The Cable

Riyadh Beats Back U.N. Accusations of Yemen Abuses

The United Nations had Saudi Arabia on a list of the world’s worst abusers of children. Riyadh just succeeded in getting itself taken off.

UN HEADQUARTERS, NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES - 2016/03/04: Ambassador Al-Mouallimi speaks to the UN press corps. Amid speculation based upon the previous day's Security Council session on the crisis in Yemen, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United Nations Abdallah Al-Mouallimi spoke at a press briefing to reaffirm his nation's position that the existing Council Resolution 2216 provides a sufficient framework for political discussions surround Yemen and to deny that Saudi forces have been responsible in any way for the humanitarian crisis there. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
UN HEADQUARTERS, NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES - 2016/03/04: Ambassador Al-Mouallimi speaks to the UN press corps. Amid speculation based upon the previous day's Security Council session on the crisis in Yemen, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United Nations Abdallah Al-Mouallimi spoke at a press briefing to reaffirm his nation's position that the existing Council Resolution 2216 provides a sufficient framework for political discussions surround Yemen and to deny that Saudi forces have been responsible in any way for the humanitarian crisis there. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

In a move that sparked sharp criticism from human rights advocates, Saudi Arabia persuaded U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take it off of a U.N. blacklist of countries, rebels, and terrorist groups that have egregiously violated children’s rights despite mounting evidence that Riyadh’s air war in Yemen has killed hundreds of children.

The retreat came hours after Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador protested Ban’s decision to include the Saudi-led coalition in a 41-page report about those responsible for the worst abuses against young civilians.

The report — which was primarily drafted by Leila Zerrougui, the U.N. chief’s special representative for children and armed conflict — cited a “particularly worrisome escalation of conflict” in Yemen that saw a six-fold increase in the number of children killed and maimed there last year.

It documented a total of 1,953 child casualties, including 785 fatalities. The report blamed the Saudi-led coalition for 60 percent of the casualties, while their Iranian-backed Houthi opponents were accused of 20 percent of deaths and injuries. The report’s author was unable to assign blame for the remaining 20 percent.

“Attacks on schools and hospitals were prevalent in 2015, linked to the increasing use of airstrikes and explosive weapons in populated areas,” the report found, adding that the number of attacks on schools and hospitals had doubled between 2014 and 2015.

Saudi diplomats reacted angrily to the report’s findings. Speaking to reporters outside the Security Council Monday, Riyadh’s U.N. envoy, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said the document was “wildly inaccurate.” He also complained that it unfairly placed Riyadh and its military allies — which includes the United States and Britain — in the same bloodstained category as the Syrian government, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

“There may be collateral damage from time to time, that’s the nature of warfare,” Mouallimi said after a meeting with U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson. “If mistakes happened, they are being investigated.”

In challenging the report’s findings, Mouallimi said it was unfair that Saudi Arabia was being singled out just one year after Israel had been removed from a draft of the same blacklist following pressure from Washington and Jerusalem.

The U.N.’s retreat started quietly, then quickly picked up steam. At a midday press conference Monday, Ban’s chief spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters that the U.N. was considering changing the way it organized the list so that states wouldn’t be lumped in with terrorists and other non-state armed groups. But just a few hours later, the U.N. chief’s office went further, issuing a statement saying they would remove Saudi Arabia from the list entirely pending a joint review to be conducted by Riyadh and Turtle Bay.

Mouallimi took that as a sign of victory. “This clearly vindicates” Saudi Arabia and the coalition, he told reporters, adding that the the decision to remove the Saudi coalition from the U.N. blacklist is “irreversible and unconditional.”

But Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, said the U.N.’s capitulation to Riyadh “taints the secretary-general’s legacy on human rights.”

“The U.N. Secretary General’s office has hit a new low by capitulating to Saudi Arabia’s brazen pressure,” Philippe Bolopion, the rights’ organization’s deputy director for global advocacy, said in a statement. “Yemen’s children deserve better. The U.N. itself has extensively documented the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen that have cause hundreds of children’s deaths.”

Photo credit: ALBIN LOHR-JONES/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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