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Saudis Dispute Casualty Numbers in New UN Report on Children in War


In a picture provided by a Yemeni human-rights campaign, Yemenis pick up the pieces after an attack. The UN’s annual report on children and armed conflict is said to include, like last year’s, the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war as perpetrators of child deaths.

Saudi Arabia is vehemently disputing a decision by the United Nations that it is to be named and shamed again for its violations of children’s rights in the Yemen war. The Saudis, who lead a regional bombing coalition against the Houthi opposition forces in Yemen, have landed in the annual report from the UN office on Children and Armed Conflict for 2016, according to a source close to the discussions.

The report is to be released imminently, but the Saudi delegation based at the country’s mission to the UN is now arguing over the relevant data in the report, said a source with close knowledge of the situation. The Saudis did not respond to a request for comment. [Update: the report was released on Oct. 6.]

In this year’s report, covering all of 2016, the UN documented at least 1,340 children dead or injured in the Yemen war.

A spokeswoman for Unicef who covers the Middle East and North Africa region said that so far this year, more than 200 children have been killed in the war, with a child being murdered daily.

The inclusion of the Saudi-led coalition in the annual report first occurred last year, when it was listed in the annex of grave violators of children’s rights, covering the casualties in Yemen for 2015. Listing the Saudis resulted in a major flap at the UN.

The UN report had documented a sixfold increase in the number of children killed and maimed in 2015 in Yemen, compared with 2014, totaling 1,953 child casualties through aerial bombardment, ground fighting and improvised explosive devices (785 children killed and 1,168 injured). More than 70 percent of deaths were boys.

Of the casualties, 60 percent were attributed to the Saudi-led coalition and 20 percent to the Houthis. In 324 incidents, the responsible party could not be identified.

The Saudi coalition began bombing Yemen in March 2015, supporting Yemen’s president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, after the Houthis seized the largest city in the country, Sana, in September 2014.

The reaction by the Saudis last year to the annual Children and Armed Conflict report caught Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general at the time, off guard. The Saudis threatened to pull hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the UN if the coalition was not removed from the report. Ban said publicly he would take the coalition off the annex, conditioned on the Saudis’ agreeing to better avoid child casualties in their bombings in Yemen.

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The Saudi coalition was never removed from the annex, and the Saudis didn’t follow up with the UN on their agreement.

This year, the report could boil over just as publicly as relevant UN entities avoid discussing it openly, revealing little about numbers and how the data is collected and confirmed or even when the report is due out.

The UN Children and Armed Conflict office produces the report, led by a new special envoy, Virginia Gamba, named by Guterres earlier this year. Gamba, a disarmament expert from Argentina, is a veteran civil servant of the UN. She said she had recommended to Guterres that he keep the Saudi coalition in the annex this year, as he has the final say. His spokesman has not disclosed Guterres’s decision, and the report has been delayed for months.

Besides Saudi Arabia, the countries and territories listed in the annex last year were: Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria. Boko Haram, ISIS, Houthis and the Lord’s Resistance Army are among those included as armed militias. Putting the Saudis on the list in 2016 by the Children and Armed Conflict office was done by its former special envoy, Leila Zerrougui, an Algerian lawyer.

Guterres has been hemming and hawing over how to deal with this year’s report, which lists countries and militias who in war kill or injure children, sexually violate or kidnap children, attack hospitals or schools, deny humanitarian aid or recruit youngsters as armed soldiers. Inclusion in the report implies a country or party is breaking international law and therefore subject to prosecution of war crimes.

In years past, the report was released in early spring; this year, under Guterres, who entered office on Jan. 1, it was deliberated over to find new ways to manage the Saudis’ seemingly inevitable inclusion and not provoke the richest country in the Middle East for its alleged war crimes in Yemen, the poorest nation in the region.

One suggestion by high levels at the UN was to drop the name-and-shame annex and instead encourage countries to develop national plans to commit to keeping children out of harm’s way. Moreover, no progress was made by the UN to get the Yemeni government, which is in exile in Saudi Arabia, to write a national action plan to protect children in the conflict.

Interference by the American mission to the UN in the annual report this year is said to be minimal, according to a UN official who spoke on background. The Saudis are close allies of the United States.

Gamba’s office is responsible for reviewing, vetting and preparing the report for the secretary-general, based on data and other information gathered in countries and sent by such UN partners on the ground as Unicef, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN peacekeeping office, where applicable. Nongovernmental agencies are also partners in monitoring, data collection and verification.

A spokeswoman for Unicef in New York explained the process briefly in an email: “UNICEF helps collect and verify specific data on incidents of grave violations against children. The verification process is conducted according to UN standards, including: information from at least one primary source, such as an eyewitness; verification of the information by a trained monitor; and review or validation by the Country Task Force.”

She added, “A trained monitor is someone with formal, UN training in how to document violations in a safe, secure and ethical manner; how to recognize when violations have been committed; and how to report them to the UN taskforce.”

The task force is made up of “representatives of different UN and other agencies on the ground. It reviews every single reported violation and assesses whether it’s verified or not,” she noted.

Unicef has five offices in Yemen, operating amid the theater of war. It is one of several UN agencies, including the UN’s human-rights and humanitarian affairs offices, set up there.

In Yemen, Unicef collects and verifies data on the number of children killed and injured in the country, as well as the other violations monitored by the Children and Armed Conflict office, said Juliette Touma, the Unicef communications director covering the Middle East and North Africa region and based in Amman, Jordan.

The information that Unicef compiles is not only published in its own reports (most recently, “Falling Through the Cracks”) but is also sent to Gamba’s office in New York.

(Email requests and calls to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York on how they collect data in Yemen went unanswered.)

Unicef apparently has no say in the report and refuses to point fingers as to who is responsible for the child casualties in the war. Touma said, however, that the numbers it provides to Gamba could be much higher than Unicef could verify, given its inability to access all areas of Yemen and the risks of working in a war.

So far in 2017, Touma said that more than 200 children have been killed and that “kids are being killed on a daily basis.” The cumulative number that Unicef has counted since the war began in 2015 and through 2016 was 1,700, she said.

The numbers of grave violations of children in Yemen have been “repeated” in all indicators, Touma added, which suggests that the laws of war continue to be flouted.

“The bottom line is that children are being killed,” Touma added, by Skype. “Children shouldn’t be killed.”

Paradoxically, the Saudi coalition, fueled by American jets, relying on American intelligence-sharing and using American- and British-made bombers, has resulted in defeat regardless of their advanced weapons, say some  analysts.

In 2016, the Obama administration had indirectly acknowledged its possible criminality in the war by blocking weapons sales late in the year to the Saudi coalition, after selling at least $22 billion worth of arms in previous years. (It kept up its bombing forays against the Al Qaeda affiliate in southern Yemen). The British have continued to sell arms to the Saudis, as President Trump of the US is also doing.

The US government, also under Obama, had privately discussed its legal liabilities in Yemen, without concluding how vulnerable the US was to prosecution.

The Yemen war has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and the largest cholera outbreak in a single year ever recorded, but no relief for the sick and hungry, the wounded and shattered, is in sight.

[This article was updated.]

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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