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

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

New Statesman
The UN Security Council. Photo:Getty.

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.