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Home News Saudi withdrawal stuns UN Security Council

Saudi withdrawal stuns UN Security Council

Published on 18/10/2013

Saudi Arabia angrily rejected a Security Council seat Friday, accusing the body of "double standards" in an unprecedented diplomatic outburst one day after winning the seat.

The decision stunned the international powers. Russia criticised the move, which Saudi Arabia blamed on the council’s deadlock on the Syria and Israel-Palestinian conflicts.

Western nations were more understanding, however, and diplomats said there was a chance the conservative kingdom could change its mind.

“A very big surprise,” said Australia’s UN ambassador Gary Quinlan as he entered the Security Council chamber Friday. Australia is a current temporary member of the 15-nation Security Council.

Saudi Arabia was one of five nations elected by the UN General Assembly on Thursday to start a two-year term on the Security Council. The others were Chad, Chile, Lithuania and Nigeria. All had stood unopposed.

Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador, Abdullah Al-Mouallimi, gave several press interviews hailing the election.

But the celebrations had barely finished when the Saudi foreign ministry announced the withdrawal.

“Work mechanisms and double-standards on the Security Council prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Therefore Saudi Arabia… has no other option but to turn down Security Council membership until it is reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties and assume its responsiblities in preserving the world’s peace and security,” it added.

No country has ever won a council seat and then refused to take it up.

Russia boycotted council meetings in 1950 in a dispute over who represents China. But they did not reject their seat, and the council could still meet.

In 1980, Cuba and Colombia failed to get a required majority in repeat General Assembly votes. The Council met with 14 members for two weeks until Mexico was finally elected.

If Saudi Arabia maintains the threat, the Asia-Pacific group of nations would have to propose a new candidate for the UN General Assembly to vote on.

“These things have to be decided by the group, and others, and I don’t know whether or not Saudi Arabia can be persuaded to assume its position,” said Pakistan’s UN envoy Masood Khan. Saudi Arabia was to replace Pakistan on the council.

Amid the diplomatic disarray, the decision again highlighted international divisions over the Syria conflict. The Security Council passed its first resolution on the civil war in September, when it ordered the destruction of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons.

Russia and China have vetoed three other western-backed resolutions seeking to put pressure on Assad over the conflict, which the UN says has left more than 100,000 dead.

The Russian foreign ministry sharply criticised Saudi Arabia’s “strange” argument on the council’s record on Syria. Russia and Saudi Arabia have a traditionally testy relationship made worse by the Russia’s support for Assad while Saudi Arabia is a major backer of opposition rebels.

“We are surprised by Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision,” said a Russian foreign ministry statement.

“In this way, Saudi Arabia has excluded itself from collective work within the Security Council to support international peace and security.”

It added: “The kingdom’s arguments arouse bewilderment, and the criticism of the UN Security Council in the context of the Syrian conflict is particularly strange.”

However, France said it shared Saudi Arabia’s frustration.

“We think that Saudi Arabia would have brought a very positive contribution to the Security Council, but we do also understand the frustration of Saudi Arabia,” France’s UN ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters.

“The fact is that the Security Council has been unable to act now for more than two years,” he added.

Araud said the Saudi reaction is “the reflection of the frustration of a large part of the international community.”

Other western envoys said they were trying to contact the Saudis to get more information in the hope that they could be persuaded to take up the seat.