Saudi Arabia in a diplomatic showdown at the UN

Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power is  author of the new book Cauldron of Humanity

Last week diplomats at the UN were amazed when Saudi Arabia did what no country had done before; turned down the seat it had just won on the Security Council.

As is well know the Security Council is made up of the 5 permanent seats occupied by China, Russia France, United Kingdom and the United States, plus 10 rotating seats, considered to be the most prestigious spots in international diplomacy.

 One of which the Saudi’s had just won.

Saudi Arabia had badly wanted that seat and had lobbied actively for it. But the moment it got the votes that handed it the coveted seat, it stepped back. According to BBC reports this created shock and confusion. The Russian Foreign Ministry called it bewildering.

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 criticized the UN for its failure to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, including Israeli's vast nuclear arsenals. Strangely, in the light of a joint Russian-American 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 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 legitimize their planned action of going to war with Iraq because of the 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 sorrow 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 authorized 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 the 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 ( Zimbabwe) and apartheid South Africa. But from the early 1990s on they have been widely used against countries such as Iraq, Yugoslavia and Haiti. In the beginning when sanctions were used, the poorest often suffered the most, as happened in Iraq.

These days sanctions are more carefully focused, 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 authorized action against Somali pirates, dramatically and truthfully portrayed in the new film, Captain Phillips.

Certificate-of-origin regimes have curtailed to some extent 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, pulled out its troops after its 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 contributor cause for Somalia descending into the pit of mayhem it 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 apparently guilty of rape and looting.

Saudi Arabia has plenty to contribute to the work of the Security Council. Its decision to withdraw is inexplicable.