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U.N. Blasted For 'Pandering To Saudi Arabia' Over Children Killed In Yemen

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Twenty human rights groups have united in fury. And they've channeled that fury in a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations. The subject is Saudi Arabia and whether the Saudi-led coalition belongs on a U.N. blacklist for killing and maiming children in Yemen. First, the coalition was on the list and then it was off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAN KI-MOON: This was one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That's U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explaining why he dropped the Saudi coalition from the list despite research by the U.N.'s own investigators documenting that the coalition is responsible for wounding almost 2,000 children last year in the war in Yemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KI-MOON: The report describes horrors no child should have to face. 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 U.N. programs.

INSKEEP: The allusion there is to threats by the Saudis to cut off payments to the United Nations, something the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, has denied.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABDULLAH AL-MOUALLIMI: We do not need to resort to threats and intimidation. All that we need to do is point out the facts, and that's what we did.

KELLY: Amnesty International, one of the groups that signed the protest letter, says, quote, "no less than the credibility of the United Nations is on the line." Margaret Huang is head of Amnesty International, USA.

MARGARET HUANG: A special representative, like the one who put together this blacklist, is an independent expert. They're not required to bow to political or diplomatic pressure. And the fact that the secretary-general intervened in a list prepared by one of these independent experts is quite alarming.

And if the secretary-general is not willing to stand behind the independent expert's review and listing of Saudi Arabia as a problem state, then it actually raises questions about the entire human rights system, which is why you've seen the alarm from so many of our human rights organizations.

KELLY: Now, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.N. has weighed in on the controversy and said the casualty figures involving children, that the U.N. has put out, are, quote, "wildly exaggerated." What's your response?

HUANG: I would say that Amnesty International and many other groups have also documented similar, if not higher, numbers. I think, generally, the U.N. statistics are more conservative than the human rights organizations, which have more people on the ground doing in-person interviews with witnesses to those situations.

And we've seen, from our documentation and interviews on the ground, that children have been the target of many of the airstrikes that the Saudi Arabian coalition has led. Of the 30 investigations, more than 30, that we did over the last year, we've definitely documented hundreds of children being killed. And we're just one of many groups who are paying attention.

KELLY: Help us understand why this list matters. What are the implications for a country of being on this list?

HUANG: No country likes to be shamed by openly being named. A year ago, the United Nations was considering putting Israel on the list as well because of the deaths of many children in Gaza during the warfare there. We, at that time, criticized the U.N. for not including Israel on the list because of the same political pressures that were being placed on the U.N. This year it's gone to a whole new level where they actually did determine to put Saudi Arabia on the list, and now they've backed away.

KELLY: Margaret Huang, interim head of Amnesty International, USA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.