Last week, Saudi Arabia was one of five states elected to the UN Security Council for a two-year term. In a surprise move, they released a statement to the press the next day rejecting their seat. In what follows, I'm going to explore their decision and why the hierarchical nature of the Security Council is frustratingly difficult to overcome. That hierarchy has a real effect on smaller, less powerful, or historically disadvantaged states, and the Saudis' frustration is the latest sign that Security Council reform has a long way to go.
So here's what happened:
Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has actively pursued membership on the UN Security Council - they've lobbied for a seat, trained staff, even celebrated their election to the Security Council on the floor of the General Assembly. This was a big deal to them.
Then Friday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a press release denouncing the UNSC for its failures on the Israel-Palestine issue, Syria, and "work mechanisms and double-standards on the Security Council" that make it ineffective. Why the sudden change of heart?
As we can assume all states do, Saudi Arabia is seeking its rational self-interest in international affairs (we may not always agree what that is or how to achieve it, but that's the idea). The Saudis' conception of their self-interest is primarily focused on their regional rivalry with Iran, which they see through the lenses of sectarian difference (Sunni Saudi Arabia vs. Shi'ite Iran), military power (Iran's nuclear program is a big concern), and economics (sanctions against Iran have an effect on Iran's ability to export oil and compete in other economic arenas).
Now consider Saudi Arabia's self-interest in Syria as it relates to Iran. The Assad regime is backed by Iran, and remains one of Iran's primary allies so long as it remains in power. The majority of the population in Syria is Sunni; whether Saudi Arabia's support for the rebels is religious or purely self-interested is less certain than the fact that they benefit both from a prominent role in ending the war and from regime change. They can remove a major ally of Iran and possibly gain one of their own, even if this takes time and effort. Certainly the UN Security Council's feet-shuffling on this issue must have been maddening for a state seeking to influence the regional balance of power.
Note also that Iran is now in a series of negotiations regarding its nuclear programs. Negotiations with whom? The five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council plus Germany. Not the full Security Council as an ad hoc negotiating group or Informal Council. Just the P5(+1). We'll come back to the implications of those states' membership in a bit.
Add in a little flavor, namely that Saudi Arabia's relationship with the United States has become more distant over Middle East issues like Egypt, where Saudi Arabia has chosen to support the military even after the US has withdrawn support, and you can see how a royal family might feel like its overtures to power were being...stymied, perhaps by other states, but perhaps also by institutional design. It's also likely that Saudi Arabia had some concerns about taking public stances on particular issues and that the differences with the US over Egypt drew this concern into stark relief.
Does this mean Saudi Arabia did the right thing for their self interest? It's hard to say. Analysts have mostly been baffled by the decision, noting that Security Council members, even the elected non-permanent ones, have important roles in agenda setting and crafting the non-binding Press Statements that come from the Council. But this is bold! No one's ever done this before! Is this actually going to result in some kind of reform?
That last question is the most interesting to me. Because even though it's true that a UN Member State who is on the Security Council has more power on security issues than one who isn't, Saudi Arabia has pointed out one of the biggest problems with the Security Council: it is fundamentally hierarchical, the power structure in that hierarchy is very asymmetrical, and that hierarchy is the aspect of the UNSC that is most difficult to change.
What do I mean by a hierarchy? Here's the deal: each state in the UN is not created equal when it comes to matters of security. In the General Assembly, everybody gets one vote, and while it'd be a stretch to call it a democracy, at least all the states are treated as roughly equal. In the Security Council, the great powers who won World War II (the US, UK, France, Russia, and China) set themselves up with permanent seats that have a veto over any of the binding (potentially backed by sanctions or force) resolutions that the Security Council issues. In other words, any one of those five states can, by their disagreement alone, prevent the resolution of any issue that comes before the Council, at any time. The veto makes these members immensely powerful on the Security Council. The elected, non-permanent members have the ability to vote on binding resolutions (these votes do matter - if the P5 all voted for a measure and were outvoted by the elected members, their will would be overturned; in practice this never happens), and they serve rotating terms on the Council's presidency; since the Council does much of its work by consensus, elected members get substantial say in the agenda, work, and output of the Council.
But their influence isn't nearly the same as the permanent members. Because any state can come before the Security Council when its interests are directly affected by an issue before the Council, all UN members have some presence on the Council. But many have never held a seat on the Council, and have much less experience of its procedures and standards. So the hierarchy goes something like this:
(1) Permanent members (always Russia, France, the UK, China, and the US)
(2) Elected, non-permanent members with two-year terms
(3) UN member states not currently on the Council who've been there before
(4) All other UN member states
(5) Everybody else (non-member states, regional organizations, NGOs, individuals affected by an issue before the council, etc.)
And as you go down the hierarchy you have less power.
But the most important thing, the thing Saudi Arabia's trying to draw our attention to, isn't that they were trying to jump from number 4 to number 2 on that hierarchy. It's that the five states in bucket number 1 have such a great amount of power as to nearly make buckets 2 through 5 insignificant by comparison. Moving anywhere along the rest of the hierarchy, we might interpret Saudi Arabia to be saying, is a waste of resources. The permanent members of the Security Council have a substantially larger amount of power that affects everything about the way the council works, and it's in the UN Charter itself!
Think back to Syria. Saudi Arabia has put endless diplomatic hours into the issue. They're actively supporting rebel groups financially, militarily, the whole deal. But when the US threatened to attack Syria over chemical weapons, a relative non-issue for the Saudis (they're certainly not angels on the issue of human rights, as its pummeling at the UN Human Rights Council on Monday made clear), and Russia worked with the US to craft a new Security Council resolution that neither resolved the conflict nor met the Saudis' interest, it suddenly became clear that the Security Council was not nearly so influential a body as they had hoped. Two states suddenly decided to take action where fifteen working allegedly in concert did nothing. And none of the elected, non-permanent members had a substantive say in that process.
So while we can see the Saudis' announcement through their eyes now, we can also see it as a clear demand for reform on the UN Security Council. Because all the permanent members were decided upon when the UN Charter was originally agreed to in 1945, its membership is an historical anachronism. Because the council has an asymmetrical hierarchy, reform is a matter of justice: the imbalance of power affects small states substantially, and even though their issues may be pressing, they can be ignored or marginalized if their interests don't align with a P5 member. Even heavily populated states like India and Brazil or economically powerful states like Germany and Japan get left out of the all-important veto. What about the have-nots? Security issues could come up for just about anybody, and do, frequently, all over the globe.
So it's not just about Saudi Arabia. Reform affects everybody. How's that going, anyway?
UN Security Council reform focuses on three key issues:
A) Expansion of the number of states with the veto*;
B) Membership of the UNSC itself, expanding from 15 to (e.g.) 24 members, or adding regional bodies like the EU to the council, etc.;
C) Modification of working methods within the council, to improve results, accountability, and the perceived legitimacy of council actions.
The more substantive or specific the reform, though, the harder the pushback from the P5. They have all this power: why give it up? For instance, in 2005, a group nicknamed the "small five" (S5, consisting of Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland), frustrated with the 2005 World Summit and its weak attempts at UN reform, made a political push to at least change the way the Security Council did its business. Theoretically, this is the easiest kind of reform, since it doesn't require changes to the UN Charter. But push back the P5 did, eventually bullying the S5 from introducing a draft resolution on the subject in 2012.
Saudi Arabia's rejection of the Security Council is a whole new kind of challenge to the institutional order. We might call it civil disobedience, even, since it's more than just an angry letter: this will (likely) require a new election on the Security Council or could end up causing the council to be one member short (less likely), depending on the formal language used in the notification sent to the President of the General Assembly: either way, this is going to be disruptive to the actual day-to-day work of the United Nations itself in addition to all the controversy.
And it could be the rallying cry for a new kind of unity on Security Council Reform. At least 100 states reportedly supported the S5's attempts at changing working methods; can Saudi Arabia start a new working group with supporting states?
Or is this the sort of banner that other states will take up? Or the sort of thing that's better left to NGOs and think tanks, so that we can design and lobby for institutional changes that make sense to the P5 and to the wider UN?
The answer isn't obvious, but we should all care about this issue. Even if we care more about the humanitarian situation in Syria than Saudi Arabia does, UN reform, and especially UN Security Council reform, doesn't happen by accident or by magic. The weight of the issues before the UN Security Council requires people taking thoughtful advantage of political opportunities like this one. Let's do that, shall we?
* I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Responsibility Not to Veto, a proposal for reform that encourages the P5 to adopt a standard that they will not use (or threaten) a veto in cases of genocide and mass atrocity. As proposed by GlobalSolutions.org, this need only be a voluntary step, a standard operating procedure. If this were the norm in the Security Council, we may not be in this situation at all, as Russia would likely have agreed to resolutions on Syria that satisfied the human rights community, which might have affected the Saudis' decision on Friday.