Saudi Arabia withdraws from UN Security Council

By Jonathan Power

Diplomats at the UN were amazed last week when Saudi Arabia did the unthinkable and turned down the seat it had just won on the Security Council.

The ten rotating seats – that join those of the Permanent Five (the US, UK, France, Russia and China) – are regarded as the most prestigious spots in international diplomacy.

Saudi Arabia had badly wanted that seat. But the moment it got the votes that handed it to it, it stepped back. The BBC reported that this created “shock and confusion”. The Russian Foreign Ministry called it “bewildering”. No state has done this before.

Saudi Arabia accused the UN of “double standards”. It pointed to the Security Council’s failure “to find a solution to the Palestinian cause for 65 years”. It also criticised the UN for its “failure” to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, including Israel’s nuclear weapons. Strangely, in the light of a joint Russian-US accord on how to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons that won the endorsement of the Security Council, Saudi Arabia accused the UN of allowing the Syrian government “to kill its own people with chemical weapons….without confronting it or imposing any deterrent sanctions.”

But in the next two years there will be many other issues besides these that will come to the attention of the Security Council. Moreover, the ten rotating members have what is called the “Sixth Veto”. For example, in 2003 the US and UK couldn’t get the 9 votes necessary to legitimise their planned action over going to war with Iraq- mainly because of a negative vote by the African members. The subsequent invasion was illegal in international law.

The Security Council falls well short of perfection but without it the world would be in sorry shape. Even during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and the Western nations seems to compete to veto each other’s proposals, there was agreement on 17 peacekeeping operations.

Since the Cold War ended the Council has authorised 51 operations, deploying troops to conflict zones. Often they have been given, as in the Congo today, more muscular mandates than just holding the ring, as has been the tradition.

The US is by far the most important funder of UN peacekeeping, with Japan in second place. Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are the big troop providers with Ethiopia and Nigeria in second place. Although “Big Five” members have contributed peacekeeping troops none are in the top ten. Nor is Saudi Arabia or, come to that, any Arab country.

During the Cold War the Security Council did not make use of sanctions except on two occasions: against white-ruled Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) and apartheid-era South Africa. But from the early 1990s on they have been widely used against countries such as Iraq, ex-Yugoslavia and Haiti. In the beginning the poorest often suffered the most, as happened in Iraq.

These days sanctions are more carefully focussed – often designed to hurt the governing elite and its many privileges. Around a dozen embargoes are in effect. Even Russia and China have voted for sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program. International policy on terrorist financing has been harmonized. The Security Council has authorised action against Somali pirates (dramatically but truthfully portrayed in the new film, “Captain Phillips”).

Certificate-of-origin regimes have curtailed to some extent the trade in “blood diamonds” that financed several African civil wars.

The Security Council also has the power to refer cases of genocide and crimes against humanity to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. It did this for the first time in 2005, resulting in a (still outstanding) warrant for the arrest of Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir.

There is plenty to criticize the Council for. In 1993 the US, which worked side by side with the UN in Somalia – part of the UN but not of it – pulled out its troops after eighteen Army rangers were killed in an attempt to capture a warlord. Subsequently, President Bill Clinton sought to lay the blame on the UN, even though the rangers had been commanded directly by the US, not the UN. This malicious attempt to blacken the UN had a malign influence on American public opinion, constraining peacekeeping operations for many years. It was also a major contributory cause in Somalia descending into the pit of mayhem it now finds itself in.

In the Balkans during the civil wars the UN failed its mandate on a number of occasions. Most notorious of all was the failure of Dutch troops to protect the men and boys of Srebrenica from mass slaughter. In the Congo UN troops have been accused of rape and looting.

Saudi Arabia has plenty to contribute to the work, much of it of inestimable value, of the Security Council. Its decision to withdraw is inexplicable.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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