Saudi Arabia stunned the world on Friday (Oct.18) by declining to occupy its recently won seat at the United Nations Security Council. The announcement came a few weeks after it had declined its turn to deliver its annual speech before the UN General Assembly. It was the first time that Saudi Arabia had decided to skip the speech-making at the UN General Assembly annual opening.
But declining a UNSC seat was unprecedented. Saudi Arabia was one of the UN founding members in April 1945, in San Francisco, where Prince Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz, its then foreign minister, represented his country in Charter-signing ceremony. At the time, the world gave a collective sigh of relief that superpowers of the time agreed to a new world order that was supposed to avoid the fate of the previous order, led by the League of Nations, which had failed miserably to maintain peace and security.
So why does a UN founding member decline to take one of its most prestigious perks, a seat at the all-powerful Security Council?
The statement issued by Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry gave a number of reasons, including the following:
First: "Current working methods, mechanisms and double standard of the Security Council have prevented it from shouldering its responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security."
Second: "All international efforts at reforming the UNSC, in which Saudi Arabia has taken part, have failed."
Third: UNSC failure to resolve the Palestinian question over the past 65 years, during which several wars have erupted and threatened international peace and security.
Fourth: UNSC failure to declare the Middle East an area free of weapons of mass destruction.
All four points centered on the fact that Security Council's membership and working methods reflect a bygone era and are no longer in sync with reality. Although geopolitics has changed drastically, the Council has not changed since 1945, when wartime victors crafted a Charter in their interest and awarded "permanent" seats with "veto power" for five states only. Those five are no longer the major superpowers. For example, Russia's claim to superpower status is a mere relic from its Soviet past and its participation in the war against Hitler.
In recognition of changing realities, the UN General Assembly has since 1993 attempted to reform the Council but has not been able to reach agreement. A handful of states aspire to "permanent" status for themselves, of course, such as India, Japan, Brazil and Indonesia, but reform efforts go much beyond that.
The reform discussions have revolved around four pivots:
First: Membership, or the addition of both permanent members and elected members. Such changes require amendments to the UN Charter, a lengthy and onerous process.
Second: "Working methods" to which the Saudi statement refers, or the procedures of the council and the way it conducts its work. Unlike membership changes, these reforms do not require Charter change and the Council itself can implement them.
Third: The most hotly debated "veto power", and whether it could (and should) be eliminated or curtailed.
Fourth: "Regional representation", or arguments for and against supranational organizations, such as the EU or the GCC, as potential candidates for Council membership.
Despite much work done since 1993, none of the reform attempts has succeeded. Key reason is refusal by the permanent five (P5) to consider any changes.
The timing of the Saudi decision on Friday appeared to be related in particular to the failure of the UNSC to stop the carnage perpetrated by the Syria regime. Over the past 30 months, the Syrian regime has killed over (100,000) of its own people, while forcing seven million Syrians to be either refugees outside their country, or displaced inside it.
UN human rights agencies and special commissions have documented crimes committed by the Syria regime, including mass killings, torture, rape, collective punishment and wholesale destruction of towns and neighborhoods. They have also named key officials who are believed to be behind crimes against humanity committed in Syria.
The regime in Syria has clearly gone beyond the pale of accepted conduct within its own borders. Its behavior has also spilled over to neighboring countries and threatened to destabilize them.
Despite all those developments, the Security Council has repeatedly failed to shoulder its responsibilities under the Charter, because Russian vetoes have prevented it from adopting meaningful resolutions. But lack of leadership on part of the other 14 UNSC members has made it easy for the Russian to succeed.
A Russian-brokered deal was adopted by the Security Council on Sept. 27, but so far it has played in the hands of the Syrian regime, by giving it legitimacy as an international partner in the implementation of the deal. The resolution dealt only with chemical weapons and has given the regime room to maneuver and time to inflict more pain on its opponents, while it shields it from international sanctions.
While the UNSC resolution was based on Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, it was rendered ineffectual, as Russia had wanted, because it required that any further action be referred back to the Council. In other words, any further action on Syria's chemical weapons would have to face another Russian veto.
Gone from UNSC discussions was any talk about accountability of Syrian officials or international justice for their victims.
The toothless UNSC resolution has made matters worse for those victims. The Syrian regime interpreted it as a "victory," emboldening its leaders to come out from hiding and make believe to their captive Syrian audiences that Assad still mattered as a statesman instead of their ruthless executioner. The regime may now feel that it is immune from outside intervention, so long as it refrained from using chemical weapons again and appeared to cooperate in their dismantlement.
It is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia decided not to give its annual UNGA speech on Sept. 30, just three days after the UNSC ill-advised resolution of Sept. 27. Its decision this week to forgo a seat on the Council came as evidence was mounting that the Syrian regime had drawn the wrong conclusions and continued to inflict more pain and suffering on its people, benefiting from unlimited Russian support.
It is also interesting that the only criticism that has come out against the Saudi decision appeared in Russian media. Russia is the main beneficiary of the current UNSC setup, which gives it the appearance of a superpower, and of the UNSC resolution of Sept. 27, which shielded the Syrian regime, its key ally, from international action.