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UN-SG Annual Report Disregards Accountability for War Crimes in Yemen

Will the Saudi airstrike in Sa'ada, which killed 40 children, spark real UN action?

A student stands in the ruins of one of his former classrooms, which was destroyed in June 2015, at the Aal Okab school in Saada, Yemen. Students now attend lessons in UNICEF tents nearby (UNICEF/Clarke for UNOCHA).

UN Chief Antonio Guterres’ Annual Report on the Work of the Organization released on Tuesday barely touches on the intensifying Yemeni conflict, underlining the UN’s failure to appropriately condemn the war crimes of the Saudi-UAE-US-UK-led coalition.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization for 2018 launched on Tuesday, tracks the UN’s progress and shortcomings in peace processes, human rights initiatives, and sustainable development programs over the past year, and calls for a multilateral approach among Member States to achieve wide-ranging reform. While the report acknowledges the intensifying war in Yemen, which the UN has declared “the worst manmade humanitarian crisis in the world,” there is no mention of the Saudi-UAE-US-UK-led coalition’s accountability for war crimes in the country.

Guterres’ most substantive note on Yemen is that “a recently appointed Special Envoy [Martin Griffiths] has brought renewed impetus to the political process.” The UN Chief continues, “Despite recent intensification in the conflict, the Special Envoy presented to the Security Council in June 2018 elements of a negotiation framework, which he hopes will allow for a resumption of peace talks.”

The report comes less than a week after the Saudi airstrike that hit a school bus returning from a picnic in Dahyan (in rebel-held Sa’ada) on August 9, killing 51 people, 40 of whom were children between the ages of 6 and 11, and injuring 79 others, according to the Houthi-affiliated health ministry. The Red Cross, however, reports the murder of only 29 children. The event provoked an international uproar, prompting Guterres to condemn the attack and call for an independent investigation into the strike. The Saudis declared they will proceed to investigate themselves.

The devastating attack on August 9 is only the latest example of the Saudi-UAE-US-UK-led coalition’s war crimes in Yemen since the beginning of the conflict in 2015.

Since the Obama presidency, the United States has armed Saudi Arabia and the UAE with billions of dollars’ worth of munitions, including a recent $641 million in internationally banned cluster bombs. The U.S. also provides military trainingrefueling for coalition aircrafts, and airstrike targeting assistance as the coalition continues to bomb hospitals, water infrastructure, farms, markets, homes, children’s schools, and just last Thursday, a school bus. The UK has followed the US’s lead, providing military resources to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The UN documented 6,358 civilian dead and 10,047 injured in the war between 26 March 2015 and 10 May 2018, with 10,185 of the total (60%) resulting from coalition airstrikes. Total death and injury toll estimates reach over 10,000 and 40,000 respectively, but due to underreporting, the numbers are probably much higher.

In addition to the bombing campaign, the coalition (including the US and UK) upholds a naval blockade over Yemen, cutting off humanitarian aid, food, medicine and supplies. The UN has warned that the blockade could cause as many as 8.4 million civilian deaths from starvation. Lack of medicine prevents treatment of Yemen’s over 1 million (and counting) reported cholera cases since 2016, including over 2,000 deaths from the disease. The number of cases under the blockade and continued armed conflict is expected to rise exponentially in coming months.

The war in Yemen is considered by some to be a US-UK-backed genocide, yet so far the UN cowers under the powerful Member States that are perpetrating it.

The 2018 SG Annual Report is the organization’s latest dodge of attributing accountability to the Saudi-UAE-US-UK-led coalition. Given that Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according the UN itself, one would think the organization would report its track record and its plans to hold the guilty accountable in the Yemeni conflict.

In 2017, Human Rights NGOs launched another failed demand for the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to establish an inquiry commission to investigate potential war crimes by the coalition in Yemen. In 2015, the UNHCR scuttled a Dutch-led draft resolution to create an independent commission, replacing it with a Saudi-led committee, which, even if it could be trusted given the nation’s vested interest in concealing its human rights record, has failed to produce substantive reports. In 2016, another attempt to establish an independent commission ended when the UK blocked the proposal.

A clear example of certain Member States’ financial hold on the UN occurred in the 2016 under former SG Ban Ki-moon. Saudi Arabia was quietly taken off the UN’s “list of shame” for human rights violators of children in armed conflict because the Saudis threatened to discontinue their hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for UN programs. Mr. Ban admitted to receiving “undue pressure” from the Saudis to remove them from the list. The UN reports that of the 552 murders of Yemeni children in the conflict last year by air attacks, 370 were committed by the coalition.

In June, the ChildFund Alliance and 23 civil society organizations wrote an open letter to Guterres to remove the Saudi-UAE-US-UK-led coalition from Section B of Annex 1 in the Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, which lists “parties that have put in place measures during the reporting period aimed at improving the protection of children.”

The letter states, “Although your report last year noted that Saudi Arabia had set up a ‘Child Protection Unit’ at the Coalition’s command centre in Riyadh, we have seen no evidence on the ground that this has yielded any marked shifts in behavior.” It concludes, “To ensure the credibility of your list and avoid double standards, we implore you to signal to all parties in Yemen that much more needs to be done to protect children in conflict.”

Perhaps after the latest atrocity in Sa’ada the UN and SG Guterres will act more courageously to hold the perpetrators of extreme violence accountable. In doing so, they might show the world that they are not at the mercy of villainous Member States.

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