On Tuesday, Saudia Arabia made official its rejection of a highly sought after seat on the UN Security Council in a letter to the President of the General Assembly. The letter confirmed in writing its surprise decision of October 18 (announced less than 24 hours after its election) to forgo a prestigious seat on the Council. The letter now enables the General Assembly to start the process of filling the seat, which will be vacant come January 2014.
Saudia Arabia’s decision to reject the seat stunned the diplomatic world, and it appeared, even its own diplomats in New York. Saudia Arabia had been campaigning for the seat for two years, and in a press statement immediately after the election (available on its Mission’s website), the Saudi Ambassador to the UN stated:
“This membership defines the absolute commitment of Saudi Arabia towards peace in the World and security in its land. It is a defining moment in the Kingdom’s history. As one of the first founding members of the United Nations, our election is much to rejoice over. We welcome the positive shift as well as challenges of being part of the Security Council body.”
The reasons for the sudden about-face appear two fold. First, Al Jazeera reported that “The Foreign Ministry accused the Security Council of failing to end the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and to convene a conference on creating a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction.” Second, Saudi Arabia referred to the need for Security Council reform, stating “the manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards” prevented the Council from performing its responsibilities.”
While it is tempting to read Saudia Arabia’s rejection of the seat as a new verse in the longstanding refrain for Security Council reform, it is hard to believe this was really the motivating factor. First, the Kingdom’s decision appears to have been taken by the King and Foreign Ministry on the spur of the moment, and was not a calculated or longstanding strategy. Second, with the current situation in Syria, the seat gives any country in the region a leadership role, and regardless of the Council’s structure, it is curious that a powerful and influential country like Saudia Arabia with a clear interest in the conflict would decline this opportunity. Indeed, if reform were a top priority, it would be easier to make the case as a Council member. Finally, earlier this week, Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN Human Rights Council, suggesting it is willing to assume obligations in other spheres, but perhaps not on sensitive matters of peace and security.
Although an elected member refusing to take up its seat is unprecedented, there have been situations in the past where a seat has been vacant for short periods. This excellent article by Security Council Report, provides a comprehensive overview of how the Security Council has handled these situations, and what potential political and legal issues follow a vacant seat. Interestingly, foremost among the legal issues is the possibility that decisions taken by a Security Council short a member (14 instead of 15) would be open to challenge.
Jordan appears willing and able to assume the seat, and it is expected to officially announce its interest shortly. It is expected that only a replacement from the region will step forward, because the seat vacated by Saudia Arabia is, as SCR notes in the report above, “an Arab seat that “swings” between the Middle East countries in the Asia-Pacific Group and the countries of North Africa every two years.” In addition, the election of non-permanent members of the Council are elected pursuant to Article 23 of the UN Charter, which states that equitable geographical distribution is important in allocating seats.
While Jordan has not, to my knowledge, announced an election platform to date, it would be led by a formidable international lawyer, Jordan’s Permanent Representative, His Royal Highness Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, (who has been considered a potential contender for for the position of Secretary General). Prince Zeid is well respected in international law circles due to his role in the ICC and his 2005 report on Sexual Exploitation and UN Peacekeepers. The successor to Saudia Arabia’s seat would, according to the current calendar, be required to assume the role of presidency of the Council for the month of January, a momentous undertaking that requires great preparation. Even if Jordan emerges as the sole candidate (and it is too soon to know whether this will be the case) an election would be called by the General Assembly under the normal rules, requiring a candidate to obtain a 2/3 majority.