In October, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of rejecting a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council “until it is reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties.” It would have marked Riyadh’s debut at the council, despite being a founding member of the UN. The decision makes Saudi Arabia the first country to have ever been elected onto the council and then refuse its seat. It is also a rare break from its tradition of ‘quiet’ diplomacy. “The Kingdom sees that the method and work mechanism and the double standards in the Security Council prevent it from properly shouldering its responsibilities towards world peace,” said the Foreign Ministry. It specifically referred to the failure to resolve the Syrian and Arab-Israeli conflicts, and to make the Middle East a region free from weapons of mass destruction.

The ministry said the council’s inaction was allowing President Bashar Assad to commit crimes against the Syrian people with impunity. Also, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah Al Mouallimi, accused the organisation of being “incapable” of stopping Israel’s

“daily violations” and “aggression” against the Palestinians, describing the occupation as “a major threat to international peace and security.”

support for riyadh

The wisdom of Riyadh’s decision has been fiercely debated regionally and internationally, but opinion has been less divided about the need for UN reform. “Most of the world” shares Riyadh’s “frustration,” Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National wrote in an editorial. “Calls for reform of the antiquated make-up of the Security Council are not new. But this one, coming as it does in the context of the Syrian tragedy, should focus the world’s attention.”

The Saudi decision has indeed prompted others to make such calls. This is somewhat unsurprising coming from certain quarters, but important nonetheless. The head of the 22-nation Arab League has expressed his backing, as has regional powerhouse Turkey, whose president said the UN is “losing quite a lot of… credibility.”

The secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council – comprising wealthy members Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – called for “fundamental reform” of the Security Council. The UAE’s foreign minister spoke of “a historic responsibility to review the council’s role, its powers and its charter.”

These countries and organisations have been joined by less likely voices, whose backing lends considerable weight to the argument for UN reform. France, a permanent Security Council member, said it shared Riyadh’s “frustration” over the council’s “paralysis.”
Its Foreign Ministry spokesman said France was proposing reforms to the council’s veto rights. He did not elaborate, but in September Paris said the five permanent council members should no longer have the power to veto resolutions when they involve “mass crimes.” This is a momentous proposal, coming as it does from one of the ‘big five.’

It looks like China – another permanent council member, and the world’s next superpower – also sympathises with Riyadh’s motives. Its “dramatic” decision “should prompt the international community to contemplate the role of the UN and reform of the Security Council,” wrote the China Daily, which reflects government policy. Saudi Arabia “is not alone in pressing the world body to reform,” the editorial added. “Considering reform of the Security Council is an important part of international governance reform, the UN should set an example and boost the momentum for change. Only by doing so can it retain its own credibility, live up to the wishes of people around the world and contribute more to building world peace and stability.”

Even Riyadh’s arch foe Iran is backing its call. “To continue its presence in the international political and economic scene, the UN needs to undertake fundamental reforms,” said its deputy foreign minister.

need for reform

Security Council reform is long overdue. It has only happened once in the UN’s 68-year history, and that was in 1963 – half a century ago – when four new non- permanent seats were created, making a total of 10 that are elected every two years.

Calls for reform tend to focus on increasing the number of council seats – permanent and otherwise – to better represent developing nations, as well as global powers that do not have veto power. However, there would likely be wrangling over how many extra seats to create, and particularly over which countries – if any – should be granted veto powers.

In any case, neither approach would solve the council’s fundamental problems. Expanding the number of non-permanent seats would be merely cosmetic, since those with veto power could still block resolutions at any time. And introducing more permanent members would only increase the very paralysis for which the council is being criticised, since there would be more countries able to veto whatever they like.

security council vetoes

The age-old rivalry between certain permanent members has resulted in shameful inaction over issues and conflicts of global importance, the starkest examples being those brought up by the Saudis: the Arab-Israeli and Syrian conflicts. The former has long been peppered with American vetoes in support of Israel, while Assad is backed by Russian and Chinese vetoes vis-à-vis the uprising against him.

According to the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, there have been a total of 264 vetoes up to August 2012 (more recent data is not provided by the office or the UN). It is no surprise that the biggest users (or abusers) of this power are Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) and the US, with 123 and 83 vetoes respectively. Moscow ac- counts for 47% of vetoes, with Washington at 31%.

This means that just two countries are responsible for more than three-quarters of total vetoes. However, 97% of Russia’s vetoes were wielded before 1985. The US is currently the most frequent user, having done so no less than 13 times regarding Israel / Palestine between May 1995 and February 2011. Although China has used its veto least, its rate of use is increasing, with five of its 10 being cast since 2007.

A look through the UN’s list of vetoed draft resolutions (data is only provided until July 2012) shows that the Arab world has been particularly affected, being the target of 36% of such vetoes. The US alone is responsible for a whopping 58% of those, almost all in support of Israel. Russia comes a distant second at 26%. Again, this means that just two countries account for 84% of draft-resolution vetoes.

radical solution

As controversial as it is, the only effective solution is to abolish the Security Council altogether. Its veto powers render the UN inherently and woefully undemocratic, as any one of just five countries can trump the wishes of the rest of the world – 193 member states in total – either by vetoing a resolution, or forcing amendments to avert a veto.

As has already been explained, issues of international importance and concern are often held hostage by just two countries – the US and Russia – and frequently to the detriment of Arabs specifically. This status quo cannot continue indefinitely – it is not only severely dysfunctional, but also outdated.

The countries with veto power were the big victors of World War II – this reflects an order that prevailed almost 70 years ago, and which is no longer relevant today.

France, Britain, and even Russia are not the international powers they used to be, while countries such as Germany and Japan have long been important global players, and others such as Brazil and India are fast on the rise.

It would be far more equitable to rely solely on voting in the General Assembly – where every UN member is represented – and abolish veto power. To reflect the reality of countries’ varying power and influence, a system could be established whereby some have more votes than others.

This could be determined either according to population size (as with individual states in the US electoral system), economic size, countries’ contributions to the UN, or a formula combining all three.

China and India both have populations in excess of one billion, while the following countries top 100 million (in descending order): the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Japan and Mexico.

Economic size could be determined by Gross National Product (GNP-the total output generated by a country’s enterprises, whether located domestically or abroad), or Gross Domestic Product (GDP-the total output produced within a country’s borders, whether by local or foreign firms), or a combination of both.

The 10 countries with the largest GNP (in descending order) are the US, China, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Brazil, India and Canada. The top-10 list is almost identical in terms of GDP: the US, China, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Brazil, Russia, Italy and India.

The 10 biggest contributors to the UN budget (in descending order) are the US, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, China, Italy, Canada, Spain and Brazil. However, contributions to peacekeeping and other operations could also be considered. The 10 countries that provide the most peacekeepers (in descending order) are Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Nepal, Jordan, Ghana, Rwanda and Uruguay.

Making contributions a factor in apportioning votes would provide a considerable incentive for countries to actively participate in the wellbeing of the UN (financially and otherwise). Basing a system on populations, economies, contributions, or all three would allow for periodic amendments to voting rights according to changing demographic and/or economic circumstances, as opposed to the old, rigid, and largely irrelevant arrangement we have today.

As can be seen in the aforementioned lists, the current permanent council members would still enjoy enhanced voting rights in a reformed General Assembly. As such, opposing such an initiative would be a blatant, selfish attempt by them to maintain an unfair monopoly on international power and influence, at the expense of other deserving countries.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what they are likely to do. The fundamental problem with such a proposal is also the very reason why it is necessary: it would be blocked by the veto powers. This hinders the possibility of ever seeing meaningful reform to the Security Council, and more generally to the UN. That, in turn, jeopardises the long-term relevance and effectiveness of the organisation, and perhaps even its very survival.

Sharif Nashashibi