Security Council reform: why it matters and why it's not happening

On too many issues of global concern, the United Nations faces gridlock. The Security Council, embodying as it does the post-war oligopoly in its permanent membership, desperately needs reform to empower the wider world and to improve its effectiveness. But those with their feet under the table are reluctant to give way.

Saudi Arabia’s announcement on October 18th that it would not take up its hard-won seat on the UN Security Council is unlikely to increase the impetus towards change. Despite mounting pressure to revise its membership and the way it operates, the UNSC has successfully resisted lobbying aimed at modernisation. Ultimately it is the granting of the precious veto to any new member which is proving the biggest stumbling block to change. But amid warnings that unless the UNSC does reform, it risks becoming irrelevant, what are the barriers to and options for this?

This is the most recent example of how domestic politics can derail policy seemingly unconnected to the UNSC—in this case, Russia’s problems with restive Chechnya asserting its separate identity and demanding independence, which makes Syria’s conflict uncomfortably close to home for Vladimir Putin. In addition, Russia’s influence in the middle east has dwindled since the Cold War. It is strongly supportive of Mr Assad who is one of its last remaining allies in the region and so is committed to backing his regime. Meanwhile China is renowned for blocking intervention in the ‘internal affairs’ of strategic allies, making it a powerful player on the council.

Two and half years of diplomatic deadlock was finally broken in September 2013 when a US-Russia brokered deal to encourage Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal emerged. Previously, Russia and China had vetoed three resolutions at the UNSC aimed at pushing the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, from power.

It is unlikely that national interest, this very human flaw in the mechanism of the council, will be countered, though its impact could be mediated by stipulating that for a resolution to be vetoed, the UNSC must have a majority vote. In the case of Syria, this would have seen the resolutions passed by three to two.

Competing claims

The major criticism of the five permanent members (or P5) is that the panel lacks representation from Africa and Latin America, provides a platform for waning rather than rising powers and does not have a place for economically powerful nations such as India or Germany. Overall global influence is now pivoting towards Asia and away from the West, meaning the composition of the UN Security Council reflects a post-World War II colonial system that is woefully outdated but still powerful.

Groups have formed to lobby for permanent positions on the UNSC or at least to make the council more representative. The G4—Brazil, Germany, India and Japan—want to expand the Security Council to 25 members, which would comprise an extra six permanent and four non-permanent members. The new permanent seats would guarantee two places for Africa, two for Asia, one for Latin America and the Caribbean (GULAC), and one for western Europe and other states.

The UN’s rules however state that changing the composition of the P5 involves changing the UN’s charter—making this, and other similar moves, difficult. To succeed, it would also require the backing of two-thirds of the General Assembly - including the current P5 and, as we have seen, this in itself is a huge hurdle.

The difficult relationship between China and Japan, most recently severely tested in an unresolved sovereignty row over the Senkaku / Diayou Islands, is turbulent to say the least. Would China be minded to agree to its neighbour being admitted to such an exclusive club? It is at best doubtful, especially since 2005 when China sought to block Japan’s membership, largely over longstanding animosities stretching back to the 19th century. Equally, given their rivalry within the European Union, would France like to see its neighbour and former enemy, Germany, sitting shoulder to shoulder with it on the Security Council?

Germany’s claim highlights another question at the heart of bids for Security Council permanent-member status—what should define eligibility. Germany’s contribution to the overall UN budget is pegged to the size of its economy and that puts it in the top five donors. 

The G4 has specified that the contribution a state makes to peacekeeping operations should play a determining role in P5 membership. Yet if economic power is to be a determinant of membership, financial imperatives could drive the organisational agenda—meaning richer nations would benefit. It would also sideline states whose balance sheets are unhealthy but whose need for help with security is desperate and it would put them at the mercy of more powerful, wealthy nations.

Nominally though, the major advantage of the G4 candidates’ case rests on its trajectory towards a fairer representation of regional interests. Adding its proposal of India, Brazil, Germany and Japan would bring the totals on the UNSC to Asia three, Europe (including Russia) four, south America one and north America one.

But the veto, so jealously-guarded by the P5, may not be granted to new members. So although permanent seats for them would be an improvement on the present state of affairs—the longer term would enhance the collective institutional memory—it does not appear to be materially different from having a seat on the current rotating Security Council membership.

Plan B?

In 2004 at the behest of the then UN secretary general, Kofi Anan, the 16-member High Level Panel On Threats, Challenges, and Change convened to produce a blueprint for Security Council reform. Two options were proposed by the panel: one suggested adding six new permanent members without veto power, with a further three non-permanent seats; the second would add eight seats, renewable every four years, also without veto power and with one new non-permanent seat. 

Another plan along similar lines, although bureaucratically more complex, came from a group within the organisation known as Uniting for Consensus (formerly known as the Coffee Club). This includes Italy, Spain, Turkey, South Korea, Mexico and Argentina and it has put forward proposals which again seek a more representative UNSC.

In 2005, the group called for expansion of the non-permanent membership while retaining the current permanent composition; there would also be no expansion of the veto. The additional members would be elected by the General Assembly, with due regard to ‘the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization, and also to equitable geographical distribution’.

Within that, there would be six from African states, five from Asia, four from Latin American and the Caribbean, three from western European and ‘other’ states and two from eastern Europe. The non-permanent members would be elected for two-year terms by their regions and there would be the possibility of immediate re-election. This plan was refined in 2009, suggesting further seats which could be occupied for an extended term of three to five years.  

The benefit of this system would be that the new seats would be allocated by region, with the actual state occupying the position decided by the regional group. Again while not reforming the P5 it would give more security to the rotating group, providing longer terms in office, building up confidence and institutional memory and therefore providing a better service regionally and globally. 

From an African standpoint, the African Union has formulated what has become known as the Ezulwini Consensus, within which it would seek at least two permanent seats on the P5—crucially with veto—and a further five non-permanent seats to be decided by it. The document notes, reasonably, that although Africa is opposed in principle to the veto, while it exists it should be available to all permanent members of the Security Council. Africa’s claim also benefits from being almost universally supported in principle.

The future

The inherent paradox is that for the Security Council to reform the five nations holding ultimate power have to vote to give some of it up. Also, looking to the future, would new members of an expanded UNSC be willing to forgo their status if global power dynamics were to shift decisively in another direction, as they surely will?

The organisation has, in terms of participation, been a huge success and its involvement in international affairs does carry significant weight. But the divide between the General Assembly and the Security Council is marked. GA delegates complain of a lack of transparency in the Security Council and even the non-permanent members can find themselves literally locked out when the P5 wishes to discuss matters alone.

Political will among the more senior states is what is delaying the advancement of any of these plans and problems unrelated to UN reform continue to cause friction among the rest of the UN’s members. For example, Saudi Arabia’s recent actions may be at least in part driven by more prosaic annoyance at Iran’s tentative moves towards rapprochement with the west via the UN than frustration at reform inertia.

But there is a precedent for significant change. In the 1960s, the Security Council’s rotating membership was expanded from six to ten. Although the permanent members made their objections to the move clear, ultimately they ratified it and it became UN law. Whether this success could be replicated in very different global conditions and with a much-expanded UN is another matter.

What may happen is that if organisations such as the EU, the AU or the Arab League become stronger, they may take on even more of the peacekeeping and security role being played by the UN—with or without its express direction. If states do not see their grievances addressed in New York or Geneva, they may be minded to take their quest for justice to their regional representatives. Should this happen, then the pressure to reform the UNSC may decrease but such an eventuality could arguably diminish the status of the body too. Perhaps this vista is what may herald a change.

About the author

Sonia Rothwell is an international relations specialist based in London.