Saudi King Abdullah greets President Barack Obama in 2009.
Less than 24 hours after being elected to the United Nations Security Council, the government of Saudi Arabia surprised the international community (and its own diplomats) by declining the seat. It’s the first time any country has rejected a seat, which are highly coveted because of the increased influence and prestige they afford a state.
Most observers believed that Saudi Arabia’s role on the Security Council could increase pressure on the organization to address the crisis in Syria, the Iranian nuclear program, and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But in declining the seat, Saudi officials run the risk of undermining the influence of the country more broadly. As one observer put it, “This is very bad for the image of the country. It’s as if someone woke up in the night and made this decision.” It’s clear that the decision could only have been made at the highest levels, likely requiring the direct approval of King Abdullah himself. Winning the seat required more than two years of diplomatic maneuvering and courting of support in the United Nations General Assembly. But in doing so, Saudi Arabia was also forced to move away from its preferred diplomatic style of discrete negotiation.
What do you think? Did Saudi Arabia make a mistake in declining the UN Security Council seat? Or does the move give the Saudi government greater leeway in addressing issues of concern to it? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
The United Nations elected five new non-permanent members to the Security Council today. The new members—Chad, Chile, Nigeria, Lithuania, and Saudi Arabia—replace five retiring non-permanent members. Recall that the United Nations Security Council has a total of 15 members, five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) each with veto power, and 10 rotating members elected to two year terms on a regional basis.
While the non-permanent members lack a veto, their position does give them considerable influence over the agenda of the body. Thus the seats are highly sought after.
The five new members replace Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan and Togo, and will assume their seats on January 1. Both Chile and Nigeria have held rotating seats on the Security Council previously, while it will be the first time on the body for Chad, Lithuania, and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps the most interesting question is how the new members might influence the work of the body. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, and the two countries often see eye-to-eye key issues in the Middle East. Nigeria’s membership also gives Africa a more powerful voice on the body. Nigeria is one of several countries that has lobbied for an expansion for the permanent membership on the group.
How do you think the new Security Council composition might influence the work of the body as it deals with contentious issues in Syria and elsewhere? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the UN Security Council, September 24, 2009.
Blogging at Foreign Policy, David Bosco yesterday posted an interesting proposal for reform of the United Nations Security Council. As most readers probably already know, the UN Security Council is comprised of 15 members. The five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) each possess a veto over Security Council action. In addition, ten non-permanent members are elected by a two-thirds majority vote of the General Assembly to two year terms on a regional basis.
The structure of the Security Council was set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when the five permanent members made more sense. The structure makes little sense today, though. Several important countries (such as Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) lack a permanent seat but want one. Meanwhile, the current permanent members of the Security Council are hesitant to embrace expansion, as any expansion would dilute their position.
And therein lies the challenge. Given the competing positions, there has been little agreement on how to move forward. And any changes would require the approval of 2/3 of the Member States in the General Assembly and agreement by the five permanent members of the Security Council. Thus while a general consensus that the Security Council’s structure needs reforming is widely shared, the specifics of any individual country’s membership on the Council draws opposition. Italy and Spain oppose Germany’s claim, Mexico, Columbia, and Argentina oppose Brazil, Pakistan opposes India, South Korea opposes Japan. The African bloc also demands membership, though precisely which countries would represent Africa on the Council is not entirely clear. Given this level of disagreement, it has been relatively easy for the permanent members of the Council to avoid the difficult decisions associated with reform.
And this is what makes Bosco’s proposal so intriguing. He suggests that the General Assembly engage in a policy of collective disobedience, refusing to approve any new rotating members for the Security Council until the permanent members of the Security Council move forward with a real reform of the Council. It would also force the various camps in the General Assembly to set aside their competing positions and develop a coherent reform proposal. Bosco notes the collective action problem that would have to be overcome for this proposal to work. Nevertheless, it represents in interesting possibility in moving a twenty-year old debate forward.
What do you think? Should Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan be granted permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council? Can the United Nations overcome the structural challenges it faces and reform its structure to become more relevant in the 21st century? Or will competing positions and the structural power of the permanent members undermine proposals for reform? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
Adoption of the new mandate was unanimous, meaning that the Rwandan government, which currently holds a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council, supported the measure. This is surprising because the government of the DR Congo has accused Rwanda of supporting rebel groups operating in that region. Much of the ongoing fighting and instability in that region is the direct result of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which resulted in Hutu extremists fleeing across the DR Congo-Rwandan border to escape prosecution in Rwanda.
The move was also surprising in that it represents a considerable expansion of the UN mission in the Congo. Traditionally, United Nations peacekeepers have been authorized to use force only in self-defense. They generally observe and monitor existing agreements and provide a stabilizing force in the conflict. They have generally not been authorized to use force to end conflict or establish a peace. Indeed, there is considerable debate in the literature as to whether or not the United Nations either should be involved or can be effective in such a role. And since the dramatic failure of the UN mission in Somalia in the early 1990s, the United Nations has been incredibly hesitant to expand its peacekeeping role.
The expanded mission in the DR Congo thus represents in interesting development for the United Nations. It the mission proves successful, and the United Nations forces are able to establish stability in the region, successfully disarm rebel groups, and ensure the security of civilians in the area, then we might see greater use of the tool in the future. If the mission fails—as happened so dramatically in Mogadishu in 1993—then UN peacekeeping operations might be derailed for another decade.
What do you think? Should the United Nations be engaged in peacemaking operations? Or should UN forces keep within their narrow peacekeeping mandate? Will the mission in the DR Congo be a success? And what will be the effects of a successful (or unsuccessful?) operation there? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
The government of Mali has been struggling to counter the growing influence of al Qaeda-linked groups in the northern part of the country. Two groups, the National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) heave been pushing for greater independence.
Blogging at Turtle Bay, Colum Lynch notes that the Security Council resolution provides broad authorization for foreign governments to “take all necessary measures” and provide “any necessary assistance” in support of Mali’s fight against Islamic extremists. Such measures could range from the deployment of military advisors and the provision of training and material support, to the use of drones or other forms of direct military intervention in northern Mali.
The Security Council’s decision was somewhat surprising, particularly given the fact that the organization had been so hesitant to consider the situation in Mali previously. However, the decision also reflects a new tactic in the war on terror. Rather than engaging directly in operations against Islamic extremists, the United States and other western nations are deferring to local and regional governments in the region to address the issue. This tactic raises an interesting question. What happens if the regional peacekeeping forces are unable to address the threat? How far should U.S. support go? At what point does the United States transition from “advice and support” to “direct intervention”? Would such a (revised) role require Congressional approval? Would Congress even support such an initiative? And more generally, would such a move transition the role of the United Nations from peacekeeping to peacemaking? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.
The United States and Israel are likely to be fairly isolated when they vote against Palestine’s application for non-member observer state status. It already enjoys observer status in the United Nations. Its new status would put it in the same category as the Holy See (the Vatican), which has held nonmember state status since 1964.
So why not become a full member?
There are currently 193 member states of the United Nations. According to the UN Charter, membership is “open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.”
More practically, to become a member of the United Nations, a state’s candidacy must be approved by the General Assembly (by two-thirds vote) upon the recommendation of the Security Council. And there’s the rub. The voting structure of the Security Council grants five countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) veto power over the decisions of the body. Any single permanent member the power to block decisions of the group.
This is why, for example, Taiwan has never garnered UN membership; the government of China would block any vote in the Security Council, effectively terminated Taiwan’s application.
In the case of Palestine, the United States would veto the application, ending the process. So Palestine is left with the idea of applying for non-member observer state status, which requires only the approval of the General Assembly.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said today he would seek UN Security Council recognition for a Palestinian state.
Palestinian leaders are expected to take their bid for statehood to the United Nations next week, potentially provoking a diplomatic showdown that could have serious consequences for Israel, Palestine, and the United States. The UN Security Council has the power to approve Palestine’s admission as a full member state, but the United States is one of five veto-wielding permanent members of the council (along with Russia, China, Britain, and France), and the U.S. has promised to veto any resolution approving Palestinian statehood. The U.S. and Israeli position is that Palestinian statehood should be achieved through direct negotiations with Israel. Despite this veto threat, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said today that he would seek Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state.
While the Security Council effort is destined to fail, Palestine could gain a partial victory through the UN General Assembly. The General Assembly has the power to upgrade Palestine’s status from “observer entity” to “observer state,” and such a resolution will almost certainly succeed since each UN member state gets one vote in the General Assembly (the majority of member states back Palestinian statehood). As this article at Politico notes, “with that enhanced status, the Palestinians could take some actions against Israel, including filing cases in the International Criminal Court [ICC].” The prospect of ICC charges stemming from Israeli actions is discussed here.
A Foreign Policy article entitled “ Train Wreck in Turtle Bay” describes the costs to all parties of a diplomatic clash over Palestinian statehood: “A diplomatic confrontation is not in the interest of any party. For Israel, it could prompt an outburst of public anger and possible violence in the occupied territories that would be a security challenge at home and deepen its growing isolation abroad. For Palestinians, it could mean a return to more restrictive forms of control by Israeli occupation authorities, more checkpoints and roadblocks, as well as other forms of retaliation, including punitive economic measures. For the United States, it risks bringing back traditional anti-American sentiment front and center to Arab political discourse at a time when the country has been increasingly perceived as a positive force standing with the people against dictators.”
What do you think? Is the Palestinian effort to achieve statehood through the UN a wise idea, or will any statehood effort be counterproductive if it does not first gain Israel’s approval?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is believed to be responsible for the deaths of over 1,300 civilians since anti-regime protests began in March.
The news from Syria is growing more ominous by the day, with reports of continued bloody crackdowns on protesters, troops marching north for a major offensive, refugees fleeing across the border into Turkey, and the apparent use of Palestinians as cannon fodder against Israel as a diversionary tactic.
Meanwhile, the United Nations appears unable to take even modest steps to address the situation. Since Russia is a strong ally of Syria and is one of five countries (along with the U.S., Britain, France, and China) to possess veto power on the UN Security Council, it is widely believed that Russia would veto any resolution calling for economic sanctions or military force against Syria. Russia, China, and other Security Council members also believe that the U.S., France, and Britain have moved well beyond the UN mandate to protect civilians in Libya and are now seeking regime change. They oppose any condemnation of Syria that might open the door to another Libya-type intervention. Thus, French and British UN representatives have carefully worded their draft resolution on Syria to remove any potentially objectionable mention of sanctions or threats of intervention. In short, the resolution condemns Syria’s crackdown but contains no “teeth.” It is therefore unlikely to have any effect on the ground in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, is determined to crush any opposition that threatens his grip on power.
Is the UN Security Council, with its veto powers bestowed on the “Big 5” victors from World War II, a relic of a bygone era that needs to be ditched or dramatically reformed? After all, we’ve seen this deadlock all too frequently before, with Russia and China blocking action on Kosovo and Darfur, and the U.S. vetoing any resolution that condemns Israel’s behavior. Will the UN stand by as a massacre unfolds in Syria? Does any global organization whose structure prevents it from acting against such atrocities deserve to call itself a protector of international peace and security? Does it even deserve to exist?