Middle East


Reforming the Security Council: Where Are the Arabs?

Recent discussion about United Nations reform has focused on Security Council composition and the veto. What would such reform mean for the Arab world? When world leaders assembled at the U.N. [in September], the legitimacy and effectiveness of the organization, particularly that of a Security Council undermined by disagreements over Iraq, was much on their minds.

The council today has 15 members, with five having been granted permanent status in 1945 and endowed with vetoes: China, France, the U.S.S.R. (later replaced by the Russian Federation), the United Kingdom, and the United States. The remaining members are elected for two-year terms by the entire U.N. membership. By tradition, the Arab world has occupied one nonpermanent seat within the council drawn from either Africa’s quota or Asia’s.

With the council’s higher profile since the end of the Cold War, its flaws have become more readily apparent. It is secretive, dominated by the permanent five, and heavily weighted toward the industrialized world, with four of the permanent members and several nonpermanent members from the global North. The existence of vetoes irritates many member states, not least Arab populations frustrated by repeated American vetoes of resolutions giving expression to Palestinian aspirations.

Discussions on reform got under way in 1992. Only on working methods has any progress been recorded. The council is today more transparent and meets more frequently in public. But its composition is bedeviled by anachronisms. As the distribution of power in the world has evolved, British and French claims to permanent status have become more tenuous. If a common European foreign policy is ever to take off, a single European seat and voice would make much more sense. (The divide between France and the United Kingdom over Iraq, for example, has made a mockery of European Union foreign policy pretensions in the short run.) Meanwhile, Japan and Germany have both staked claims to permanent membership on their economic weight and their share of the U.N.’s bills.

Thus an additional permanent seat each is mooted for Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Where does this leave the Arab world and, beyond it, the 1.2 billion-strong Islamic community that, since the events of Sept. 11, increasingly has felt targeted by the “war on terror”?

The profile of Arab countries at the U.N. has been a disappointing one. While other regions have made significant strides economically, politically, or socially in recent years, the Arab world is perceived to have stagnated under ossified, self-serving governments, some of them oil addled, displaying few economic development or management skills. The family-dominated monarchical management by several of the Gulf countries is little understood elsewhere and seen as a throwback to models long discarded by the rest of the world.

Arab strategies at the U.N. have been dominated by the struggle against Israel, marked by various inglorious episodes. The “Zionism as racism” resolution of 1974, repealed in the early 1990s, is seen in retrospect as having been bought with promises to African and other countries of oil-funded assistance that never materialized. (African countries that agreed to cut off relations with Israel in the 1970s have now mostly re-established them.) Arab military losses in the 1967 and 1973 wars are seen as self-inflicted. And the Palestinian cause, nearly universally sup-ported at the U.N. in principle, has been seriously undermined by suicide bombings that horrify and scare populations worldwide. Three of the countries under U.N. sanctions in recent years (Iraq, Libya, and Sudan) have been Arab ones. Arab tactics at the U.N. itself are also questioned.

Every time a U.S. veto counters a resolution addressing the Israeli-Palestinian divide, the principal winner appears to be Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, both internationally and domestically.

Some Arab states are well represented at the U.N. in New York. Jordan’s U.N. Mission, notably, is led by one of the few internationally creditable representatives of Arab royalty—Prince Zeid bin Raad, a distant cousin of King Abdullah II. Young, energetic, smart, and telegenic, he brings to the job deep convictions, an ability to articulate a compelling Arab case, and earlier experience as a U.N. staffer in the Balkans. He is among the 20 or so delegation leaders at the U.N. (out of 191) who really matter. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Arab world’s two most impressive figures on the New York U.N. scene are women: Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, the director of the U.N. Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Arab States, and Al-Hayat’s fearless and articulate correspondent Ragheda Dergham.

Egypt and Algeria have both invested heavily in highly professional foreign services. Both countries have clout within the African, Arab, and non-aligned groups. Their overall effectiveness is sometimes undermined by ideologically driven posturing, but when Libya was forced to renounce its “turn” for a Security Council seat in 2004-5, Algeria was tapped to step in. That said, there is widespread awareness that these successful diplomatic operatives front for tired regimes that have delivered little for their populations.

The Palestinian authority is represented by Nasser al-Kidwa, an intelligent and popular veteran of the U.N. scene, who keeps racking up U.S. vetoes and hollow victories in the U.N. General Assembly, all of which may be counterproductive to the extent that they can seem to encourage current Palestinian strategies that are producing disastrous results for the long-suffering Palestinian population.

The developing countries most often cited for new permanent seats are India, Brazil, South Africa, and Nigeria. Egypt has tried to register a claim of its own. However, it is Pakistan that has emerged as the most prominent spokesman for the Islamic world in U.N. circles, improbably under its military president, Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf has made clear that an Indian permanent seat is completely unacceptable. At a summit of 20 or so world leaders on terrorism on Sept. 22, Musharraf spoke movingly of the deep-rooted worry among Muslims that the struggle against terrorism is increasingly targeted against them. Would a Muslim permanent seat help?

These questions require thought within Arab societies. Arab diplomacy is seen by many [in the U.N.] as self-defeating, driven by frustration with Israeli successes as opposed to the interests of Arab populations and long-term strategies.

The Arab League, while no worse in terms of cohesion or seriousness than a number of other regional organizations, inspires little confidence, in spite of occasionally strong leadership by [its secretary-general], Egypt’s accomplished Amr Moussa. Its inability to address meaningfully the depredations of the Saddam Hussein regime on its neighbors and its own population do not accrue to its credit.

The author is a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and the president of the International Peace Academy in New York City.