In a startling public admission, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged he caved in to financial pressure from Saudi Arabia and removed references to the coalition led by it in a UN report on children’s sufferings in armed conflict as it threatened to “burn down the whole house”.
Calling it “one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make”, Ban told reporters on Thursday that he took the action because of threats by some countries to cut off funds to many UN programmes. If that happened, he added, “children already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and so many other places would fall further into despair”.
Accepting “due criticism”, he defended his action: “Because of this, you cannot burn down whole house. I’m Chief Administrative Officer of this Organization. I have to take care and consider so many crises happening at the same time.”
Ban did not name Saudi Arabia in his diplomatically-worded remarks. But in the context it was a clear reference to Saudi Arabia, which openly campaigned against its listing in the report.
While it is normal practice in diplomacy to exert pressure to influence reports and findings, this is probably the first time it has been acknowledged so candidly in public. Ban’s term as the head of the world body ends in December and this enables him to speak out frankly in his final days in office.
It also puts the spotlight on Saudi financial muscle that chokes off reports and actions by international organisations, governments and leaders of human rights abuses by Riyadh.
“The report describes horrors no child should have to face,” Ban said. “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 UN programmes.”
But Ban also condemned the arm-twisting. “It is unacceptable for member states to exert undue pressure. Scrutiny is a natural and necessary part of the work of the UN,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Representative Abdallah al-Mouallimi denied his country had used financial pressures to get it removed from the report. “It is not in our style, it is not in our genes, it is not in our culture to use threats and intimidation,” he told reporters.
The UN report released last week said the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 510 deaths of children and 667 injuries last year in Yemen. It blamed the rebel Houthis for 142 child deaths and 247 injuries.
On Monday, the references to Saudi Arabia were removed “temporarily” from the list of countries and others harming children during armed conflicts pending a “joint review”, Ban’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday.
But al-Mouallimi said the removal from the “wildly exaggerated” report was permanent. He denied the allegations and said the coalition used “precision targeting” to avoid harming civilians.
Amnesty International condemned the dropping of Saudi Arabia from the list.
“It is unconscionable that this pressure was brought to bear by one of the very states listed in the report,” said Richard Bennett, Representative at the UN. “Blatant pandering such as this undermines all of the UN’s work to protect children caught up in war.”
Earlier there have been reports of the UN giving into pressures and modifying reports at the draft stage and this was a rare instance of a retraction after publication.
According to media reports, references to Israel in the 2014 Gaza conflict were removed before publication of a similar UN report last year after lobbying by the United States. At the same time, Hamas was was also left off in the report.