Why is the UN's Ban Ki-Moon battling with Saudi Arabia?

Mr. Ban said Thursday that the Saudis had placed "undue pressure" on the UN to remove Saudi Arabia from a blacklist of states accused of violating children's rights.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses of the General Assembly high-level on Wednesday at the UN in New York. On Thursday, Mr. Ban accused Saudi Arabia of placing 'undue pressure' on the international body in demanding its removal from a blacklist of states accused of violating children's rights.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon accused Saudi Arabia of placing "undue pressure" on the international body on Thursday, after the UN removed the country from a blacklist of nations accused of violating children's rights in military conflict. 

The Saudi government had threatened to cut its funding of UN programs in response to its inclusion on the blacklist last week, further suggesting that a fatwa – an Islamic legal ruling – could be placed on the UN, Reuters reported.

Mr. Ban didn't say specifically that the Saudis had threatened to cut off funding, but the UN announced on Monday that it had temporarily removed the coalition, a decision he described as "painful."

"This was one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make," he told reporters. If Saudi funding were removed, "children already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and so many other places would fall further into despair.... It is unacceptable for member states to exert undue pressure."

The rebuke thrust the diplomatic fight, typically the kind kept out of the limelight, straight into headlines. On Thursday, Saudi UN ambassador Abdullah Al-Mouallimi continued to deny that Riyadh pressured Ban to remove the coalition from the list, which came as the Saudi-led group is engaged in a year-long conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The report, which was produced at the request of the UN Security Council, said the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 60 percent of the 1,953 child deaths in Yemen last year. Ban, the secretary-general, said he stood by those numbers, while Mr. Al-Mouallimi has called them "wildly exaggerated."

"It is not in our style, it is not in our genes, it is not in our culture to use threats and intimidation. We have the greatest respect for the United Nations institution," Mouallimi told reporters shortly after Ban spoke, Reuters reports.

A source told CNN this week that the Saudi government threatened a "total rupture," saying it would cut ties with the UN, a decision that could leave hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian funding in doubt.

Other diplomatic sources told Reuters that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had called UN political affair chief "several times" to protest its inclusion in the report, which tracks states accused of violating the rights of children during conflicts

According to the UN, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bangladesh contacted Ban's office to protest the inclusion of the coalition, while diplomats told Reuters Egypt, Kuwait and Qatar also decried the listing.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner acknowledged that the US has withheld and threatened to bar funds going to the UN in the past. But on the issue of children's rights, the US agrees with Ban "that the UN should be permitted to carry out its mandate, carry out its responsibilities, without fear of money being cut off," he told reporters in Washington.

Human rights groups say Ban's decision to bow to the pressure potentially harms his legacy at the UN, Reuters reports. More significantly, it also threatens the power of the blacklist to pressure warring parties to comply with international law and end violation of children’s rights in order to be removed from the list.

"The decision to list the Kingdom and then suspend its designation is terrible for the credibility of the UN," writes Peter Salisbury, an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at London-based think tank Chatham House, in a CNN column

In terms of the Saudis' international reputation on human rights, he adds, "the suspension of the designation is hardly likely to convince anyone that the contents of the report are wrong; if anything, the opposite is true."

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