The Cable

Draft U.N. Report Calls Out Saudi Arabia for Yemeni Children’s Deaths

The Gulf kingdom is on a blacklist of countries that harm children in conflict.

A Yemeni boy in the southern city of Taez in 2016 (AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images).
A Yemeni boy in the southern city of Taez in 2016 (AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images).

The draft of a new and potentially incendiary United Nations report calls out the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition for killing and maiming hundreds of Yemeni children in their ongoing campaign against Houthi rebels.

Due to be released Friday, the annual assessment carried out by the U.N. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict has sparked controversy in the past as Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen have sought to downplay the collateral impacts of their years-long bombing campaign in the country.

The coalition launched its air war in Yemen in March 2015 after rebels ousted the government led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Thousands have since been killed in the fighting — the vast majority of them civilians.

In a sign of the intense diplomatic pressure, and in an apparently new effort to dampen controversy, the 2017 document is broken down into four categories — including one for “listed parties that have put in place measures during the reporting period to improve the protection of children,” which includes Saudi Arabia.

Last summer, Saudi officials threatened to break relations with the U.N. and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to its humanitarian relief and counterterrorism programs if they were included on an earlier version of the blacklist.

In response, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement saying he would remove the Saudi-led coalition from the list, pending a review of the issue by a joint panel. The move sparked a backlash from those who accused the U.N. of caving to Saudi intimidation.

Human rights groups are making similar allegations about the soon-to-be released document.

“If the media reports are confirmed, the secretary-general will be giving the coalition far too much credit for empty promises that have failed to protect children on the ground,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

According to a draft of the current document, obtained by Foreign Policy on Wednesday, “The coalition’s actions objectively led to the listing for the killing and maiming of children, with 683 child casualties attributed to this party, and, as a result of being responsible for 38 verified incidents, for attacks on schools and hospitals during 2016.”

Reuters first published details of the allegations on Tuesday.

However, the report notes that the coalition had “put in place measures during the reporting period aimed at improving the protection of children.” Though the draft copy did not include any specific examples of these new steps, the coalition has reportedly promised to change some of its practices.

“My understanding was that they have appointed a kind of point person to focus on children’s issues in the war,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, though he emphasized this was unconfirmed.

The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C., was not immediately available for comment.

As it did last year, the document also calls out the Houthis, Yemeni government forces, pro government militias, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for attacks against children.

The annual report, produced by U.N. children and armed conflict envoy Virginia Gamba and issued in Secretary-General António Guterres’s name, does not impose any multilateral sanctions on named groups. Instead, it aims to publicly single out and shame governments into altering their conduct.

Photo credit: Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.

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