, in the statement to the press today, Ban Ki Moon confirmed that, indeed, countries had threatened to withdraw funding from humanitarian agencies to protest Saudi Arabia’s inclusion on the blacklist. Ban Ki Moon candidly admitted to caving to this pressure in order to prevent children already at risk from “falling into further despair.”

My latest report on children and armed conflict has documented the harrowing situation of Yemen’s children.

There has been fierce reaction to my decision to temporarily remove the Saudi-led Coalition countries from the report’s annex.

This was one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make.

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 de-fund many UN programmes. Children already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and so many other places would fall further into despair.

It is unacceptable for Member States to exert undue pressure. Scrutiny is a natural and necessary part of the work of the United Nations.

It’s worth nothing that Saudi Arabia is a key funder of UN humanitarian agencies, most importantly it is the fourth largest funder of the United Nations entity that provides relief for Palestinian refugees. This was a threat that could not be easily be dismissed. (For its part, Saudi Arabia denies that it threatened to break ties with the UN.)

This is a situation where Ban Ki Moon has little recourse but to rely on the support of UN member states to back him up. This is, after all, a list that member states asked him to create. Back in 2001, the Security Council adopted a resolution requesting an annual report from the office of the Secretary General that lists armed groups that routinely violate the rights of children.  That is what he did.  And now, he is coming under fire for it.