Yemen Carnage Prompts New U.N. Push to Censure Saudi-led Coalition
Ban Ki-moon is threatening to put Riyadh and its allies back on a blacklist of countries that kill and maim children in war zones.
The United Nations will threaten to put the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition back on a blacklist of states, rebels, and terrorist groups that kill or inflict extreme suffering on children in conflict zones unless Riyadh halts its indiscriminate bombing of schools and hospitals, according to senior U.N.- based officials.
The United Nations will threaten to put the Saudi Arabian–led military coalition back on a blacklist of states, rebels, and terrorist groups that kill or inflict extreme suffering on children in conflict zones unless Riyadh halts its indiscriminate bombing of schools and hospitals, according to senior U.N.- based officials.
The warning, which will be conveyed in a letter from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office to Riyadh as early as Thursday, follows reports that the Saudi-led coalition last week bombed a school in northern Yemen, killing at least 10 children and injuring 28 others, according to those sources. A spokesman for the Saudi coalition spokesman maintains that the children were military recruits at a Houthi training camp.
The move reflects deepening frustration by Ban and his top advisors that intensive diplomatic efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia and its allies to ensure the protection of children have failed to restrain air attacks in Yemen. But it is likely to set the stage for a major confrontation between the U.N. leader and senior officials from Saudi Arabia, who have threatened to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the United Nations if it didn’t take the coalition off the list, according to U.N. sources.
“The secretary-general is alarmed by the escalation of airstrikes and ground fighting in Yemen and along the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border since the end of talks in Kuwait on 6 August,” according to a statement issued Wednesday by Ban’s office. “Civilians, including children, are paying the heaviest price in the ongoing conflict, as civilian infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals continued to be hit.”
The controversy has its origins in a 2001 U.N. Security Council measure, Resolution 1379, which instructed the U.N. secretary-general to issue an annual report documenting abuses of children in war zones. The reports are drafted by Leila Zerrougui, the U.N. chief’s special representative for children and armed conflict.
The latest report, which was released in late May, sharply criticized the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi separatists, claiming the coalition was responsible for about 60 percent of 1,953 child deaths and injuries in Yemen during the previous year. It also denounced the Houthis, who are responsible for most of the remaining casualties, for recruiting child soldiers, and for indiscriminately shelling populated areas. In an effort to illustrate the gravity of its concerns, Ban included Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, as well as the Houthis, in an annex to the report that serves as a rogues gallery of states and armed groups that have maimed, killed, or otherwise abused children in conflict zones.
Saudi Arabian leaders were livid that Riyadh had been placed on a list alongside international terrorist groups, including the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia claims that the U.N. estimates of child victims are off base, and that its forces have strove to ensure that its bombing raids strike only military targets. They also protested that the U.N. secretary-general had applied a double standard by removing Israel from the list a year earlier following pressure from the United States.
In response to Riyadh’s protests, Ban grudgingly agreed in early June to remove the coalition from the list and offer the Saudis an opportunity to make their case to the U.N. that the coalition was taking adequate steps to ensure that children were not being targeted or caught in the crossfire. Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said the decision to remove the coalition from the list “clearly vindicates” its military campaign in Yemen. He characterized the U.N. decision as “irreversible and unconditional.”
The retreat by the U.N. chief fueled an intense wave of criticism from human rights groups, who accused Ban of sacrificing the U.N.’s human rights principles to mollify a powerful government. But Ban defended the decision, saying he stood by the report’s basic finding that the coalition killed hundreds of children in the course of the war. The U.N., he added, would carry out a joint review with Saudi Arabia of the coalition’s conduct before making a final decision on whether to put them back on the list.
In a concession to Saudi Arabia, the U.N. chief has suggested privately to his advisors that the U.N. should create two blacklists, one for U.N. member states and another for terrorists and other nonstate armed groups. That way, governments would be spared the indignity of being lumped in the same category as the world’s most notorious terrorist groups.
At the same time, Ban acknowledged that he had essentially been blackmailed into taking the coalition off the list. While Ban didn’t single out Riyadh by name, he claimed unnamed states had threatened to cut off financial support for vital U.N. aid programs in countries like Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen if the coalition was not taken off the list. “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,” he said.
The case for censoring Riyadh and its allies has been building in recent days, as the Saudi-led coalition has stepped up airstrikes in its 17-month war against Houthi separatists. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to quash a coup by Houthi rebels who had seized control of the capital of Sanaa and forced Yemen’s internationally backed government out of power. U.N.-brokered peace talks between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthis have stalled.
In Wednesday statement from Ban’s office, the U.N. chief appeared to fault both the coalition’s use of airstrikes and the Houthis prosecution of the conflict across Yemen’s border into Saudi Arabia. “The secretary-general condemns the reported attack from the direction of Yemen that hit a workshop, killing at least seven civilians in Najran, Saudi Arabia yesterday, as well as the reported airstrike that hit a home in Nehm, east of Sanaa in Yemen, which killed at least nine civilians,” according to the statement.
Before the latest bombing campaign, Ban’s office had reached an informal understanding with Saudi Arabia that it would not decide whether Riyadh and its allies merited inclusion on the U.N. blacklist until next year, when it produced its 2017 report on the state of children in armed conflict. But officials say the mood in the U.N. has shifted in the past week and Ban’s top advisors, including Zerrougui, are now brandishing the threat to shame the coalition if they don’t rein in their bombers.
Photo credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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