UN Secretary-General António Guterres published his annual children and armed conflict report Tuesday, which controversially removed the Saudi-led Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen from the list of those who have committed grave violations against children within the last year.
The annual children and armed conflict report, which has been required by the security council since 2001, summarizes the UN findings for each year’s conflict zones and details any confirmed systemic violations of children by nations or non-state actors within those areas. Grave violations include using children for military “recruitment and use, killing and maiming, sexual violence and abductions,” as well as “attacks on schools and hospitals and the denial of humanitarian access.” General violations include any other violation of children not explicitly included in the six categories of grave violations.
Parties that are added to the list of those implicated in grave violations may be subject to UN Security Council sanctions for said violations. To be removed from the list, parties must first sign and implement a UN action plan to end their violations.
The Saudi-led Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen is backing Yemen’s government in a war with the rebel Houthi movement. The last five years of conflict are believed to have killed more than 100,00 people, devastated the infrastructure of the country, and triggered the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The coalition was first added to the list in 2016 but was briefly taken off after the UN came under intense pressure from Saudi Arabia. The coalition was, however, added back on to the list three years ago where it has remained until now.
This year’s report verified more than 4,042 grave violations against 2,159 children by all parties in Yemen. That includes “the recruitment and use of 686 children,” the “deprivation of liberty and/or detention of 97 boys between the ages of 12 and 16,” the “Killing (395) and maiming (1,052) of 1,447 children,” three incidents of sexual violence, “35 attacks on schools (20) and hospitals (15),” the “military use of 37 schools,” the “abduction of 22 children,” and “1,848 incidents of the denial of humanitarian access.”
Notably, the report attributed 313 children killed or injured to the Houthis, 222 to the coalition, 96 to the coalition-backed Yemeni armed forces, 51 to militias opposed to the Houthis, five to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and two to Islamic State. An additional 276 incidents were also unable to attributed firmly to either side. Also, notably, the Houthi rebels were the top perpetrators in every category.
However, the coalition still had three deprivations of liberty/detentions, 222 incidents of children killed or maimed, four attacks on schools and hospitals, and 186 incidents of denial to humanitarian access. The previous year’s report attributed 729 incidents of children killed or maimed and 15 attacks on schools and hospitals to the coalition. This change has prompted Guterres to state that this year’s report represented a “sustained and significant decrease” in casualties. Controversially, despite the number of continued violations, the reduction in death has prompted Guterres to announce that the coalition will be removed from the UN’s global list of state and non-state parties that had failed to put in place measures to protect children.
The decision has been met with sharp global pushback, as many prominent human rights organizations have already proclaimed their outrage over the decision. Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Guterres of ignoring evidence of grave violations. An HRW spokesperson commented that the “secretary-general has brought shame on the UN by removing the Saudi-led coalition from his ‘list of shame’ even as it continues to kill and injure children in Yemen.”
HRW also accused Guterres of ignoring violations by other powerful countries, including Russia in Syria, the US in Afghanistan, and Israel in Palestine despite, all of those countries having violations that were well-documented by the UN. They also denounced the UN decision to remove Myanmar from the list despite its continued use and recruitment of child soldiers.
When asked if Saudi Arabia had exerted pressure on the UN that influenced their decision, Guterres’ envoy for children and armed conflict, Virginia Gamba, said: “Absolutely not.”