Why is Saudi Arabia refusing a seat at the UN Security Council?

Organisations like the UN are suffering from a crisis of legitimacy.

Saudi Arabia has rejected its seat on the UN Security Council, as a way of expressing its anger at the international community’s failure to take action in Syria.

The fifteen-seat Security Council includes five permanent members with veto power, the US, UK, France, China and Russia, and ten rotating members who hold the seat for two years. The Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement that “work mechanisms and double-standards on the Security Council prevent it from carrying out its duties,” adding that it “has no other option” but to turn down its seat until the Council reforms.

While I wouldn’t usually hold Saudi Arabia up as a model for promoting successful multilateralism, the foreign ministry has a point. The veto powers given to permanent members paralyses the Security Council as an executive body. On top of this, the Security Council’s permanent membership, drawn up in the aftermath of World War II, excludes some of the most populous countries, and some with the greatest economic and political power.

You could expand permanent membership, to include countries like Germany, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa or Brazil, but this would still exclude large parts of the world, and it wouldn’t make it any easier for the Security Council to reach decisions on complex international issues, like Syria’s civil war. The other alternative would be to abolish permanent members’ vetoes and/or abolish permanent membership so that Security Council decisions are decided by majority vote – but I can’t imagine any of the permanent Security Council members agreeing to this, and they would have to.

Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented stand is unlikely to foment any change in the short-term, but it is representative of the declining legitimacy of multilateral institutions, which are increasingly seen as tools used by Western powers against the rest. The International Criminal Court, for instance, is increasingly coming under fire from bodies like the African Union, who object to the fact that only African leaders have been tried.

For those who believe that these multilateral institutions are key, whether they help promote international peace, co-operation on shared problems like climate change or justice for citizens of despotic regimes, this is a serious problem.

One suggested solution, mooted by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations in a report released this week called “Now for the Long Term”, is that public institutions contain sunset clauses, forcing a regular review of their mandates to ensure they remain fit for purpose. But this, too, will require serious international political will, commitment and co-operation, and the world lacks all three.

 

The UN Security Council. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Emmanuel Macron offers Theresa May no comfort on Brexit

The French presidential candidate warned that he would not accept "any caveat or any waiver" at a press briefing in London.

Emmanuel Macron, the new wunderkind of French politics, has brought his presidential campaign to London. The current favourite to succeed François Hollande has a natural electoral incentive to do so. London is home to 300,000 French voters, making it by France's sixth largest city by one count (Macron will address 3,000 people at a Westminster rally tonight). But the telegenic centrist also took the time to meet Theresa May and Philip Hammond and to hold a press briefing.

If May hoped that her invitation would help soften Macron's Brexit stance (the Prime Minister has refused to engage with his rival Marine Le Pen), she will have been left disappointed. Outside No.10, Macron declared that he hoped to attract "banks, talents, researchers, academics" away from the UK to France (a remark reminiscent of David Cameron's vow to "roll out the red carpet" for those fleeing Hollande). 

At the briefing at Westminster's Central Hall, Macron quipped: "The best trade agreement for Britain ... is called membership of the EU". With May determined to deliver Brexit, he suggested that the UK would have to settle for a Canadian-style deal, an outcome that would radically reduce the UK's market access. Macron emphasised that he took a a "classical, orthodox" view of the EU, regarding the "four freedoms" (of people, capital, goods and services) as indivisible. Were Britain to seek continued financial passporting, the former banker said, it would have to make a significant budget "contribution" and accept continued immigration. "The execution of Brexit has to be compliant with our interests and the European interest".

The 39-year-old avoided a nationalistic tone ("my perspective is not to say France, France, France") in favour of a "coordinated European approach" but was unambiguous: "I don't want to accept any caveat or any waiver to what makes the single market and the EU." Were the UK, as expected, to seek a transitional arrangement, it would have to accept the continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Elsewhere, Macron insisted that his liberal economic stance was not an obstacle to his election. It would be fitting, he said, if the traditionally "contrarian" France embraced globalisation just as its counterparts were rejecting it. "In the current environment, if you're shy, you're dead," he declared. With his emotional, straight-talking approach (one derided by some as intellectually threadbare), Macron is seeking to beat the populists at their own game.

But his views on Brexit may yet prove academic. A poll published today showed him trailing centre-right candidate François Fillon (by 20-17) having fallen five points since his denunciation of French colonialism. Macron's novelty is both a strength and a weakness. With no established base (he founded his own party En Marche!), he is vulnerable to small swings in the public mood. If Macron does lose, it will not be for want of confidence. But there are unmistakable signs that his forward march has been halted. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.