The United Nation’s Secretary-General has taken the extraordinary step of backing down in the face of pressure from Saudi Arabia, a move that calls into question the legitimacy and power of the venerable international institution.
72 hours after the U.N. published a report titled “Children and Armed Conflict”, Mr. Moon confirmed that changes would review “the cases and numbers cited in the text” in order to “reflect the highest standards of accuracy possible”. The report had listed the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen as “parties that kill or maim children” and “parties that engage in attacks on schools and/or hospitals”.
The damning nature of the inquiry had previously led to vocal criticism from the Saudi Arabian government, who publicly threatened to de-fund United Nations programs to the tune of almost half a billion dollars. The report has caused great controversy for the Saudi’s in particular since it attributes their coalition’s actions in Yemen with the death of 60% of the 785 children killed and 1,168 injured throughout their bombing campaign.
“It is unprecedented for the UN to bow to pressure to alter its own published report on children in armed conflict. It is unconscionable that this pressure was brought to bear by one of the very states listed in the report,” Richard Bennett, Representative and Head of Amnesty International’s UN Office told reporters.
Human Rights groups have condemned the U.N. for its decision, accusing Ban Ki-moon of “a shocking flip-flop” and giving in to “political manipulation”. Amnesty International has warned that such decision “damages the credibility of the U.N. as a whole”.
Responding to the criticism, a sombre Mr. Moon told press that whilst “the report describes horrors no child should have to face“, that “I also 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 U.N. programs.Children already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and so many other places would fall further into despair”.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship and influence within the United Nations remains complex. For its part, the wealthy Gulf state has, in recent years, grown into one of the largest donors to the U.N. thanks to hundreds of millions given for humanitarian programs.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia gave (US)$500 million to the U.N. and has become the Agency’s third largest donor. It recently provided the largest single donation the organization has ever received to help displaced Iraqis following the emergence and expansion of Daesh* in northern Iraq. It has also become one of the biggest sponsors of the U.N.’s work in Palestine. In February, Saudi Arabia announced that it would donate $59 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees as a part of a package of three agreements to the nation.
Ironically, whilst Saudi Arabia has been keen to be seen as a regional leader in humanitarianism, it has done little to clean up its act at home. The Human Rights Watch‘s (HRW) appraisal of the country is damning. “Authorities continue to fail to enact systemic measures to protect the rights of the 9 million foreign workers… authorities subjected hundreds to unfair trials and arbitrary detention” and “Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis” for example.
It has been well documented by NGO’s and the U.N. itself that Saudi Arabia continues to convict, imprison and execute political dissidents and human rights activists. All whilst maintaining a legal system where due process and fair trial remain illusive.
Within Saudi Arabia, rights for women remain dismally behind the rest of the world
An unfair bias?
The Saudi Ambassador to the U.N. Abdallah al-Mouallimi held his own interview following Mr. Moon’s announcement, stating that “We didn’t use threats… but such listing will obviously have an impact on our relations with the U.N.” He went on to say that “it is not in our style, it is not in our genes, it is not in our culture to sue threats and intimidation”.
According to Saudi sources, the delegation has been quite vocal about what it calls the “hypocrisy” of the UN. Mr. al-Mouallimi pointed out that it was unfair that Israel had been quietly let off the hook and excluded from the report. “We have to ask the question: why was Israel removed from the list last year?” he asked. “Israel has been guilty of crimes against children that are far in excess of even the inaccurate numbers that report contains about Yemen”.
Last year, the United States warned that Congress might cut off funding for the U.N. if it included Israel in the report in question according to two U.N. officials who spoke out on condition of anonymity.
The ability of Saudi Arabia to strong-arm the U.N. reflects a more disturbing trend of member-states flaunting international norms. In March, Morocco quietly expelled 84 international staffers from a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the disputed Western Sahara region following a resolution that recognized the territory as “occupied”.
The U.N. continues to face pressure surrounding its power and remit. As the ongoing crises around the world continue to mount, it seems it will have to make more difficult decisions surrounding which battles are worth fighting for and where to prioritize its efforts.
* In recognition of the implications that the name of the so-called “Islamic State” implies, the editors have chosen to join world leaders and news media in referring to the terrorist group as “Daesh”.
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