--- Manoj Saxena
United Nations Security Council chambers in New York, United States of America (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
During recent years the case for reforming the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)—a powerful executive branch of the United Nations (UN) in charge of undertaking efforts required for maintaining international security—has come into renewed focus as member states have expressed their dissatisfaction with the council's existing structure and the legitimacy of some of its decisions. There have been vocal calls for the council to become more representative and inclusive in its approach. The case for reforms is compelling since the last enlargement of the council was in 1965, and there has been a growth in the number of member states since then. Also, great powers of 1945—when the UNSC came into being—such as the United Kingdom and France, have experienced a relative decline during the recent times while countries such as Brazil and India have emerged as credible contenders for being included in the council on a permanent basis. The supporters of reforms have also pointed out that permanent members of the UNSC—especially China and Russia—have been contributing a remarkably lower amount of finances to the UN annual budget in comparison of countries such as Germany and Japan, which don't have a permanent seat at the high table.
However, calls for reform have seen different groupings of states vying for inclusion into the UNSC and this has been marked with schism and controversy between member states. It has also been pointed out that an enlargement of the UNSC may impede its ability to function as it may become too large and cumbersome to work effectively. Some have favored modest expectations for quick reforms given the lengthy procedural difficulties required to amend the UN Charter and the UNSC itself. It is in this setting that this article seeks to evaluate the case for reforming the Security Council in the present day.
Historical Background and Current Significance of the United Nations Security Council
Before the structure and significance of the United Nations Security Council is outlined it would be within the scope of this article to briefly discuss the structure, significance, and shortcomings of the League of Nations—a predecessor of the modern United Nations. The formation of the League was a direct outcome of an American-led initiative after the First World War (1914-18), in which almost twenty million people lost their lives. Given the scale of devastation caused by the First World War the US President Woodrow Wilson proposed enhanced international cooperation between nations to stop and pre-empt such a tragedy from ever unfolding again. Although the US itself never joined the League, the League Council—a direct predecessor to the UNSC—had great powers such as France, Great Britain, Japan, and Italy as permanent members and twenty-eight founding members constituted the General Assembly. The League achieved limited initial success but it also suffered from deep structural flaws and was handicapped by the absence of the United States of America. Both the Soviet Union and Germany joined and exited the League, causing further damage to its relevance. Japan also left the League in 1933. This chaos and lack of stability led to the League becoming ineffective and weak enough to fail in its efforts to stop the outbreak of the Second World War. Although the League did have sufficient authority to impose economic or military sanctions against states that had acted aggressively in the international system it largely failed to do so as members such as France and Britain felt less inclined to put the League's goals above their own perceived interests. After the Soviet Union was expelled in 1939 the League failed almost completely to ensure inclusive peace and hence the requirement of a more stable organization emerged. This culminated in the Declaration by United Nations on January 1, 1942 when twenty six nations pledged their support to bring the Axis belligerence to an end.
Following the signing of the UN Charter during the San Francisco Conference on June 26, 1945—and the end of the Second World War after the surrender of the Empire of Japan—the United Nations came into existence on October 24, 1945. Since great powers had walked out of the League of Nations and this challenged its working and authority the UN Charter had the concept of permanent membership for five great powers of the post Second World War era. These Permanent Five (P-5) were given a special right called veto which would allow them to stop any decision that they viewed as adverse from coming into effect. Thus an incentive was created for the great powers of the day so that they would remain in the United Nations and not leave due to compulsions related to their own security, as had been the case with the League of Nations. Since all these powers—the United States, the USSR, France, Great Britain, and China—had different histories and security concerns it was also thought that some measure of neutrality could be achieved by having a diverse set of countries such as these as permanent members.
The UNSC—as it stands today—has the membership of the Permanent Five (P-5) intact but it also has 10 non-permanent members which are elected by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for a finite term of two years. Geographical criteria for candidature—which includes three countries from Africa, one from East Europe and two each from Asia, Latin America, and West Europe—is taken into consideration for the election of non-permanent members. This has ensured that the UNSC remains representative yet compact and effective enough to enforce security measures related to maintaining international peace and stability. Unlike the UNGA, the UNSC has to function continuously as an executive branch of the UN. Therefore, it has to be able to take quick decisions and be ready to address any security issue of global significance. The UNSC's significance in today's international order is immense. If states involved in a dispute are unable to reach peaceful settlements by themselves then—at least in theory—the UNSC can exercise its own authority according to the UN Charter.
The UNSC is empowered by the UN Charter to take initiatives in issues that threaten world peace and it can employ tools such as arbitration and conciliation to achieve that objective. Chapter 6 of the Charter states that persuasion—and not coercion—is the primary tool which should be employed by the UNSC. However, Chapter 7 of the same Charter also empowers the UNSC to take stronger measures in case of a pressing threat to world security. These stronger measures may manifest in economic and diplomatic sanctions as articulated in Articles 40 and 41 or a military intervention under Articles 42 and 43. Although state sovereignty is a cherished international principle and states are expected to look after their domestic issues on their own the UN Charter has been left deliberately ambiguous on the matters of domestic instability that may have serious ramifications for international security. If threats originating from a state's domestic problems endanger larger regional and global security then the UN Charter has sufficient ambiguity to allow the UNSC to take enforcement measures. Therefore, it would not be an overstatement to say that in the present world the UNSC has emerged as a very significant international organization in matters related to global security.
Critiques of the United Nations Security Council and Suggestions for Reform
Over the years the UNSC's record of failures and paralysis in cases of threats to international security has raised questions about its legitimacy and effectiveness. Critics have often focused on the lack of representativeness in the council or the inherent structural flaws which impede UNSC effectiveness. One prominent critique to the UNSC is that it was formed during 1945, and the world has changed dramatically since then but the organization has thus far been unable to keep up with the change or it has insulated itself from the realities of the present day on purpose. The original founders of the UN—and indeed the UNSC—based the structure of their institution on the realities of the post-Second World War world but since then the UK and France have declined in power and Japan, Germany, Brazil, and India have been on the ascendancy. The phenomenal growth in number of member states since the end of colonization and the breakup of the Soviet Union has also been cited as a reason for reform. Critics have pointed out that the UNSC of the post-Cold War era needs reforms in order to adapt to the realities of a different international system. Elements within the UN itself have also proposed reforms to the UNSC in order for it to function credibly in a changed world.
A clear and pressing need for UNSC reforms in an ever-changing world was recognized in 1992 when Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali established the Open-Ended Working Group of the General Assembly to assess the possibilities for reforms. Ismail Razali—former president of the UNGA—made the first notable proposal for reforming the UNSC structure on a large scale during the 1990s. In 1997, he recommended that five permanent and four non-permanent seats should be added to the UNSC, thereby raising the total number of Security Council members to 24. One of the key aspects of the Razali recommendations was that none of the new entrants would wield the veto power. In 2004, The United Nations High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change was called to contemplate on potential revisions to the UN Charter and the UNSC on behalf of the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It made the following observation in its report:
Decisions taken and mandates given have often lacked the essential components of realism, adequate resources and the political determination to see them through. The Secretary-General is frequently holding out a begging bowl to implement Security Council decisions. Moreover, the paucity of representation from the broad membership diminishes support for Security Council decisions.
The High Level Panel report stated that the UNSC can be potentially reformed by using either Models A or B. Model A proposed expansion of the UNSC with six new permanent seats with two each from Africa and the Asia-Pacific and one each from Europe and Latin America. It further suggested that three non-permanent seats be allocated for expansion. Therefore, the number of total members—permanent and non permanent—would reach 24. Model B also suggested that the strength of the UNSC should be enlarged from 15 to 24 but it emphasized on non permanent members. According to Model B of the report, eight new non permanent members would serve a term of four years and one non permanent member would serve a term of two years in the council. It must be noted that both models did not propose a change or even a suggestion that the newly-incorporated members would wield a veto power. The newly added members would, therefore, be in a technically inferior position in comparison to the Permanent Five (P-5) —who have veto powers.
Since these proposed models for enlargement as a reform have come into being two groupings of countries have been significant and vocal advocates of reforms. The first is the Group of Four (G-4), which includes Japan, India, Brazil and Germany. The other is Uniting for Consensus, comprising of Argentina, Canada, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, Spain, and Turkey. In terms of the G-4 countries Japan and Germany have been consistently contributing roughly 18.8 and 9.36 percent per annum to the UN annual budget. Brazil occupies a position of power and privilege in terms of economic and military might in the Latin American region. India's position as one of the UN's largest providers in terms of peacekeeping operations and the world's largest democracy may also legitimize its aspirations to some extent. Each country in the Uniting for Consensus coalition also has a compelling case for inclusion in the UNSC.
For the purpose of evaluating the case for reforms to the UNSC it must be noted that changes and reforms in the organization have occurred in the past to address the realities of the international system. Although the P-5 have remained constant in their number and their use of veto power the first major reforms to the UNSC actually occurred as early as 1965, when the total number of UNSC members was increased from 11 to 15 due to an increase in non-permanent membership. The original number of non-permanent members was 6 instead of 10 before this reform. Also, The People's Republic of China assumed a permanent seat at the UNSC in 1971, displacing The Republic of China. A final change came when Russia acquired a seat in the UNSC after the breakup of the Soviet Union. All these reforms and changes indicate that the UNSC—while it may have not lived up to its ideals—is far from being overly reluctant to change.
A Critical Appraisal of the United Nations Security Council Reform Proposals
Given the global significance of the UNSC zealous calls for reforms to this important organization are generally met with a degree of skepticism. Also, while some states may show a desire for sweeping reforms to the UNSC as it suits their interests others may resist a change to the status-quo as it may weaken their position vis-a-vis their perceived rivals. Many states have built their UN—and indeed UNSC—policies carefully over the years and have crafted their diplomacy and state response according to the existing world system for far too long. It would, therefore, be understandable if they find any major change or reform to be less than acceptable to their national interest.
The calls for UNSC reforms are also made complicated by the politics among the great powers in the P-5. Both The United States of America and The People's Republic of China—two of the largest and wealthiest states of the P-5—have shown conflicting preferences in case of potential reforms. The United States of America has keenly backed its ally Japan, and has extended some notional support for India as a member of a reformed UNSC. The People's Republic of China, understandably, has other ideas. Instead of favoring its two Asian rivals Japan and India—against whom it has fought wars in the past—The PRC has instead favored Brazil or Germany as potential entrants. Therefore, the drive for reforms is compromised to some extent since there are fewer states which have universal acceptability in the present-day international order. It must be noted that sentiments that exacerbate things for reforms to the UNSC are not limited to just the P-5 states. Some states in the Uniting for Consensus coalition have also been accused of being motivated by a spirit of competition or envy towards the G-4.
It is also worth noting that reforms regarding the veto power of the existing P-5 are more or less out of question. The stature of the some of the members of the P-5—United Kingdom and Russia in particular—may very well have declined in comparison to their standing in the post Second World War era but the UN Charter still does not require them to forfeit their veto power. Therefore, any potential scenario for diminishing the veto rights of the P-5 is not plausible. It has also been pointed out that even if the P-5 remains intact and addition of non-Veto empowered members is, indeed, made then the UNSC may lose some of its effectiveness as it becomes larger and more unmanageable. A reformed UNSC may thus turn out to be too large to function and respond quickly, and may still not be representative enough given the large number of member states in the UN.
Thus the political pressure for adding new members may be immense but quick enlargement may not necessarily reform the UNSC. Some reforms can be be pursued without enlarging the council itself. The UNSC can expand engagement with UN member states to address the problems of representativeness and legitimacy in decision making. If the UNSC can make decisions that in tune with the aspirations of a large number of significant and responsible members of the international community, and courts wider opinion then it would have granted more legitimacy to its own actions. Ultimately, if the UNSC can have a broader—instead of a unilateral—approach then its decisions will be viewed with less suspicion.
If the history of the UN is taken into account then one should have modest expectations for quick reforms. The UN has reformed over the years but not without careful, and in most cases prolonged, deliberations. Given the existence of over 190 member states any consensus for reforms is bound to be a slow process and the chances for quick and radical UNSC reforms are, therefore, bound to be minimal. However, the reform debate itself may have already helped members in reaching an enhanced general understanding that greater efficiency, accountability, and transparency are required for the functioning of this international organization.
Passionate calls for reform to the United Nations Security Council have come from not only the member states but the highest offices of the United Nations itself. The former Secretary General Kofi Annan minced no words when he said that the UNSC's options were either 'reform or irrelevance'. Shashi Tharoor—a former Under-Secretary General—has made a similar call for urgent reforms by bluntly stating 'reform or die'. While member states have largely agreed on the need for reforms it is the nature of reforms that has been a subject of lively debate and serious disagreement. There is—for example—a debate on which state out of Nigeria, South Africa or Egypt should hold the seat from Africa in case of a potential enlargement of the UNSC.
Also, while Model A or B for enlargement are being debated there are significant UN member states, such as Indonesia—the world's largest Muslim country by population—which are largely left out of the equation. The feasibility of either of these models as being representative and legitimate enough is thus subjected to dispute and contestation. As members of the G-4, P-5 and others engage in a serious debate on which member states should be included or excluded in an enlarged UNSC there is a very real chance of the core operations of the council being marginalized. There are also apprehensions that enlargement will lead to the council being less compact, more chaotic, and thus more ineffective.
The operational role and symbolic significance of the UNSC is profound in terms of international security. Even after the Iraq debacle the council has been conducting peacekeeping operations in Liberia, Haiti and Sierra Leone to its credit. No other international organization or inter-governmental body comes close in terms of global peacekeeping efforts. Enlargement of the existing UNSC membership as a measure for reform may be a lengthy process. It will require across-the-board consensus and a two-third majority vote from the UNGA. This will understandably take time to manifest—if it ever does.
In the near future member states may have to contend with the thought that reform to this important world organization is a sustained process which cannot be achieved in an event or a short series of events. Also, the UNSC reform debate has put an emphasis on the existing members of the council to conduct themselves in a manner that upholds the ideals of the organization. There is already a renewed focus on decision-making after consultations with most major stakeholders, including representative states which have legitimate interests in the outcome of an ongoing conflict. Consultation with not only NATO but the Arab League as well on the question of Libya was a step in the right direction.
One can, therefore, conclude that a series of administrative reforms—however ordinary they might appear—may already be on the horizon even though the council has not been enlarged as a part of a reform. If such administrative changes eventually begin adding enough legitimacy and effectiveness to the UNSC then the concerns of the critics will perhaps be addressed to some extent for some time. For the UNSC to not suffer the same fate as the League of Nations slow but sure is the right way to implement the reforms.
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