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Reform the UN Security Council

Or watch it perish

Ramesh Thakur
Ramesh Thakur

Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is emeritus professor at ANU (Canberra), and a Board member of the Centre. This column is adapted from an article in The Japan Times (4 Sept.).

As the UN General Assembly opens its annual session for 2020/21 this month, delegates should introspect on the transformations in world affairs in the 75 years since the Charter was signed.

In 1945, Britain and France were ‘victorious’ Allied powers but in economic ruins; the Soviet Union was ruled by Stalin and had suffered massive loss of human life in the war; China was wracked by civil war between Mao Zedong’s communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists; and the United States bestrode the world like a colossus.

Elsewhere, Germany and Japan were defeated enemy powers; India was still a British colony; and South Africa was an apartheid state but not yet an international pariah. Today the last four are major claimants to permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC).

The world has changed in other major respects too.

  • Military power is no longer easily converted into currencies of power and influence.
  • Threat perceptions have broadened from hard to human security issues like climate change and pandemics.
  • Democracy has been de-consolidated with dwindling trust and faith in democratic institutions and governments, even in Western societies.

Based more on performance than values and process, wealth, power and legitimacy of existing national political institutions have drifted eastward. Of most relevance to the UN, the emerging international order is not unipolar, bipolar or even multipolar, but polycentric, with a resulting ‘pluralization of diplomacy’ where countries do not coalesce around rigid blocs.

With such big structural transformations, there is zero reason for expectations of continued effectiveness of mandated multilateral machinery that reflected the particular distribution of power, the security threats, and other structural-contextual factors of 1945.

Moreover, in today’s world, no country has the leverage to set the rules largely on its own and as an externalization of its organizing political principles as the US was able to do in 1945.

If the UNSC is to be made fit-for-purpose far beyond 2020, the first and most urgent task is to add more permanent members. The key actors making and enforcing coercive decisions in the name and on behalf of the international community have to be the major powers of the day.

On this criterion, the UNSC fails the test comprehensively. Whether newer members of an enlarged UNSC should be ‘permanent’ will be contentious. Introducing a third category of ten-year veto-less members eligible for re-election will add to the complexity while also leaving the new members dissatisfied. That means the choice should be either to downsize the existing P5 also to ten-year renewable terms with no veto power, or else to enlarge the P5 to P10 with the same veto rights as the existing five.

Second, the elected membership of the UNSC should also be reformed with respect to numbers (increased from 10 to 18), terms (expanded from two to three years) and roles. Their potential utility in revitalizing the Council as an effective executive body has been unfairly relegated. Increasing the size of the UNSC and extending the term of the elected members would increase its capacity to fulfil its responsibilities for maintaining international peace and security. Those who contribute the most to the UN’s regular budget, specialized agencies, and peace operations should have a commensurate say in making decisions; those who make the decisions should contribute commensurately.

Third, there should be a more equal division of responsibility between the UNSC and the General Assembly. The Council has vastly expanded its powers and reach in recent years, including with respect to the use of military force, coercive economic sanctions, and directing member states on the terms of domestic legislation. The growth of the Council’s reach has been accompanied by a curtailment of the Assembly’s power, prestige and authority. A reset is required to restore the balance between the normative power of the Assembly deriving from universal membership and the geopolitical clout of the UNSC based on military weight.

Opponents of UNSC reform are in denial about the critical importance and urgency of the subject. It is central to other much needed reforms, including management and personnel, not peripheral to or a distraction from them. The brutal reality is that resistance to UNSC reform has held up progress on much of the rest of the U.N. reform agenda. Obsession with the latter without confronting the UNSC deadlock is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it sank.

Nothing in the history of UN reform efforts gives cause for optimism and gathering rosebuds of consolation of a trickle of management reform achievements will not rescue multilateralism nor save the organization. It seems to have become reform-proof. Yet without major reform of the UNSC, the United Nations will continue its slide into diminished credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness, and reduced capacity to act in defence of the common peace.

The G4 (Brazil, Germany, India and Japan) have long had a compelling case for permanent membership based on the UN’s foundational values, objective material criteria and the logic of collective action. Despite broad support, their efforts have been stymied by the obstreperous actions of a few determined rivals and opponents. In the process one additional criterion of permanent membership has become apparent and which none of the four seems to possess: the ability to conduct hardball diplomacy.

The last big push for major reform petered out in 2005. The G4 are even further away from their goal now.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that all four since then had refused to contest for UNSC elections, to pay a single dollar in voluntary contributions, to accept the writ of an illegitimate UNSC even under compulsory Chapter VII resolutions, and to contribute personnel and money to U.N. peace operations. Might this have concentrated the minds of the rest of the UN members to the gravity of the crisis and brought them any nearer to permanent membership?

Or, would it have alienated them from the UN community?

Alternatively, with reasoned arguments falling on deaf years for decades, do the candidate countries have any other realistic leverage to advance their case to fruition?

I guess they could continue to demonstrate the validity of Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time.

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