At a time when Yemen needs the world’s support more than ever, as it grapples with a vast coronavirus spread and other humanitarian problems, the United Nations once again failed to deliver. On June 15, it dropped the Saudi-led coalition forces from a blacklist of warring parties that have killed children.
Testament to this poor decision was the Saudi airstrike on a vehicle carrying civilians in Yemen’s Sadaa province, which killed four children, on the very same day that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced his decision. He said the coalition would “be delisted for the violation of killing and maiming, following a sustained significant decrease in [casualties] due to airstrikes.”
Throughout its war on Yemen, Saudi Arabia has indeed killed civilians and children.
Since March 2015, and throughout its war on Yemen, Saudi Arabia has indeed killed civilians and children, despite its stated aim of restoring the UN-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi after the Houthi insurgency in September 2014. However, limited international condemnation has enabled Riyadh to continue its operations, which have worsened Yemen’s stability and its immense humanitarian crisis.
The UN until recently recognized that Saudi Arabia had killed children in Yemen; in February, for example, when UNICEF reported that Saudi airstrikes on Al Jawf province had killed 19 children. Before that, Guterres himself condemned the horrific Saudi attack on a school bus in Dahyan, Sadaa in August 2018, which killed 26 children and injured 19 more.
Moreover, in July 2019, Guterres also acknowledged that the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for half of the recorded child deaths in 2018. Other NGOs like Human Rights Watch, which have acknowledged past instances of Saudi Arabia killing Yemeni children, slammed Guterres’ backtracking.
“The secretary-general has brought shame on the UN by removing the Saudi-led coalition from his ‘list of shame’ even as it continues to kill and injure children in Yemen,” said Jo Becker, Children’s Rights Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch.
Saudi Arabia has long flexed its financial muscles to pressure the United Nations into clearing its name, while seeking to sway it in favor of its own regional narratives, such as condemning Iran.
In 2016, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon raised the alarm about Saudi pressure, highlighting Riyadh’s “unacceptable” pressure following its naming on the blacklist. UN sources also revealed that Saudi Arabia sought to pressure the organization following its blacklisting.
“Bullying, threats, pressure,” a diplomatic source told Reuters on condition of anonymity about the reaction to the blacklisting, adding that it was “real blackmail.” Some of Saudi Arabia’s allies, including the United Arab Emirates, also threatened to cut funding to various UN institutions, including the UNRWA – the aid charity for Palestinians, and other bodies.
Clerics in Riyadh also threatened to put out a fatwa against the UN “declaring it anti-Muslim, which would mean no contacts of [the Organization of Islamic Cooperation] members, no relations, contributions, support, to any UN projects, programs,” according to the diplomatic source.
While it was removed from the listing that year, Saudi Arabia was placed in a sub-section of the UN list, for parties noted to be taking measures to avoid killing children in combat, remaining on this list for 2018 and 2019.
Though the UN claimed it came “under no pressure” from Saudi Arabia to change its latest listing, and that this move was based on data, this should raise suspicions considering Riyadh’s past bullying, while it has still killed children throughout this period.
The UN’s reticence to appropriately “name and shame” Saudi Arabia prevents a peaceful solution to the conflict.
In any case, the UN’s reticence to appropriately “name and shame” Saudi Arabia prevents a peaceful solution to the conflict, as it is still a key player in the war and controls Hadi’s government.
The UN’s own peace initiatives show this reality. Its peace talks in Stockholm in December 2018, seeking to find common ground between the Hadi government and the Houthis, failed to criticize Saudi Arabia’s role in the war. The refusal to hold Saudi Arabia to account meant it could continue stoking the war from outside, while further antagonizing the Houthis, rendering these peace initiatives redundant. Peace between the Houthis and Hadi government is therefore a distant prospect.
Even more recently, on June 23, Guterres demanded more pressure on Yemen’s warring parties to work toward a political solution, while once again ignoring Saudi Arabia’s actions.
Besides its pressure on the UN, Saudi Arabia now seeks to polish its global image. The fundraising conference for Yemen on June 2, which it co-hosted with the UN, granted Riyadh another opportunity to bolster ties with the international organization, while whitewashing its abuses in the war.
Last November, as the spotlight shifted to new violence between the Hadi government and UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), Saudi Arabia brokered the Riyadh Agreement to unify both parties. It received praise from the European Union and wider international community, for its apparent peace efforts. Though it was rather a strategy to consolidate its control in Yemen through imposing its ideal candidate, the Hadi government. Meanwhile, it has not stopped its airstrikes, nor has it fully eased its blockade, which prevents vital aid from reaching the country.
Other permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) have driven this impunity towards Saudi Arabia. The United Kingdom is largely complicit in this, considering its role as the UNSC penholder for Yemen, meaning that it could draft a UN resolution for the conflict at any time. Though its past UN resolutions have focused more on condemning Iran’s support for the Houthis, showing that UK initiatives are often biased in favor of the Saudi-led coalition.
The UK and United States each sell billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
After all, both the UK and United States each sell billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Evidently, the British Conservative Party and Donald Trump administration both prioritize this economic relationship over international law.
The UN and international powers also fail to address the United Arab Emirates’ role in the conflict. Despite intervening as a key Saudi coalition partner, the UAE divergently supports the STC’s secession to secure its own influence over southern Yemen and its ports. The STC seized the Aden-linked island of Socotra on June 20, while clashes have sporadically erupted between the STC and government in recent months. Failing to curtail the Emirati role will prolong instability and the absence of a political solution.
With Yemen’s humanitarian situation worsening by the day, the need for western lawmakers to stop appeasing Saudi Arabia, and finally hold the kingdom to account, is more urgent than ever.