(CNSNews.com) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday effectively admitted caving in to pressure from member-states which threatened to withdraw funding to U.N. projects if he didn’t remove Saudi Arabia’s name from a blacklist of states and groups that violate children’s rights in conflict.
And he conceded that the move, which he described as “one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make,” damaged the credibility of the organization he leads.
Ban’s words, to reporters in New York were an unusual acknowledgement of backroom maneuvering that is widely known to happen at the world body but is rarely spoken of so publicly by U.N. officials or diplomats.
Explaining the “painful” decision, Ban said that his annual report on children in conflict “describes horrors no child should have to face.”
“At the same time, 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. program. Children already at risk in ‘Palestine,’ South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and so many other places would fall further into despair.”
Pressure on Ban came from the Saudis and their allies (a U.N. spokesman earlier named Jordan and the United Arab Emirates). Without identifying countries responsible, Ban said, “it is unacceptable for member-states to exert undue pressure. Scrutiny is a natural and necessary part of the work of the United Nations.”
Asked by a reporter whether backing down does not affect the credibility of the U.N., Ban defended his decision, but conceded that “the impression was not a good one.”
“You cannot burn down whole house,” he said. “I’m chief administrative officer of this organization. I have to take care and consider so many crises happening at the same time.”
“Then, while it was quite painful for me, or I accept all this criticism – that’s due criticism, the impression was not a good one as I understand. But despite all this kind of things, I had to make a decision just to keep all United Nations operations, particularly humanitarian operations, continuing.”
Human rights groups have been incensed at Ban’s decision, announced Monday, to remove the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen from a list of countries and groups named in an annual report on children in armed conflict.
Ban’s spokesman said at the time the Saudi-led coalition was removed from the list pending a review that would involve the U.N. and the kingdom, and that Ban “shares the objective that the report reflect the highest standards of accuracy possible.”
Saudi Arabia and several Sunni partners last year launched a campaign of airstrikes against the Shi’ite Houthi militia in neighboring Yemen, acting on behalf of the country’s exiled government.
The kingdom strongly contested the U.N. report’s claims that its coalition was responsible for the deaths of 510 children and injuries to 667 last year, mostly resulting from the airstrikes. (By comparison, the report attributed 142 child deaths and 247 child injuries to the Houthis. It said it could not identify the perpetrator in another 324 incidents.)
The report also blamed the Saudi-led coalition for almost half of 101 attacks on schools and hospitals in Yemen.
An annex to the report – dubbed by some rights activists the “list of shame” – names governments and organizations accused of violating children’s rights in conflict.
Listed under Yemen in the annex are: the Saudi-led coalition, Yemeni government forces, pro-government militias, the Houthis and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Saudi coalition is identified among “parties that kill and maim children” and “parties that engage in attacks on schools and/or hospitals.”
Saudi officials called the figures “wildly exaggerated,” said the report relied on sources associated with the Houthis and their allies, and demanded that the kingdom be removed from the blacklist.
After the U.N. announcement Monday that it would remove the Saudis from the list and review the information, Saudi ambassador to the U.N. Abdullah al-Mouallimi called the move a “vindication” and declared that its removal from the list was “irreversible.”
In his remarks Thursday, however, Ban called the removal temporary.
It remains unclear exactly what funding Saudi Arabia threatened to cut, but it has long been a leading voluntary donor to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and the World Food Program (WFP).
In 2014 it accounted for 11.8 percent ($139 million) of total contributions to UNRWA, the second largest donor after the United States. Riyadh was also the fifth-biggest voluntary contributor to the WFP, donating $271 million in 2014.
The U.S. has over many years publicly threatened to withhold – and has on occasion withheld – funding to various parts of the U.N. system, often in response to legislation.
Most recently, the Obama administration, in line with U.S. law, reluctantly cut funding to the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after it became the first U.N. agency to admit the Palestinians in 2011.
The administration has sought waiver authority from Congress ever since to restore the funding, without success.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Thursday responded cautiously to questions about the Saudi threat to cut funding, but said the administration agrees with Ban “that the U.N. should be permitted to carry out its mandate, carry out its responsibilities, without fear of money being cut off.”
In response to a question about the U.S. itself having cut funding, Toner said, “I fully acknowledge our own track record regarding the withholding of funds.”
At the same time, he said, the U.N. should be able to report objectively on issues of this nature, “without fear of reprisal.”