Three necessary reforms for UN Security Council legitimacy

Three necessary reforms for UN Security Council legitimacy

The recent adoption of a UN General Assembly resolution to begin discussions on UN Security Council reform has revived hopes of progress on a long-pending issue. Reform will need to address equitable representation, categories of membership and veto power if the Council is to retain its legitimacy.

Tasked with the responsibility of maintaining international peace and security, the Security Council has been an integral organ of the United Nations since its establishment in 1945.

However, 70 years on, changing geopolitical realities and enlargement of UN membership has put into question the Council’s effectiveness and legitimacy. Emphasized by inability to address recent conflicts and humanitarian crises in Syria, Gaza and the Ukraine and galvanized by the recent passing of the Kutesa Consensus on September 15, 2015, has set the stage for negotiations. UNSC reform is now firmly back in the spotlight.

Equitable representation

The Council currently includes ten non-permanent members and five permanent members (P5) who hold veto power, consisting of the post-World War II powers of the United Kingdom, United States, China, USSR (now Russian Federation) and China.

In order to enhance regional representation, there is consensus that the council must be enlarged to improve the current makeup, giving more weight to regions such as Africa, the Asia-Pacific and Latin America/Caribbean states, especially when most agenda issues center on these regions.

While an enlarged Council should address any democratic deficit and improve multilateralism, a modest increase has been preferred by P5 members (22-25 total membership) to ensure it remains effective and does not descend into a talk shop unable to act quickly.

Source: : The Guardian 

Categories of Membership

Enlarging the council becomes tricky as different blocs of members states have established groups with contrasting opinions. The Group of Four (G4), consisting of heavy-weight actors Germany, Japan, Brazil and India all advocate for the expansion of permanent membership for themselves. The Uniting for Consensus Group, consisting of numerous “middle power” states and G4 regional rivals, prefer the sole enlargement of non-permanent member seats, perhaps in the form of a new class of membership.

The issue with enlarging permanent membership is that while it may reflect 21st century realities, power in international politics is not constant. It could set a precedent that, given the evolving nature of global and regional balances of power, future additions of permanent members would need to take place. Indeed in 20 to 40 years time, new emerging countries like Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Korea and Turkey will seek membership, requiring constant amendments to the Charter.

Nonetheless, member states that have demonstrated credibility and capacity to shoulder the responsibilities of the principal UN organ should have a presence to ensure the legitimacy of the council.

Thus a new category of “semi-permanent” seats is intriguing as, if properly structured, it could ensure legitimacy without preventing flexibility for a changing world.

A class of seats that allows for longer terms, say four years, and renewal based on merit criteria – such as those suggested by the US that include economic size, population, military capacity, commitment to democracy and human rights, and financial and peacekeeping contributions – would ensure the council is more reflective of the contemporary geopolitical reality, giving the G4 and regional heavyweights a presence today while leaving the door open to emerging nations in the future. This would ensure the  process remains democratic and renewals ensure accountability.

Veto power

Any Security Council resolution requires the support of the P5 to pass. Veto use has been criticized and cited for the lack of action on issues such as the Israel-Palestine dispute and the Syrian and Ukrainian crises. However, any amendment to or expansion of the veto in the UN Charter is generally opposed by P5 members and requires their support, along with two-thirds of UN member states, rendering such a maneuver difficult to impossible.

Instead of focusing on the abolishment of the veto, efforts should be targeted towards curbing its use. While the veto has been wielded 215 times since 1945, the frequency has considerably declined since the end of the Cold War and even more so post-2005 when the responsibility to protect (R2P), or intervention on humanitarian bases, was established. Since 2005 the veto has only been used a total of 13 times, with over 600 resolutions passed in that period. France and the UK haven’t used their veto since 1989 and the US almost exclusively uses it regarding Israel.

A proposal by France to create a code of conduct for veto use has been discussed and has the potential to curb its use in the future. P5 members would voluntarily suspend their veto in situations of mass atrocities unless it is in contravention of their national interests.

While the loophole of national interests and what constitutes a mass crime can limit the effectiveness of this proposal, the establishment of such a norm could narrow the definition of national interest exceptions and improve accountability in the form of public justifications, providing a political marker and giving weight to alternative multilateral options.

Source: Global Policy

While many oppose the veto, its presence may be necessary for the UNSC to remain relevant and legitimate. The UN is as strong as its member states, especially global powers who want to protect their vital interests, want it to be. The failure of its predecessor, the League of Nations, can be partially attributed to the lack of veto provisions.

The economic and political impact of reform may vary, but it seems that small and medium sized countries from underrepresented regions in Asia, Africa and Latin America stand to benefit the most.

Indeed, research shows that there is value to a seat on the Council in the form of increased foreign aid by major powers such as the US (as much as 59%) and financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF (as much as 8%). Preferential treatment can even extend to improving international trade with groups such as the G7.

The increased presence of “middle powers” from regions that are most addressed on the council could also hamper efforts to pass resolutions such as sanctions while a more restrained use of the veto could improve the possibility of further “humanitarian” interventions in conflict countries and deter “coalitions of the willing”.

Categories: International, Security

About Author

Alex Damianou

Alex is an Analyst with over 5 years of experience conducting on-the-ground emerging market research and consulting across Africa & the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Ghana and Kenya. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from McGill University. Follow him @alex_damianou