Yemen: funding threat forces UN chief to back down on Saudi censure

10 Jun 16

United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon was forced to remove the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen from its children’s rights ‘blacklist’ because a number of countries threatened to withdraw funding for UN programmes.


UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon


On 6 June, the UN announced that Saudi Arabia and other nations fighting alongside it in Yemen would be removed from the list, which documents abuses committed against children in armed conflicts.

Yesterday, in his first statement since this announcement, Ban said the decision was one of the most “painful and difficult” he had ever had to make.

“I 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,” he said.

“Children already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and so many other places would fall further in to despair.”

The UK- and US-backed coalition joined the conflict in Yemen in March 2015, heralding a massive intensification in the violence that has seen thousands of civilians killed and almost 2.7 million displaced.

The coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, comprises nine other Arab and Muslim nations: United Arab Emirates; Kuwait; Bahrain; Qatar; Sudan; Egypt; Morocco; and Jordan.

Saudi Arabia has denied that threats were made or that funding was mentioned and Saudi officials have also said the casualty figures in the UN’s report were exaggerated.

The annual report, published last week, said there had been a dramatic increase in “grave violations” against children since the escalation of the fighting in Yemen.

The UN verified a six-fold increase in the number of children killed compared with 2014. In total, 785 were recorded killed and 1,168 injured. Of these, the UN said 60% were attributed to the coalition.

The Saudis have led a fierce bombing campaign in Yemen since the coalition joined the conflict just over a year ago, and have been accused of indiscriminate and even targeted killing of civilians.

Attacks on schools, hospitals and other civilian targets have been well documented, by the UN and other NGOs.

As a result, the UN added the coalition to a list of parties guilty of various rights abuses against children published at the end of the report.

However Saudi Arabia objected to the report, and pressured Ban to accept a joint review of the cases and numbers cited in the text.

It was announced the coalition would be removed from the list pending this review.

Ban said yesterday that he stood by the report and stressed that while the complaints will be assessed, the content will not change.

“It is unacceptable for member states to exert undue pressure,” he continued. “Scrutiny is a natural and necessary part of the work of the United Nations.”

“When UN 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.”

Saudi Arabia’s removal from the list sparked a fierce backlash from civil society. A group of 20 organisations issuing a joint letter to Ban stating they are shocked by the decision and the “damaging precedent” it sets.

“Politics trumping human rights is not new at the UN. But this manipulation of truth is a new low – at the expense of children and the UN’s reputation,” she said Jo Becker, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s children’s rights division. 

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