U.N. Chief Says He Went Soft on Saudi Arabia and Allies to Avoid Aid Cut
Ban Ki-moon says aid for millions of children from South Sudan to Yemen was put at risk by countries shielding Saudi Arabia and its military allies from human rights criticism.
Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, confirmed Thursday he was essentially blackmailed into removing the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen from a U.N. blacklist of countries, rebel movements, and terrorist groups that have killed, maimed, or otherwise abused children in conflict.
The move follows Foreign Policy’s exclusive report Tuesday that Saudi Arabia privately threatened to break relations with the United Nations and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and counterterrorism funds if it was not taken off the list. In response to the threat, Ban agreed Monday to remove Saudi Arabia and its allies from the blacklist, pending a joint review of the matter by the U.N. and representatives of the Saudi-led coalition.
The decision sparked sharp criticism from human rights advocates, who accused the U.N. chief of capitulating to pressure.
But Ban hit back publicly on Thursday, telling reporters he continues to stand by the report’s finding that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Yemeni children. Though he didn’t single out Saudi Arabia by name, Ban told reporters in a prepared statement that unnamed countries threatened to cut off financial support for vital U.N. programs if Saudi Arabia and its allies were not removed from the list.
U.N. officials said Ban received calls of protest from senior officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and other close Saudi allies who demanded the stigma be lifted.
Privately, U.N.-based officials said senior Saudi representatives, including Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, threatened to cut funding to such vital programs as those for displaced Palestinians and destitute Yemenis. They also said Riyadh raised the specter that other Arab nations, principally the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, would also follow suit, risking billions of dollars in humanitarian aid commitments.
Between 2012 and 2015, the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms have contributed more than $7 billion to global relief efforts. Last year, Saudi Arabia alone contributed more than $100 million to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, and more than $360 million to fund U.N. and international operations in Yemen, including a UNICEF program for children.
Delisting the Saudi-led coalition “was one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make,” Ban said. “I … had to consider the very real prospect that millions of other children would suffer grievously if, as was suggested to me, countries would defund many U.N. programs. Children already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and so many other places would fall further into despair.”
In a Thursday morning press conference outside the U.N. Security Council, Ban also appeared deeply irritated by the move to shield Saudi Arabia and its allies, suggesting it was reckless to “burn down [the] whole house” of the United Nations over a relatively trivial dispute. “There are so many, so many much more serious issues,” he said.
“It is unacceptable for U.N. members to exert undue pressure,” Ban added.
Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, denied Riyadh ever threatened to cut funding or break relations with the United Nations.
“We cannot break relations with the United Nations. We are a founding member; this is our organization,” he told reporters shortly after Ban spoke. “We did say that such listing and such unfair treatment of Saudi Arabia and the coalition forces would obviously have an impact on relations with the United Nations. But we did not use threats or intimidation, and we did not talk about funding or anything else.”
“I agree with the secretary-general that undue pressure on the United Nations is unacceptable, and undue pressure was not exercised,” Mouallimi added. “We made our point clear; we made it firmly. We said this cannot be accepted.”
The controversy has its origins in the 2001 U.N. Security Council approval of Resolution 1379, which mandated the U.N. secretary-general to issue an annual report documenting abuses of children during conflicts. The latest report — which was primarily drafted by Leila Zerrougui, the U.N. chief’s special representative for children and armed conflict — includes an annex listing states like Syria and South Sudan alongside terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Last year, Zerrougui proposed adding Israel and Hamas to the annex. But Ban removed them following appeals from the United States and Israel, which argued it was unfair to include Israel on a list alongside the world’s most vicious terrorist organizations. In the latest report, the U.N. blamed the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to reverse a coup by ethnic Houthis, for 60 percent of the 1,953 children who were killed or injured during the conflict over the past year.
Mouallimi said the U.N. chief was applying a double standard and that Saudi Arabia and its allies should receive the same treatment as Israel. Mouallimi also denied that Ban’s office consulted with Saudi Arabia and Yemen before releasing the report, which he said did not give them an opportunity to challenge the findings. But U.N. officials pushed back on that assertion, saying the portions of the report describing abuses by the Saudi-led coalition were shared with Syria and Yemen in March.
Ban appeared deeply wounded by the wave of criticism he has received this week from human rights groups accusing him of selling out the U.N.’s principles to a wealthy donor. “I accept all this criticism.… The impression was not a good one, as I understand,” Ban said. But he added: “I had to make a decision just to try to keep all United Nations operations continuing.”
He also took an indirect swipe at the U.N. Security Council for failing to come to his defense in the face of threats from member states.
U.N. officials noted the tepid support Ban received from key powers, including France, Britain, and the United States, when Morocco expelled scores of U.N. personnel from a peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara. That came in March, in retaliation for Ban’s claim that Western Sahara was “occupied” by Morocco.
“When U.N. reports come under fire for raising difficult issues or documenting violations of law or human rights, member states should defend the mechanisms and mandates that they themselves have established,” Ban said Thursday.
Still, Ban said he was willing to consider restructuring the U.N. blacklist so that member states are not included in the same list as international terrorists. But he left open the possibility he may decide to include the Saudi-led coalition on a separate list of governments and military alliances responsible for widespread abuses of children in conflict.
Mouallimi said he is confident that won’t happen. “It is our firm belief that this delisting is final, irreversible, and unconditional,” he said Thursday.
Photo credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch