A bold Saudi call for reform of UN

The Saudi decision to disdain a seat on the Security Council is an act of frustration.

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Most of the world shares the frustration that led the government of Saudi Arabia to spurn a two-year term as one of the 10 non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

After all, the UN has proved to be utterly unable to deliver either justice or even solace for the people of Syria, where a discredited regime clings to power as society crumbles. The Arab world, in particular, has watched in horror as the Syrian death toll mounts, as refugees flood into neighbouring countries, and as armed extremists with sinister motives expand their presence.

Friday’s news that the kingdom had rejected a Security Council seat was a product of the UN’s impotence over Syria, but also of the world body’s failure to find a resolution to the Israel-Palestine problem. The statement from the Saudi foreign ministry was a sharp rebuke to the UN’s whole diplomatic architecture and the impasse it can generate.

Governments and diplomats in particular usually suppress anger and frustration and calmly pursue the best possible solution, or more often the least bad one, to any given problem. But the Saudis, by their action on Friday, have done something more dramatic than making more of the same diplomatic murmurings: they have signalled an urgent need for fundamental reform of the UN.

And they are not alone. Yesterday Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s Foreign Minister, while reiterating the UAE’s “total belief in international mechanisms and teamwork” declared that “Saudi Arabia’s preliminary decision touches the conscience of Arabs and Muslims” since the UN has been so ineffective on regional problems.

To be sure, Friday’s decision is preliminary. But even if they relent, the Saudis have already sent a serious signal. Their action, Sheikh Abdullah noted, “puts the United Nations, the permanent members of the Security Council and the Secretary-General in particular, in front of a historic responsibility to review the Council’s role, its powers and its charter …”

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 real Saudi message is that the UN is too important, as a potential force for justice, to be pushed to the sidelines by any one or two member states in time of crisis.