UN takes Saudi coalition off Yemen list of child violators

UNITED NATIONS: Following a vehement protest from Saudi Arabia, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday removed the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen from a list of government forces that committed grave violations against children last year, pending a joint review of cases.

Saudi Arabia's UN Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi insisted "the removal is unconditional and irreversible," explaining that the government has no problem with a review and is confident it will conclude that the coalition was "wrongly placed on the list."

Earlier, he asked for an immediate correction saying Saudi Arabia's inclusion on the list was based on "inaccurate and incomplete" information.

The secretary-general's annual report on children and armed conflict released Thursday said the UN verified a total of 1,953 youngsters killed and injured in 2015 — a six-fold increase in the number of child casualties in Yemen compared with 2014. About 60 percent of those casualties were attributed to the coalition. The U.N. said it also verified 101 attacks on schools and hospitals last year, double the number in 2014, of which 48 percent were attributed to the coalition.

Al-Mouallimi called the casualty figures attributed to the coalition "wildly exaggerated" saying "the casualties are far lower."

A statement late Monday from UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Ban accepted a Saudi proposal for a joint UN-Saudi review of the cases and numbers in the report and invited the coalition to send a team to New York as soon as possible for detailed discussions before the Security Council examines its findings in August.

Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch, said his organization and others have also documented the impact of coalition airstrikes on children, schools and hospitals.

He accused the secretary-general's office of engaging in "political manipulation" and tainting his human rights legacy.

"After giving a similar pass to Israel last year, the UN secretary-general's office has hit a new low by capitulating to Saudi Arabia's brazen pressure and taking the country off its just published list of shame," Bolopion said. "Yemen's children deserve better."

The Saudi-led, US-backed coalition supporting Yemen's internationally recognised government is battling the Houthis and their allies. The Houthis have held Yemen's capital, Sanaa, since September 2014, and their advance across the Arab world's poorest country brought the Saudi-led coalition into the war in March 2015. The U.N. says over 6,000 people have been killed.

The United Nations declared a truce on April 10 to pave the way for peace talks that started a week later in Kuwait.

But the fragile truce has been marred with violations and breaches by both sides as clashes and airstrikes led by the coalition continued in different areas across the country.

"The timing of this report is most unfortunate because it comes as we are hoping for a breakthrough in the discussions in Kuwait leading to an agreement and hopefully an end to the conflict," Al-Mouallimi said.