Last week, we reported that the UN added a U.S.-backed Saudi-led military coalition to a list of children’s rights violators in its annual report on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) in response to a disturbing number of child casualties caused by the coalition in Yemen’s often forgotten war. Coming less than a week after the White House suspended the transfer of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia, the new addition to the UN blacklist drew international attention and served as a grim reminder that the coalition’s use of cluster bombs – while one of its more atrocious tactics – is just the tip of the iceberg.
Predictably, Saudi officials responded ferociously. Brig. Gen. Ahmed Assiri, a spokesperson for the coalition, said “the report is imbalanced and does not rely on credible statistics.” He also said the report “misleads the public with incorrect numbers and mostly relies on information from sources associated with the Houthi militia and the deposed (former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah) Saleh.”
But it wasn’t the general’s statements that led the UN Secretary General on Monday to announce the removal of the Saudi coalition from the blacklist pending a joint investigation. Behind the scenes, according to an exclusive Foreign Policy report, Saudi Arabia threatened to cut ties with the United Nations, and encourage other Arab nations to do the same:
Saudi Arabia threatened this week to break relations with the United Nations and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to its humanitarian relief and counterterrorism programs… Senior Saudi diplomats told top U.N. officials Riyadh would use its influence to convince other Arab governments and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to sever ties with the United Nations, the officials said. The threats were issued in a series of exchanges between top Saudi officials in Riyadh, including Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, according to U.N.-based officials.
Four days after the report was released, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon removed the Saudi coalition from the list pending a joint investigation. Shortly after the list was changed, Abdullah bin Yahya Almauallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, asserted that the removal was “unconditional and irreversible” and there was no foundation for the coalition to be listed in the first place. He also stated that “if there are any casualties from the coalition side, they would be far, far lower.”
Putting aside for one moment Saudi Arabia’s willingness to hold hostage millions of dollars for the UN’s humanitarian aid programs, which are already severely underfunded, let’s examine the claim that the UN report, which said the coalition was responsible for 60 percent of the child casualties in the war; 510 deaths and 667 injuries, did “not rely on credible statistics,” because credible human rights groups beg to differ.
Since the beginning of the intervention in March 2015, Human Rights Watch documented 43 airstrikes that killed nearly 200 children. In one attack in March 2016, HRW “found that two US-supplied bombs were used in a strike on a market in the village of Mastaba that killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children.” According to Amnesty International, “children account for a third – at least 127 – of the 361 civilian deaths that resulted from the 32 apparently unlawful airstrikes documented by Amnesty International since the start of the coalition campaign.”
While the UN report focused on casualties caused directly by coalition attacks, indirect casualties from the coalition’s war efforts are also significant. The coalition’s naval blockade of Yemen, which depends on imports for 90 percent of its staple foods and 100 percent of its medicine, in addition to the destruction of civil infrastructure, has led to nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe. In March, UNICEF reported that 320,000 children in Yemen were “at risk of severe acute malnutrition” with another estimated 10,000 children under the age of five who have died of preventable diseases due to the war.
Clearly, the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition wholly deserves to be on the UN’s blacklist. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s threat to cut ties with the UN and take its money with it is, in no uncertain terms, blackmail. What remains to be seen is the result of the newly announced joint investigation into the report’s findings. If it’s conducted with any degree of integrity, it will reaffirm the UN’s initial decision to list the Saudi-led coalition among the world’s violators of children’s rights.