Saudi Arabia’s announcement last week that it would refuse a seat on the United Nations Security Council set a historic precedent. No other nation has ever refused a rotating seat on the powerful panel.
Granted, rotating members of the Security Council do not have the same all-powerful veto as the five permanent members (the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France), but a seat at the table is a high-profile position — one that Israel has been unable (and perhaps never will be able) to obtain.
And there’s the irony to this historic snub. Not only is Saudi Arabia refusing a seat Israel hasn’t been able to obtain for itself, but it is taking this step, in part, because of Israel.
In stating its reasons for turning down the seat, the Saudis cited the Security Council’s failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, to take action to end the civil war in Syria and to check the nuclear proliferation in Iran — which affects Israel as much as the Saudis.
According to the Jerusalem Post, the Saudis have “expressed disappointment at U.S. President Barack Obama’s failure to push Israel to end settlement building in the West Bank and agree to a Palestinian state.” The paper also noted that the Obama administration has “blocked the Palestinians’ push for full U.N. membership and vetoed a resolution condemning settlements.”
While Middle Eastern nations are urging Saudi Arabia to reconsider its decision, not everyone is distressed by the Arab kingdom’s decision to back away.
“A country whose legal system routinely lashes women rape victims rather than punish the perpetrators never belonged in the U.N. Security Council in the first place,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of the nongovernmental human rights group UN Watch, said in a prepared statement.
“Saudi Arabia has an abysmal human rights record, and by logic and morality never belonged on a Security Council where members need to address critical human rights and humanitarian issues,” Neuer added. “Saudi Arabia continues to rank as one of the worst places on the planet when it comes to the rights of women, freedom of religion and other fundamental liberties.”
We agree, and it’s not the first time something like this has happened. Countries with records of shocking human rights abuses have occupied positions of authority in the past. Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir, for instance, was elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2012, even though the International Criminal Court had issued a warrant for him accusing Bashir of crimes against humanity. And Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi actually chaired the panel in 2003.
Such examples point up a flaw in the United Nations that the assembly in general, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in particular, must address: Member countries given positions of power and responsibility should be vetted in some way before they take their seats. It’s fine for rogue states to be members of the U.N. General Assembly — there has to be some forum where the world can interact with them on a diplomatic basis — but commissions and panels that deal with human rights, refugees, international law, all of which the Security Council handles, ought to have reasonably clean track records.
(We’re not saying countries should be squeaky clean; not even the United States and Israel can make that claim).
Perhaps such vetting is not feasible today in a world body where Israel is routinely condemned, but it is something to which U.N. leaders should aspire.
For now at least, Saudi Arabia’s ironic snub to the Security Council has the same effect as vetting. For this time, at least, justice has been served.
The United Nations was founded upon high ideas. Sadly, it has not always lived up to those ideas. It’s still a worthwhile assembly, but if it is to have a positive impact on global affairs, it must lead by example as well as by word.