UNITED NATIONS — The Saudi-led attack on Yemen has drawn international criticism for the extremely high civilian death toll, including many children, and the brutal war crimes that have caused widespread starvation and suffering.
So how did the Gulf kingdom and its allies get taken off a United Nations blacklist of countries which harm and kill children? Apparently, the Saudis threatened to cut funding to crucial programs, or even place the U.N. under an Islamic religious ban through a mass fatwa.
It’s a move that’s drawing renewed criticism of the Saudi role in the international peacekeeping authority, even from the highest offices in the U.N. itself.
“This was one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make,” lamented Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the U.N., on Thursday, according to a report from CBS News and The Associated Press.
Reuters quoted Ban saying he faced the prospect of “[c]hildren already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and so many other places would fall further into despair,” if the Saudi kingdom withdrew funding.
Global Humanitarian Assistance, an NGO that analyzes international humanitarian aid contributions, estimated that Saudi Arabia gave the U.N. $161 million in 2012 to support its peacekeeping efforts.
The secretary-general was unusually forthright in his criticism of Saudi Arabia. “[I]t is unacceptable for member states to exert undue pressure,” he declared without naming the Gulf kingdom or its allies directly.
In March 2015, after the Houthis took power in Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition began a ruthless bombing campaign and ground war that’s left the country in ruins. An April U.N. report by the office of the secretary-general found the Saudi coalition responsible for 60 percent of the 2,000 children killed in the conflict, often through attacks on schools and hospitals. Other U.N. reports suggest as many as 500,000 children face starvation due to the country’s devastated infrastructure.
Reuters reported that Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the U.N., went on the defensive after Ban’s statement, telling reporters, “It is not in our style, it is not in our genes, it is not in our culture to use threats and intimidation. We have the greatest respect for the United Nations institution.”
Pamela Falk, a foreign affairs analyst for CBS News, seemed surprised at Ban’s unflinching attack on the Saudis. “[I]n effect, he acknowledged that he caved in to extortion, even if for the sake of children falling into despair if funds were to be cut.”
Falk further suggested the move hurts the U.N.’s image in the global community. “It seriously undermines the credibility of the U.N.,” she said.
Peter Salisbury, a Middle Eastern affairs analyst for the London-based think tank Chatham House, concurred that de-listing Saudi Arabia hurts the U.N.’s credibility.
“If the Saudis do win the argument and have themselves removed from the list permanently by arguing that the methodology was flawed, the U.N.’s ability to pressure others to improve protections for children in conflict will be irrevocably broken,” he wrote in a CNN op-ed on Thursday.
However, he concluded that the move could also backfire against the Saudi government, including King Salman, and the country’s many Western allies:
“This move puts more pressure on Western governments — the U.S., UK and France in particular — to justify their close ties with, and defense of the reputation of, the Kingdom to voters. That is probably the exact opposite of what the Kingdom hoped to achieve. Salman would be well advised to take a more nuanced approach next time around; and Ban to stand up for the values he claims to promote.”
Watch “Saudi Arabia ‘pressured’ UN chief for blacklisting Yemen coalition” from RT: