WHEN THE United Nations chief agreed last week to scrub the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen from a blacklist of those violating children’s rights in armed conflicts, human rights groups unleashed outrage at the UN. In an open letter, three dozen organizations blasted Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for setting a damaging precedent, bowing to pressure, and tainting his legacy.
The story might have ended there, with righteous indignation at the secretary general, who’s serving his final year. But Ban did something unusual for diplomats used to holding their noses and their tongues when forced to make an unpleasant compromise: He pulled back the curtain on ugly political and monetary pressures the UN faces every day. It was, under the circumstances, a brave act of calling out bullying, and one that deserves respect, not criticism.
In a press conference, a visibly unhappy Ban volunteered that he’d come under “unacceptable” pressure to remove the Saudi-led coalition from a list of perpetrators in the annual report’s annex, pending review. That pressure included threats to end critical funding for the UN. Ban, who as a child of the Korean War was fed and educated thanks to UN agencies, said he stood by his report, and its content won’t change. But if Ban had refused to take the Saudi-led coalition off the blacklist in the report’s annex, he said, “children already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and so many other places would fall further into despair.”
The Saudis are key contributors to UN humanitarian aid and peacekeeping, including the largest single humanitarian gift to the world body, in 2014: $500 million to help Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State. All parties mentioned in the report were informed about the UN’s findings in March, according to UN officials, but the message may not have reached the highest levels in the kingdom. (Last year, Israel and the US lobbied ahead of publication to have Israel left off the blacklist for its 2014 campaign in Gaza).
When this year’s final report became public in early June, Riyadh threatened not only to pull funding, but to withdraw entirely from the world body, according to diplomats close to the talks. The Saudis were incensed at being named, along with Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, among those who kill and maim children and attack schools and hospitals. The Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, denied making “threats” but publicly acknowledged “such listing would obviously have an impact on our relations with the UN.” It’s not the first time the Saudis have threatened to pull out their money if things don’t go their way; the foreign minister warned Washington two months ago that Riyadh would sell $750 billion in American assets if Congress allows victims’ families to sue the Saudi government for any role in the Sept. 11 terror plot.
Faced with a Sophie’s Choice between keeping the Saudi-led coalition on a blacklist and losing critical funds for lifesaving programs, Ban was in a no-win situation, and it’s hard to see what he could do other than blow the whistle over the pressure he faced. So let’s consider the outcome.
First, the world’s attention is focused more than ever on the toll of war on children in Yemen. The Secretary General’s Report on Children in Armed Conflict remains intact; it concluded that of nearly 2,000 child casualties last year in Yemen, 60 percent were the fault of the Saudi coalition.
Second, the incident raises questions about the five world powers that run the UN Security Council, which mandated the reports on children in war zones, and should be willing to defend their integrity. That China, France, Russia, Britain, and the US didn’t leap to Ban’s defense suggests their interests in Saudi Arabia’s oil and lucrative arms deals may have played a role.
Last and most important, Saudi outrage over the blacklist is a reminder of how much member states care about judgment passed by the world body — and what an important tool such reports can be. Since 2000, some 100,000 child soldiers were released thanks to UN pressure, and nine blacklisted warring parties have improved their conduct to get off the list of shame.
In the end, the Saudis may have gotten themselves off a blacklist by threatening to withhold money, but they are left with a black eye for actions that killed children, and for an unwillingness to work with the UN to right those wrongs.
Author: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan