In a dramatic move by an Arab country, which won the United Nations Security Council seat for the first time in its long history of membership, to relinquish the same by issuing a statement has raised a question mark to the crisis management role of the world organization. Security Council, composed of five permanent members known as P-5 and other elected 10 non-permanent members, has been assigned the sole responsibility of maintaining international peace and security by the UN Charter.
The Security Council’s membership is considered an honor and privilege for any member as it is empowered to impose binding resolutions on all 193 member states of the UN. Notwithstanding this fact the principal body of the UN has faced criticism several times both during and post-Cold War era for failing to fulfill its duties effectively.
Prior to 1989’s dismantling of Berlin Wall, the edifice of tense rivalry between then world’s two superpowers i. e. the U.S. and Soviet Union, the UN Security Council was paralyzed and consequently failed to take a decision to maintain international peace in commensurate with its high profile responsibilities. In 1950, the time of Korean War that dragged global powers like the U.S., Russia, and China into an armed conflict, the UN Security Council’s meeting was surprisingly marred by the deliberate absence of one of the five permanent members. History is evidence when the UN General Assembly was forced to adopt Uniting for Peace Resolution regarding the Korean War (1950-53) due to the Russian protest and its subsequent boycott of Security Council meeting at the height of emergency.
Analysts have recalled that history of Cold War to show that at times the UN meetings of Security Council have been held despite non-participation of one of the members and argue that current Security Council may run its business in absence of newly elected Saudi Arabia, which has taken an unprecedented step of not accepting the council’s membership a day after it won the election for one of the non-permanent seats for the term 2014-15.
It may be in order to quote the statement of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs (October 18, 2013), which according to Zachary Laub’s analysis briefing on Security Council carried by the Council on Foreign Relations reads, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia believes that the manner, mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities toward preserving international peace and security as required leading to the continued disruption of peace and security, the expansion of the injustices against the peoples, violation of rights and spread of conflicts and wars around the world.”
Moreover, the Saudi statement points out two issues where the Security Council has utterly failed to resolve. These are related to the region where Saudi Arabia belongs. It has cited the current continuation of the Palestinian cause without a lasting solution for 65 years (Arab-Israeli War of 1948 is the beginning of the Palestinian cause) and failure to make the Middle East free of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (nuclear, biological and chemical).
Unsurprisingly though the government of Saudi Arabia has apologized for not accepting the Security Council membership until the UN body is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security.
Saudi’s emphasis on genuine reforms of the Security Council is understandable. The Security Council’s composition is anachronistic under the changed circumstances as it still represents the realities of 1945 when then World War II victors decided themselves about the shape of post-war world. The leaders of the U.S., then Soviet Union and United Kingdom agreed that they could be joined by France and China to become the world’s policemen by assuming the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Since then such membership has remained as their exclusive privilege though at times debate has been stirred for expanding such membership with no agreement in sight.
Only in 1965 the UN Security Council got expanded in non-permanent category (from 6-10) and the current membership has reached 15 of whom five are elected as non-permanent members every year by the General Assembly. Under the provisions of the UN Charter, any amendment pertaining to this Charter can be made with a two/thirds majority of the members backed by their domestic ratification. Any change in the size of the Security Council requires the Charter amendment and such amendment must be approved by all its five permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK, and the U.S.). Here lies the crux of the problem as no P-5 member would ever be willing to curb its own exclusive privilege by agreeing to more permanent members.
It is not only P-5 but even others are apparently opposing the expansion in permanent category based on the debate in the General Assembly on Security Council expansion because of their regional rivalry. A few examples will suffice. China is loathe to see Japan become a permanent member of the Security Council as Pakistan is vis-à-vis India. This is part of global politics and more examples can be found in other geographic regions as well in Europe and Africa, among others.
Saudis’ anger is directed at council’s obstruction due to repeated vetoes by China and Russia on taking robust action against president Bashar. Critics of the council have pointed out that it has disastrous history of peacekeeping as in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s. Roger Cohen, an op-ed columnist of the New York Times, has noted in his article “If Not Now, When?” that Saudi Arabia is furious with president Obama over his policies in Egypt, Syria and Iran.”
However, in the opinion of Stewart Patrick, an expert with Council on Foreign Relations, “After expending substantial diplomatic energy to serve a place at the table the Saudis are depriving themselves of an opportunity to be more of a heavyweight for the sake of protest”.
David Bosco of Foreign Policy in his blog “Saudi Arabia’s Civil Disobedience at the UN” discusses about long-term and short-term implications of protest. He argues that “if the strong Saudi act of protest somehow does catch on, the consequences of the Security Council could be dramatic.”
No doubt that the UN Security Council needs reform to enhance its legitimacy and efficacy but the question is whether the UN members would realize it and accordingly redouble their efforts in expansion debate to come to an agreement that will restore council’s credibility.