Yemen’s Children Deserve Better: The UN’s ‘List of Shame’


On 15th of June, the United Nations removed Saudi forces from their annual blacklist of parties who have violated children’s rights. The decision came as a shock to many, given the UN’s own investigators found that there were hundreds of children who were killed or injured last year in Saudi hands.

Shortly after the UN’s decision was announced, 13 people, including four children, were killed in a Saudi airstrike. In a statement released on the same day, Xavier Joubert, Save the Children’s Yemen director said, “It’s a very sad irony that this attack happened on the day that the annual UN report on children and armed conflict is coming out. The attack shows that such a decision is far too premature. Children are still dying from bombs almost daily.”

Years of armed conflict in Yemen combined with the Saudi-led economic blockade has resulted in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in history. In a report published earlier this year by the Yemen Data Project, it was found that since 2015, over 18,400 civilians have been killed or injured in at least 20,624 air raids. Over 24 million people – 80 percent of the population in Yemen – are in need of humanitarian aid, including over 12 million children.

The root of the crisis can be traced back to the Arab Spring of 2011. An uprising by pro-democracy protesters forced Yemen’s then authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh to end his 33-year rule and hand over power to his vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The change was intended to bring stability to the country. However, with rebel attacks, food insecurity, corruption and the continued loyalty of military officers to Saleh, this was not the case. In 2014, the Houthi Shia rebels took advantage of the president’s vulnerable position and armed conflict began. The Houthis gained control of Northern Saada province and its neighbouring areas, as well as the capital Sana’a. President Hadi was forced to flee the country. Matters escalated in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and eight other Sunni-majority states began airstrikes against the Houthis. The declared goal by the Saudi-led coalition was to restore Hadi’s government, and has since received backing by the U.S., U.K., and France.

The UN’s blacklist names groups that have failed to follow measures intended to ensure the safety of children in armed conflict. The report has stated that parties on the blacklist have also been responsible for the recruitment of children, detentions, abductions, sexual violence, denying aid access, and targeted attacks on schools and hospitals. The Saudi-led coalition has committed numerous acts of this type of violence, leading to its inclusion on the ‘list of shame’ for the past three years.

While humanitarian organizations such as Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have criticized the decision to omit Saudi-led forces from the list, Guterres has justified his decision by saying that the group has achieved a “sustained and significant decrease in killing and maiming due to airstrikes.” Human Rights Watch has accused him of ignoring evidence of other grave violations. Despite his decision not to include the Saudi-led coalition in the global list of organizations that have failed to protect children, Guterres has called for a programme of activities to strengthen prevention and protection measures. According to the Secretary General, this programme would be monitored for 12 months and “any failure in this regard would result in relisting for the same violation.”

The war in Yemen has left 12 million children in desperate need of humanitarian assistance to survive. Last year, the UN Secretary General’s annual report on children and armed conflict stated that 4,042 grave violations against 2,159 children in Yemen had been confirmed, killing at least 395 children and injuring 1,449 more. Figures by UNICEF show that before the coronavirus outbreak, two million children were already out of school. Now due to the pandemic, schools across the country have been closed, leaving an additional five million children out of school. Over half of the country’s health facilities have been destroyed through armed conflict. As coronavirus continues to spread, humanitarian aid, protection and economic crises are rife.

The UN’s choice to omit Saudi Arabia from its ‘list of shame’ suggests that powerful nations can harm children or attack schools and hospitals without having to be held accountable. Yemen’s children are being robbed of their futures. The world cannot afford to continue to let that happen.

Anita Mureithi