The Multilateralist

Saudi Arabia’s Civil Disobedience at the United Nations

Saudi Arabia’s Civil Disobedience at the United Nations

The UN world is buzzing this morning after Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of declining membership on the UN Security Council.

Earlier this week, the kingdom was elected to a nonpermanent seat along with Chad, Nigeria, Lithuania, and Chile. It marked the first time the Saudis had secured a Council seat. By all indications, the election was the culmination of a long diplomatic campaign to change the country’s foreign policy profile. In anticipation of Council service, the Saudi UN mission had apparently boosted its diplomatic staff and given personnel special training on Council procedures and working methods. There’s evidence that the decision to reject the seat took the country’s UN mission by surprise.

The Saudi foreign ministry’s statement highlighted the Council’s failures on Syria and Palestine as the primary reasons for its decision. But it’s difficult to see what has changed on those fronts in recent months that would occasion such a dramatic diplomatic move. In fact, the Council has adopted a much tougher stance toward Syria than ever before and is attempting to strip the country of its chemical weapons. The absence of any obvious recent trigger for the Saudi move raises the question of whether this was an elaborate act of protest planned long in advance.

Whatever the reasons, the Saudi move has some important short-term and longer-term implications for the United Nations. In the short term, the General Assembly will have to figure out whether and how to fill the Saudi seat (assuming there’s no change of heart in Riyadh). One possibility is that the Saudis will still be treated as Council members who are, in essence, boycotting the body. There is past precedent for the Council operating with one of its members boycotting (the Soviets boycotted for several months in the early 1950s). But it seems more likely that the General Assembly will choose a new member. If so, the Arab group at the UN will try to reach consensus about their new candidate and present it to the General Assembly. If they can’t for some reason, there could be a relatively rare contested vote in the full Assembly. 

The potential longer-term implications are more intriguing. The Saudi move may ultimately become nothing more than an odd historical footnote in the Council’s history. But it could also presage a broader strategy on the part of UN members for effecting change in the Council’s membership and methods. A few months ago, I suggested a "modest proposal" for UN member states fed up with the Council’s antiquated structure and despairing at the possibility of reform: they could stop participating in the annual General Assembly elections of  non-permanent Council members.

Refusing to engage in the annual Security Council election process until there is reform would be a modest and proportional act of disobedience. There would be a significant collective action problem, of course, and states would have to pledge in advance to abstain. But if that cooperation could hold, the manuever might radically change the landscape. With a large bloc of states withholding votes, no new members could be elected, and the council would face an institutional crisis. Large-scale abstention could force the permanent members to engage in the reform debate in a way they have mostly avoided to this point.

In some ways, Saudi Arabia’s move is an even more dramatic gesture of defiance. And while Syria and Palestine were apparently the focus of its discontent, the foreign ministry’s statement also criticized general double standards embedded in the Council’s work. "Work mechanisms and double-standards on the Security Council prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace," it read. That kind of sentiment resonates with most of the UN’s membership and may have been designed to generate a broader push against the Council structure.

There are all sorts of political and diplomatic reasons that other states will be hesitant to emulate the Saudi move. For all the rhetoric about the Council’s dysfunction and double standards, most states aren’t willing to pick a fight over them. While they won’t say so publicly, many states likely prefer the current Council structure to  a revised one that might give permanent seats to regional rivals. What’s more, Saudi Arabia is an unlikely leader of a reformist push in Turtle Bay. But if the strange Saudi act of protest somehow does catch on, the consequences for the Security Council could be dramatic.