UN under fire for removing Saudi-led coalition from blacklist

 A young Yemeni displays firewood for sale for cooking purposes as gas prices remain high in Sana'a, Yemen, on June 7, 2016.
A young Yemeni displays firewood for sale for cooking purposes as gas prices remain high in Sana'a, Yemen, on June 7, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - The United Nations was forced on Tuesday (June 7) to defend its decision to remove the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen from a blacklist of child rights violators after rights groups expressed dismay.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric insisted that no final decision had been taken, and that the coalition was taken off the list pending a review that is expected to be completed before August.

"I don't think it's a reversal of policy," Dujarric told reporters. "We will see what the review is and we will adjust the list as needed."

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International blasted Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the decision, accusing him of caving in to Saudi pressure and damaging the world body's credibility.

In its annual report on children in armed conflict published Thursday, the United Nations added the coalition to its list of shame after concluding it was responsible for 60 per cent of the 785 children killed in Yemen last year.

Saudi Arabia reacted angrily and demanded that the report be "corrected."

Saudi Ambassador Abdullah al-Mouallimi said the number of child deaths blamed on the coalition was "wildly exaggerated," and later proclaimed that the decision to be taken off the list was "irreversible."

Dujarric said the United Nations stands by the content of the report, but was willing to review information that the coalition "insists is important for our analysis."

"We stand by everything - every fact and figure that is in the report," said the spokesman.

Human Rights Watch charged that Ban had capitulated to Saudi pressure after the United Nations itself had extensively documented the coalition's airstrikes on schools and hospitals in Yemen.

"As this list gives way to political manipulation, it loses its credibility and taints the secretary-general's legacy on human rights," HRW's deputy director Philippe Bolopion said.

Amnesty International slammed what it called the "shameful pandering" to the Saudi-led coalition.

"It is unprecedented for the UN to bow to pressure to alter its own published report on children in armed conflict," the head of Amnesty's UN office Richard Bennett said in a statement.

"Blatant pandering such as this undermines all of the UN's work to protect children caught up in war."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States "respected" the UN decision to review the report and had not lobbied on behalf of its Saudi ally.

While insisting Washington takes the safety of children on the battlefield seriously, he said that Riyadh should conduct its own review.

"Saudi Arabia has pledged to establish a commission to investigate credible reports of civilian casualties and deaths resulting from Saudi-led coalition airstrikes," he said.

"And they promised to clear a full and objective report on their findings. We're encouraging them to move forward with that as quickly as possible."

The coalition launched an air campaign in support of Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in March 2015 to push back Huthi rebels after they seized the capital Sanaa and many parts of the country.

The war has left some 6,400 people dead, with more than 80 per cent of the population in desperate need of humanitarian aid, according to the UN.

The controversy over adding the Saudi-led coalition to the blacklist followed a similar uproar last year over the decision to exclude Israel over the deaths of 500 children in the war in Gaza.